Psychological Scientists in the Private Sector

Visible Through the Fog

Douglas H. Harris, Anacapa Sciences, Inc.

Douglas Harris Rather than starting at the beginning, I'll just go back to the PhD in industrial psychology I received from Purdue University in 1959. My doctorate committee at Purdue consisted of Charles Lawshe, Joseph Tiffin, Ernest McCormick and Benjamin Winer, representing interests in industrial and organizational psychology, human factors engineering and statistics. This diversity of applied interests seemed to coincide with my own and probably set the tone for what was to follow - a career-long perspective of improving human performance by whatever modes appeared to be required.

My first 10 years of employment were, first, with a 10-employee independent psychological research company and, then, with a 100,000-employee industrial corporation. In both cases, I created my own position by proposing and obtaining support for research and development projects. Some of the corporate research led to the book Human Factors in Quality Assurance published by Wiley in 1969.

With the confidence gained from this early experience, I helped form a new company, Anacapa Sciences, Inc., in 1969 and have headed that company since 1975. We specialize in the application of human factors and ergonomics to the improvement of human performance in systems and organizations. Incidentally, Anacapa is a Chumash Indian word (the Chumash were the first inhabitants of the area around Santa Barbara) that roughly translates to "visible through the fog." At this date, we at Anacapa have reached through the fog to complete more than 700 research and development projects for over 150 companies, institutions and government agencies. Since 1971, we have conducted specialized training in analytical techniques for analysts, investigators, agents, security officers, and managers from more than 1,500 different agencies, institutions, intelligence networks, and companies in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, United Kingdom, United States, and Venezuela.

Beyond the technical skills and knowledge one acquires as a psychological scientist, I believe the most valuable asset I gained is a useful perspective for identifying problems, designing projects, interpreting results, and implementing change. The value of this perspective has been reinforced time and again over the years while working in multidisciplinary teams and while serving on various committees and panels, such as those of the National Research Council.

This perspective has become more critical in recent years in my work at Anacapa because clients are requiring complete solutions to problems rather than simply knowledge gained from research. For example, in a current project, I am developing a virtual system for training inspectors to apply ultrasonic techniques to components in nuclear power plants. In such a project, one not only needs to address what facilitates learning in this context, but also the best way to design and implement the virtual system.

Regarding the question of how I stay current with the field, the answer is: I don't. The needs of current projects and interests drive my acquisition of information rather than any attempt to stay current, overall, with the field of psychology and the other fields my work involves. Analogous with the just-in-time approach to manufacturing employed today by progressive industries, I use the just-in-time approach to information acquisition.

How does working in the business sector differ from being in a university? I do have experience in a university environment, as a part-time faculty member of the University of Southern California for 10 years, but I think that experience provided a very limited view of academic life; I have probably learned more about the differences from my academic colleagues. I suspect that the major difference, particularly with a small business such as our own, is the emphasis on the financial aspects of the enterprise. Survival in a small business depends upon meeting project objectives on schedule and within budget; it is important that these requirements be understood and adhered to by all involved. My observation is that the discipline to meet these requirements is not only less critical in an academic setting but, perhaps, even counterproductive over the long run.

I am somewhat reluctant to provide general advice to academics who might be thinking about a career in the private sector, because the match between the individual and a career is a highly individual matter. But I can give my perspective based on the kind of business I have been working in during the past 31 years - a small firm conducting research and development, mainly under contracts with clients. The work is analogous to being a "hired gun" during the early days of the Wild West. You are hired to get the job done quietly and efficiently and to make your client look good in the process. You stay in business by the reputation you build, but don't expect many compliments for what you do. And you are always looking for the next client. It is not a way of life for everybody, but some of us can't seem to live any other way

American Psychological Society
November 2000
Vol. 13, No. 9

2001 American Psychological Society
Current location: APS | News & Research | APS Observer
About APS   |    Press Kit   |    Links   |    Observer   |    Member Services   |    Human Capital Initiative