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Mindset Matters

Rachel Bishop transformed her doctorate degree in materials science into a successful global business career.

As a materials science graduate student in the late 1990s, Rachel Bishop (PhD '01) didn't find immediate success. When she performed the initial oxidation testing for her dissertation—an investigation into how changes in alloy composition would affect the oxidation of niobium-based super-alloys—Bishop's first several dozen samples disintegrated into powder in the oven.

"Catastrophic and demoralizing" is how Bishop described that experience. "I had no choice but to dig in and go to the extremes on different variables. It was the only way to get on the path toward a solution."

Rachel Bishop (PhD '01)

For ideas, Bishop tapped her doctoral adviser, Professor Greg Olson, as well as her lab mates. She continued experimenting and reflecting on results. She learned to trust her scientific instinct. Slowly, she made progress, tuning the time, temperature, and heat to increasingly precise levels. Her experiments would ultimately have implications for the performance of combustion engines in aircraft.

Bishop says her five years as a Northwestern PhD student ignited a deeper love for discovery, more intense curiosity, and, above all, earnest self-belief in her ability to unlock solutions. "A PhD is really a degree in persistence because you have to keep hitting at a specific problem and enter the unknown," she says. "It's unnerving, but necessary."

Such persistence has powered Bishop's career over the past 22 years. In her first professional role at McKinsey & Company, Bishop recalls working with a car wheel manufacturer on the cliff of bankruptcy.

Blending analysis, facts, scientific insights, and copious amounts of persistence, she presented solutions to improve the manufacturing plant's efficiency and production, which helped spark a business turnaround.

"If you can be relentless in attacking a problem, you can crack the code," she says.

Bishop carried that determined spirit into subsequent professional adventures. At Walgreens, she created new workflows and operating procedures to extract greater profitability at the chain's retail stores. At TreeHouse Foods, a leader in private-label snacks and beverages, she incorporated acquired businesses in the snack, nut, and soup categories into one cohesive, streamlined operation.

But it’s the mindset I developed as a PhD student that really matters. I know the solution is there, and we’re going to find it.

Rachel Bishop

Since February 2019, Bishop has served as president of tableware for Reynolds Consumer Products, a job that includes overseeing the well-known Hefty brand. With full responsibility for business performance, Bishop directs a team of some 700 employees involved in areas such as manufacturing operations, sales, marketing, and new product development.

Among her biggest tasks today is shepherding the creation of more sustainable tableware products. The complex charge requires Bishop to dive deep into business areas like raw materials and importing, which returns Bishop to her academic roots in materials science and engineering.

"Strangely, it's the closest I've ever been to my PhD degree as a professional," she says. "But it's the mindset I developed as a PhD student that really matters. I know the solution is there, and we're going to find it."