Friday, May 25, 2018

The Path to Space Consulting

Every once in a while, someone asks me about my decision to become a space consultant. They want to know how I got here and whether my path is a good path for them. I can truly say I have better job satisfaction in my current work than I ever had before. In owning my own company, self-direction and freedom have made all the difference.

I didn't set out to be a space consultant. As with many things in life, our path zigzags. I knew soon after starting graduate school that I wasn't the sort of person to dedicate myself to one tiny niche for the rest of my career. The Universe is too big and my interests too varied. I even had to switch advisors to one who understood this.

I knew starting out in grad school I didn't want to pursue a professor track. I was much more interested in research, especially space research connected with NASA. I worked with NASA for many years as a student at Marshall Space Flight Center and Kennedy Space Center. I soaked up everything space. I enjoyed hands-on research in the lab much more than computer programming. But running the same experiments over and over was tedious, especially when I had a little control over of my work and direction. The more I stepped my toe, then my foot, then my ankle in the commercial space world, the more I wanted to jump in.

In retrospect, it's no surprise to me that I jumped on the chance to enter the working world before I completed my dissertation. I needed a fresh challenge and new things to learn. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space brought the diversity of research I craved. I was responsible for facilitating all physical science experiments sponsored by CASIS and occasionally helping with the life science experiments as well. I thrived on learning such a wide collection of science and engineering.

I surprised even myself how restless I became once I was accustom to my work. I wanted more, more than what my managers were willing to give me. When I tried to spread my wings, I found myself caged. Each time I tried to fly, they tried to clip my wings. I began pouring myself into volunteer work outside of my employer such as spaceport development. I knew I needed freedom in order to reach my potential and soar.

I hired a career coach. With her direction, I wrote up my ideal job description. Self-direction, collaboration, and being a member of the community were a part of what I wanted. At the time, working as an independent space consultant hadn't crossed my mind. Looking back, I've been able to give myself a lot of what I was seeking.

My next job offer seemed like freedom delivered on a plate: the chance to manage my own office from the start. Because there were only two employees of my new company in North America, my boss and myself, we wore many hats. I learned that as much as I craved new challenges, I didn't like all new things, such as being responsible for financial reports. But I loved working with local, federal, and foreign authorities and partners to build and operate a parabolic aircraft and a spaceplane. Given the freedom to take initiative, I thrived. The company did not and went under.

I was a couple weeks away from giving birth to my firstborn when I cleared out the office at Cape Canaveral. I wasn't willing to look for a full-time job at that time. I thought, maybe I could consult. I had worked part-time as an analyst for a tiny space consulting firm in grad school. I was already consulting on major projects for free. As I eased into motherhood, maybe I could ease into part-time space consulting as well.

I had two main hesitations related to each other: 1) Was I old enough? and 2) Did I have enough experience? All of the independent space consultants I knew were towards the end of their distinguished careers. I wrote to a few of them to ask their advice. It was discouraging. They echoed my concerns back to me. Imposer syndrome, always lurking in the background, gave me a serious pause. But I had nothing to lose. So I created Astralytical.

Immediately I began diving into the work I was interested in, feeling free to drive my own direction. I set my own hours, set my own rate, decided which projects were worth my volunteer time, and communicated with anyone I pleased on any space topic I fancied. Owning my own company was so liberating, I felt angry that I had ever felt limited before.

But the first year of Astralytical wasn't great. I made two common beginner mistakes: not valuing myself enough and not having the confidence to stand up for myself enough. As a result, I took on two clients who were not easy to work with and who significantly underpaid me. I became bolder, more confident, and more willing to stand up for my own voice and worth. And I never have to work with bad clients again. I can pick and choose. My company's second year was so much better.

I am now in my third year of consulting and feeling pride in what I've accomplished thus far. My initial fears are gone. I do have significant experience with which I can rely on. I find joy in analyzing the space sector as a whole and contributing to the discussion. My greatest job satisfaction is helping individuals on their space career paths. I'm considering applying for larger projects and grants, although I don't know if I'm ready yet. Maybe I should give it a go and find out.

Is space consulting right for you? Maybe. Do you have at least some experience as a foundation? Do you find yourself craving work in a diversity of experiences and areas? Do you enjoy working with a variety of people? Are you okay with a lower salary, at least to start with? Do you have the confidence to believe in yourself and your work and be able to convince others? Do you see the big picture in a multidisciplinary and international industry? Can you dive deep into a topic if you need to? Do you have the self-discipline to manage your time and accomplish multiple projects simultaneously, with or without a boss or demanding client?

Admittedly I still need to work on some of the above, especially completing projects without deadlines! But if this work appeals to you, then consider it. Space consulting might be the job you've been seeking.

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