Friday, September 4, 2020

No Such Thing as a PhD Drop-out


I recently had a conversation with a client about discerning a PhD program as a mid-level professional. His major concern was the time commitment. Is it worth dedicating several years, perhaps balancing a full-time job and a family, to gain the credential and title Doctor?

The answer really depends on one's motivations for pursuing a PhD. Do you love the topic or research area? Are you after that prestige? Are you wanting to further your education? Are you needing the credential for a career path such as professorship? Are you just not sure how to move forward and you think a PhD would help, at least for now until your path become clearer?

All of these motivations (and more) are valid reasons for pursuing a PhD. There is popular advice out there that you should not pursue a PhD unless you are truly passionate about the subject matter. This is entirely false. Passion for a certain topic is a great reason for pursuing a PhD. It is not the only reason.

Many (if not most) people are not head-over-heals in love with their PhD topic. That's okay. Most graduate students do not choose their exact area of research and instead are assigned a topic area by their professor, advisor, or funding agency. Telling students they must have passion for a PhD is setting up an ideal that is unattainable for most graduate students and is a form of gatekeeping that signals to prospective students that they don't belong. You do belong, even if you don't love your PhD topic.

Whatever the reason one is considering a PhD, the question remains: is it worth it? Only you can answer this question for yourself. Only you know your dreams, goals, motivations, and level of commitment to continue down this path. No one else can make this decision for you.

There are many benefits and moments of exhilaration pursing a PhD and conducting independent research. There are also many challenges and moments of despair. There are countless stories of the mental health challenges graduate students face. A prospective graduate student needs to consider the potential negatives, challenges, and stressors of the path they are about to embark on to be able to fully assess whether beginning this journey is worth it to them.

Beginning a journey is not a promise to end the journey the same way you intended when you began. Humans are remarkably adaptable. We adjust as we travel along our paths, learning new things about ourselves and the world. New opportunities present themselves. We continually make choices about where and how we spend our time and whether we're better off shifting our journeys based on another path. We evolve.

Is a professor or advisor not working out for you? It's okay to switch. Really, it is. I did it. It was a painful, emotional decision that led to me losing the third year of my NASA fellowship funds, but it's doable.

Is a lab, research group, department, or university not working out for you? It's okay to switch. Again, I did it. I completely changed from pursuing a PhD in astrophysics to a PhD in planetary science, a related field, but different enough to require a university change and extra courses. But it's okay to change your mind and direction.

Once I got over the anxiety and self-doubt about switching programs, I saw the benefits of my new path. I was more sure about myself and what I wanted. My new graduate advisor was a better fit for me than my previous one. My resume and experience was impressive. I was viewed as a more mature graduate students. Changing my mind and my path allowed me to experience something new, something closer to what I wanted to do with my time and labor.

Then came the most unexpected change of path: “dropping out.” I am an all-but-dissertation PhD drop-out twice over, not because I failed or was forced to leave, but because I chose to leave. I chose a different path than the one I embarked on when I began my graduate school journey. And I do not regret it. My path was the correct one for me.

It all ties back to one's motivations. My reasons for pursuing a PhD were met by literally pursuing the PhD, not obtaining it. I was interested in the research areas I pursued. I wanted to learn more. But I never needed the prestige or credential of the PhD title or degree. I never wanted to be a professor. “You'll change your mind,” I was told as a brand new graduate student, already certain I didn't want to become a professor. No, I didn't change my mind.

Because my motivation for pursuing a PhD was to go down that path but not necessarily to complete it, gaining the PhD became a secondary goal. When I unexpectedly received a full-time job offer while I was working on my dissertation, I had a choice to make. Do I complete the PhD or do I take the job? Can I do both? Well, I tried to do both and failed. Some people could combine paths, but I could not. I made a choice: to leave one job to focus on another.

It sounds a bit different framing it that way, doesn't it? Leaving one job for another. Graduate research is a job, and a very underpaid and underappreciated one at that. When we leave a job to pursue another opportunity or direction, do we call it dropping out? No. Why is there a negative connotation leaving a graduate student job but that negative connotation doesn't exist when leaving almost any other job?

Academia is known for its elitism. Many professors (but not all) are convinced that their path is the superior path and all other paths are seen as lessor. I've had professors I know and professors I just met ask me when I'm “returning” to complete my PhD, as if my graduate student labor and knowledge up to that point was discounted because I didn't gain a credential I don't need.

What did I gain? I dived deep into astrophysics and planetary science. I completed the physics comprehensive exam, a multi-day written and oral exam on graduate-level physics, the hardest exam of my life. I gained the knowledge, satisfaction, and confidence that comes from passing such a test. I know I know my stuff! I gained research and lab experience, data analysis, programming, technical writing, public speaking, and many other skills. I worked with colleagues and met new people, networking and maturing in my field. I gained what I wanted from my graduate school experience.

When an experience gives us what we wanted to gain based on our motivations for pursuing that experience, it's okay to look forward to our next steps and shift our path depending on what our motivations are. It's also okay to recognize when an experience is not meeting your expectations and to change your path accordingly. It's okay to leave. It's okay to try something new. It's okay to get a different job than an academic job and reject the stigma of “dropping out” or “leaving academia.”

Back to my client. I gave him the advice I wish I had received years ago when I was just starting out on my PhD path: if this is the path you want to pursue for now, pursue it for now. Don't feel obligated to commit x number of years of your life to it. Don't feel obligated to finish it because of someone else's expectation. This may be the best path for you now. This may not be the best path for you later, and if so, you can change your mind.

I didn't drop out of my PhD. I pursued a better path. And I'm better for it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Choosing Motherhood on my Space Career Journey


When my first child was born, I posted a birth announcement on LinkedIn. I almost exclusively use LinkedIn for professional communications, but I felt something as monumental as becoming a mother was worth mentioning.

An acquaintance didn’t think so. He sent me a message that I shouldn’t post such things on a professional platform. Others may not take me as seriously if I post about my personal life, if I write about being a mother.

I took what he said to heart. Then I posted a birth announcement for my second child. Two weeks ago, my third child was born, and I proudly posted about her too. I no longer fear displaying my motherhood alongside my professional persona.

Throughout my adulthood, I have been fiercely enthusiastic in my pursuit of a space career. I have been equally enthusiastic in my pursuit of family life. The former was more within my control than the latter. I was able to form my space career in my 20s. It took until my 30s to begin my family life. Both are vital parts of my identity, intertwined and essential to who I am.

When I was in graduate school, I attended a space event where the mayor of a Florida Space Coast town struck up a conversation with me. The level of passion I had for my career surprised him. “Never marry and have kids,” he advised. In his limited view, doing so would be a detriment to my career and dampen my space passion.

He didn’t know I was watching my friends marry and have children with envy, longing for the day when I could do the same. He couldn’t fathom that a woman could have both a successful career and a strong family life. Many men and some women are hung up on this reality, yet never wondering how men can be fathers and have successful careers.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed much in our culture. With video calls becoming a new staple of our communications, we are seeing many colleagues and coworkers in their home environments. We are getting to know their pets and their kids. We are seeing them not just as professionals but also as whole people. We are thinking about our professional associates in a new way and becoming more accepting of who they are in their entirety. We are normalizing a fuller version of humanity.

I was never shy about broadcasting my motherhood. Just days after giving birth, my firstborn accompanied me at a space industry event. I nursed her in a wrap while networking with space professionals. I have taken my first two babies to conferences, meetings, and lectures, even giving talks with baby in arms. My fortunate firstborn lived in Florida for the first few months of her life, meeting a few astronauts and seeing several rocket launches that she’ll never remember.

I’ll never forget the young woman who approached me in the parking lot after that space event as I was nursing my 18-day-old baby. She thanked me for bringing my baby and for normalizing motherhood in a male-dominated industry. She was just the first. Many people since have thanked me for being a mother so publicly in my professional life. One man remarked that hearing baby sounds at a conference reminded him of life and why we do what we do.

Space exploration provides a unique perspective on long-term thinking. We naturally think beyond our own lives and our own generation to what we can accomplish as a human species for decades and centuries and millennia to come. Our children, individually and collectively, represent this future. They are what we are working towards. They are who we are doing this for. They are the ones who will continue this effort after we are gone.

One day, a descendant of mine will step foot on another planet. A descendant of mine will live on a deep space exploration vehicle. A descendant of mine will accomplish feats in the Universe unimaginable to us now.

It starts with a baby. It continues with humanity going where no one has gone before.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Mentoring for a Better Space Career Journey

In lieu of traveling this summer to events where I'd interact with students and young professionals just starting out in their space careers, this spring and summer I opened myself up to speak with as many students one-on-one as I could pro bono, focusing in particular on the Brooke Owens Fellowship and the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship recipients and finalists. As always, it's been such a rewarding experience to get to know these talented students.

Back to high school and early undergraduate years, I was very curious about what it was really like to work in the space sector. I only had an outsider's perspective based on pop culture. I didn't know anyone who worked in space who could answer my questions or guide me. I was very fortunate to be able to job shadow scientists and engineers at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for a week when I was 16 which gave me glimpses into what a space career could be.

It wasn't until later in undergrad when I began to meet more space professionals did I begin to start forming a true picture of what space careers look like. I knew very early on I did not want to be a professor, but I was very interested in being a research scientist at NASA. I was fortunate to begin meeting and getting involved in research, initially under professors.

Then my big break came: my first NASA internship when I was 21. Surrounded by space professionals of all kinds and hearing guest lectures all summer, I truly began to see the diversity of career paths and professional experiences. I've been learning from others' experiences ever since.

Speaking with students at any level reminds me of of those times when I was exploring career paths and trying to determine where I belonged. Most of the students I speak with are already very well informed and have their own space-related experiences to draw from. Many of these students are more experienced and knowledgeable than I was at their age. It can be humbling but also inspiring! The future is in good hands.

Many students are uncertain whether they are allowed to reach out to professionals, whether they are too young or inexperienced to begin networking, or whether certain professionals are off-limits for them to communicate with. On all points, I try to reassure students that they can and should politely reach out to and learn from professionals whose work or career paths they're interested in. Not everyone will respond, but many are happy to answer student questions and speak about their work and career paths.

Networking is one of the best things students and young professionals can do to discern their career choices and understand the industry or field they want to join or are in the early stages of navigating. I've recently had the pleasure of chatting with two high school students who were very mature, confident, and well-informed about space already because of the professionals they've already conversed with. The more networking one does, the more comfortable ones becomes networking. The key is to form mutually beneficial relationships with people over time.

How can networking with students be beneficial for professionals? I get inspired by the students I interact with. I see their potential and in some cases are able to follow their progress as they explore opportunities and achieve successes. I admire much of the work they do and can learn from them. I'm thankful for their energy and enthusiasm. I see how they are changing the space sector and, in their own way, changing the world for the better. They give me hope. And I'm so proud they become my peers.

Although I do not have the time I wish I had to mentor every student who reaches out to me, I gladly give the time I'm able to answering emails or having informational interview phone calls. As the summer semester winds down and my maternity slow-down period approaches, I'll have even less time in the coming months. Mentoring doesn't need to take a lot of time. It could be as simple as a few quick messages exchanged over the weeks, months, or years or having a catch-up call every now and again.

I was asked by a student today about finding mentors. Many colleges/universities and professional organizations have formal mentoring programs that pair students with professionals. But mentoring doesn't need to be formal or structured. Informal mentors could be people who you admire and wish to emulate, whether in a career you want or not. They could be people you ask to mentor you or people who have no idea you see them as a mentor.

Every step of my career journey to this day, I've had mentors, mostly informal. It truly helps to find people who inspire you along your career, who can guide you or answer your questions, who can introduce you to others and perhaps even champion you, who you know support you and your dreams. Find these people wherever they are. They are everywhere.

If at any point you want formal space career coaching, I'm here for you, whether through a self-paced coaching course or one-on-one email or phone coaching. If coaching is too much for you, reach out to me anyway and I'll try to help in any way I can.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Goodbye Space Shuttles, You Will Be Missed

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex Atlantis Exhibit, June 22, 2013

Originally posted on July 8, 2011 in my personal journal, with minor edits.

On Tuesday morning, I was phone interviewed by a reporter from Florida Today (same parent company as USA Today) doing a story on young people who have been inspired and influenced by the space shuttle program. I've gotten two other similar requests for interviews, but I had to turn them down because they're TV and sadly, I am not in Florida this week. At age 27, the Space Transportation System (STS, the space shuttle program) is all I've ever known of NASA human spaceflight. I've admired the Apollo V rocket, but I've never seen it in action with my own eyes, nor have I seen a Russian Soyuz rocket. My fondest memories of my first Space Camp days in the middle school Space Academy program were of participating in mock space shuttle missions to the International Space Station. Our camp teams were gather under Huntsville's test simulator the Space Shuttle Pathfinder and I would stare up at it in awe, wishing I could climb inside.

My parents took me to see the a space shuttle launch at some point in the 80s. We were on a trip to Disney World and drove to the Cape to see the launch, but it was scrubbed. I don't remember this at all, but had it launched, it probably would have made a lasting impression with me. It was around that same time, third grade, when I wrote a short story for school about being an astronaut and going to the Moon.

My first space shuttle launch experience didn't occur until my freshman year of college when I moved to the Space Coast. My first one was STS-112 Atlantis in October 2002, seen with a classmate along the side of a highway somewhere near Kennedy Space Center. I joined the student newspaper that semester and got the amazing opportunity to see STS-113 Endeavour from the KSC press site in November. That was a night launch, scrubbed the first night, but so worth returning! Night launches, appearing as artificial sunrise, are my favorite. Even better, I could share the experience with friends.

STS-112 launch, October 7, 2002. Credit: me
STS-113 launch, November 24, 2002. Credit: me

The launch of STS-107 Columbia I saw from my car near campus in January 2003. I don't know why I didn't take the time to see it closer. I think that I took launches for granted at that point. This attitude was corrected on the morning of February 1, 2003, when I got the terrible news. My undergrad alma mater is very close to Kennedy Space Center, so the university as a whole was affected greatly. I was honored to meet some of the late astronauts' families during a dedication ceremony of the brand new Columbia Village dorms, seven buildings named for the seven astronauts, where I lived my sophomore year.

As the new editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, I had the privilege of attending a press tour of the Orbital Processing Facility 1 where I got to stand very close to and under Atlantis. I've since had a number of these kinds of tours through NASA Academy and KSC Family Days, but the first one will always have a special place in my heart. Especially because on that tour I was “banned from NASA for life,” but that's a different story.

Me under Atlantis at KSC, September 2003

The Columbia accident delayed the return of space shuttle launches for years, but thanks to NASA Academy, I was able to visit Florida to see the return-to-flight STS-114 Discovery launch from the KSC Banana Creek VIP bleachers in July 2005. That was memorable especially because of the location, sitting in bleachers not far from First Lady Laura Bush with several secret service agents around.

NASA Academy at MSFC cohort in front of Discovery, July 2005. I'm in the red shirt.
STS-114 launch, July 26, 2005. Credit: me
Again because of foam problems, launches were long delayed after that, but again because of NASA Academy I was able to see the second Discovery return-to-flight on July 4, 2006. In my limited experience, the top of a mobile launch platform set up next to the Vehicle Assembly Building was the best place I've ever seen a launch from, very close to the pad and eyesight over the tree-line.

STS-121 launch, July 4, 2006. Credit: me
Living in Alabama for three and a half years put a damper on my in-person space shuttle viewing. It wasn't until I moved back to central Florida a year and a half ago that I was able to experience the wonder with my own eyes again. The first launch I saw after moving back was STS-130 Endeavour in February 2010. Unfortunately, my camera was locked in my car and I did not feel like fetching it, so all I have is the memory. I did get to see Endeavour close up before launch, which was cool. For STS-132 Atlantis in May, I spent hours waiting at Space View Park to catch a glimpse; not the best spot, but still beautiful.

Me in front of Endeavour, January 23, 2010
STS-132 launch, May 14, 2010. Credit: me
Thanks to a friend, I saw STS-133 Discovery launch from the Astronaut Hall of Fame in February of this year. Electrical lines got in the way of a perfect view, but it was still neat to see it from a different location.

Discovery on the pad, September 25, 2010. Credit: me
STS-133 launch, February 24, 2011. Credit: me
I don't know how many people have seen a space shuttle cake launch, but thanks to a friend, I got an excellent view of the one and only Cake Boss space shuttle cake fire up and ascend (with the help of pyrotechnics and a mechanical structure) at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in April.

Space Shuttle Program 30th Anniversary Celebration, April 12, 2011. Credit: me
May's STS-134 Endeavour launch I attempted to see from Orlando so I wouldn't risk missing my flight later that day. Unfortunately, cloud cover made that impossible, but I tried. An unfortunate conflict in scheduling holds me here in Pennsylvania visiting family while the very last space shuttle launch, STS-135 Atlantis, lifted off beautifully this morning. I cried, of course. I pray and cry watching every space shuttle launch. It's so beautiful, so powerful, so emotional. Godspeed, Atlantis, and please come home safely.

News coverage has been fantastic. I love the positive attention that NASA is getting, and I'm pleased that the news media is trying to educated the general public about the space industry. However, I'm dismayed by all of the remarks about "the end of NASA" or "the end of the space program." Neither is true. NASA will go on, the space program will go on, human space exploration will go on.

Poor leadership has caused a gap in NASA human space transportation. This will be a very hard transition over the next few years, especially hard for those who will lose or have lost their jobs. But NASA's next space vehicle is in the works, and in the meantime, private space companies are developing their own rockets and spaceplanes to take crew and cargo into suborbital and orbital space.

As much as I love the space shuttle program, I agree with the decision to retire it and move on. I want humankind to return to exploring the solar system. I want us to eventually get to the point where we can live, work, and make money in space and on other planetary bodies. I believe that this is essential, and I will do everything in my power to do my part to make that happen.

Pursuing my astronaut dreams at KSC, September 25, 2010

Friday, May 1, 2020

Pursuing Your Space Career Dream as a Non-US-Citizen

This is part 4 in a 4-part series. Click here for part 1, here for part 2, and here for part 3.

“I want to work in the space industry in the US but I’m not a US citizen. What can I do?”

I get this question a lot from students and professionals from all around the world. I still don’t have the best answer for them. I can sense their eagerness to get involved in an industry we love and their frustration at the barriers. It’s especially heartbreaking to hear from non-citizen students studying in the US who want to find a space job and stay, but can’t.

Two years ago, I was quoted in the Orlando Sentinel saying, “It's really frustrating. These were students who came to the U.S., were trained here. So we spend the resources, the time to train people in highly educated, high in-demand fields, and then they take that and leave.”

In most cases, they don’t want to leave. Without a job, they have no choice.

First, some basics. People around the world dream of working for NASA. As a federal government agency, only US citizens can be employed as civil servants at NASA. I know of many NASA employees who became US citizens at some point in their career journeys and now work for NASA.

NASA employs many more contractors than civil servants. These contractors are small and large businesses, suppliers, service providers, universities, and nonprofits. These contractors work at NASA centers and facilities or on NASA projects at their employer’s facilities. I’ve never been a NASA civil servant but I have worked as a contractor or subcontractor at 3 NASA centers.

Citizenship requirements are set by the contractor. Many require US citizenship, especially engineering positions that are restricted by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). But some contractors do not require US citizenship. Universities and research-focused nonprofits are most open to hiring internationally.

Many commercial space companies in the US are restricted by ITAR as to who they can hire. Some of the larger companies with international offices and partnerships may have procedures in place to hire non-US-citizens. Some smaller companies may also hire non-US-citizens if they have no reason to restrict their hiring or if they have ties to another country.

For example, Rocket Lab is an American company with a subsidiary company and significant operations in New Zealand. They have strict citizenship requirements for US-based jobs but more open citizenship requirements for NZ-based jobs.

Consider your home country and surrounding countries. Are there opportunities to get involved in space closer to home which can help you get your foot in the door in the industry? You may find the space career you seek without having to leave your own country or the surrounding region. Or you may find it easier to move around from location to location once you are already working in the industry, building experience, and making connections.

Another option, open to some, is to become a student in the US. This is becoming a more difficult route to take, but if you have the ability to study in a US university with the proper paperwork, you can go down the path of finding a company to help sponsor your green card and give you time to become a citizen. But this brings me full circle back to my quote in the Orlando Sentinel – it’s difficult to find a space job willing to hire a non-citizen student or recent graduate.

Another option, which I generally don’t recommend, is to obtain a non-space job in the US in order to become a US citizen. This would then allow you to more easily find a space job in the future. In part 3 of this series, I describe how to switch from another industry to the space sector.

Please know there may be many places around the world where you can pursue your space career. Some countries have rich histories in space and some newer players have fast-growing space sectors. You may be able to pursue your space career in unexpected places.

As always, please feel free to reach out to me with any questions or if I can assist you. You can learn more about my space career coaching services and the Your Space Career Journey courses at Astralytical.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Enter the Space Sector from Any Industry or Background - It's Never Too Late!

This is part 3 in a 4-part series. Click here for part 1 and here for part 2.

So many people dream of doing space-related work! Some are inspired by the stars as kids but don’t know how to accomplish that dream or never knew it was an option for them. Some pursue space-related studies in higher education but go off into other industries after they graduate. Some never really thought about space until later in their careers when they learn about the exciting work being done by SpaceX and others.

The majority of my space career coaching clients are mid-level professionals who fall under those three categories. Whether they’ve had a childhood love of space or have been inspired recently, they aren’t sure how to pursue a space career with their background and experience. Some have technical backgrounds. Some do not. Some have closely related backgrounds such as software engineering. Some have “non-traditional” backgrounds such as philosophy.

(Side note: one of my space mentors in my early career has a philosophy degree. People in the space sector come from all kinds of backgrounds. See part 1 of this blog series about space being multidisciplinary.)

One thing many of my professional coaching clients have in common is a lack of confidence. Many believe they cannot enter the space sector with their current skills and therefore must obtain another degree. Others believe they must only apply for entry-level jobs even though they have many years of experience in their previous line of work. Others wonder if they have what it takes to enter the space industry at all. Space has an unfortunate reputation of being an exclusive field for math-and-science geniuses (and while they do exist, this is not the majority of the space workforce, I assure you).

For some mid-level professionals who want to make a switch to a space career, additional education is a good idea. This is especially true in the sciences which have a more structured educational hierarchy and stricter educational requirements. One does not need a PhD to be a scientist, but it is close to impossible to obtain a professorship or become a principle investigator of a scientific mission without one.

In other cases, additional education can give professionals from a very different background the knowledge, skills, credentials, and confidence to pursue a completely different space-related background. Some of my clients choose to return to school at traditional universities or space-focused programs such as International Space University.

In other cases, citizens of one country who wish to move to another country with more space-related job opportunities choose to do so by first becoming a student in that country. Some of my clients have chosen to become students in the United States, Canada, and select European countries in order to better align themselves with the legal paperwork and the connections to continue working in that country after they graduate. More on international space jobs and opportunities in part 4 of this series.

Professionals with full-time jobs, family responsibilities, and/or financial contrasts may find it difficult to become a student again. The choice to pursue additional education is not an easy one. I never discourage anyone from pursuing additional education if they wish to, but a lot of the time, it’s not necessary.

Instead, I advise focusing on transferable skills. We all have them. If you strip down your experience and skills to their very basic form, they can apply to many jobs and industries.

An engineer in a non-space industry already possesses many of the skills needed to become an engineer in the space industry. A writer in a non-space industry can write and communicate in so many different ways within the space sector from technical writing to journalism to education & public outreach (EPO). Many of the space lawyers I know gained experience in other areas of law before switching over to space. I still don’t understand what an enterprise architect is (sorry Eric!), but my lack of knowledge didn’t prevent him from pursuing space-related businesses.

Try this exercise: briefly write the job description for your current work as you’d do for a resume. Now remove any industry-specific jargon so it can be read by a general audience of any background. Now remove any reference to your employer, your industry, or industry-specific programs or projects. Write your job description as if a reader could not guess at which industry you’re in. Just the basics: your basic skills, your basic duties, your basic accomplishments.

Once you strip your experience down to its basics, you can begin to fill it back up. Can you picture how you’d use those basic skills in a space-related job? Can you see how you could convince someone that even though you don’t have any direct experience working in the space sector, you have the basic skills to do so?

“Calibrated and tested instrumentation to obtain peak performance.” Could be applicable to a space job.

“Coordinated with multiple teams to create master plans and documentation.” Could be applicable to a space job.

“Created software to automate remote hardware.” Definitely applicable to a space job.

I don’t recommend actually describing your current work this way. This exercise is to help you consider how your skills can translate to a job within the space sector. Once you make these connections for yourself, it will be easier to describe these connections to others. And it may give you confidence to know you do belong in space no matter your background.

Going back to part 1 of this series, please remember the space sector needs all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds. HR, finances, acquisitions, contracts, security, general council, communications, and art don’t sound very spacey, but they are very much needed.

It some situations, depending on willingness and ability, it can help to pursue space-related projects and activities outside of a full-time job or education. This could be a general or professional space-related club or society. This could be space-related online forums and websites. This could be blogging and informal science communication. This could be collaborations and working groups. In some rare cases, this could even be a part-time space-related job, gig, freelancing, or start-up.

In many cases, a local stargazing or planetarium group, model rocket club, or local chapter of a larger organization such as the National Space Society, Planetary Society, or AIAA are most accessible. Even in this unusual time when most in-person gatherings are canceled, getting involved online is a possibility.

Pursuing space-related side activities is a great way to gain knowledge and learn more about space happenings, network with new space-interested connections (and perhaps make new friends), and maybe even gain hands-on experience with telescopes, rocketry, or advocacy.

Whatever you do, don’t give up on your dream. Your goals may evolve over time as you discover new opportunities and learn more about the space sector. It may take you months or years to break into the space sector. But if you give up entirely, you’ll never know how you may have finally reached your dream to work in space.

As always, please feel free to reach out to me with any questions or if I can assist you. You can learn more about my space career coaching services and the Your Space Career Journey for Professionals course at Astralytical.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Students: Tips for Progressing Your Space Career through Online Networking

This is part 2 in a four-part series. Click here for part 1.

Students, I am so sorry this is such a rough time for you. I can’t even imagine what you are going through taking classes online unexpectedly, trying to figure out what’s going on with summer internships or scrambling to find something to do this summer after canceled opportunities, being away from your labs or hands-on work, and distance-graduating while trying to find a job in this economy. The closest experience I had was watching friends lose jobs or fail to find jobs during the 2008 recession, which is not even close to what’s happening right now.

If you are earlier in your studies, you likely have time to ride this out. No one will fault you for not having an internship this summer. No one should fault you for lower grades during this time. If you need to take time off from your studies, this situation is a valid reason. Just do your best in this challenging time. No one can ask more from you than that.

If you’re about to graduate and you’re seeking a job or you were really hoping to gain internship experience this summer to build up your experience, again, I’m so sorry. Although there are relatively few opportunities and a lot of laid off and furloughed employees, I have seen some job postings in the past few weeks. Some of the larger space contractors are hiring all over the US. Some smaller companies are hiring as well, not many, but you may be able to find some opportunities.

A lot the advice I typically give to students doesn’t apply during a global health crisis. I wrote the content for the recently released Your Space Career Journey courses back in September and October before COVID-19 existed. In it, I spend a lot of time discussing in-person networking at events, meetings, and conferences. I also describe the process of setting up an informational interview, which is typically conducted in person. I also typically advise seeking out internships and some good ways of finding job opportunities, a process that may be difficult and painful at the moment as companies pull back.

But a lot of the advice I give in the courses and in my space career coaching applies now more than ever. While we’re all physically isolated from each other, the willingness and ability to network online is more important now than ever. Informational interviews can be conducted over the phone or via video chat. Some open positions are transitioning to remote work. And the space industry is still moving forward. There may be opportunities that are created tomorrow that don’t exist today.

Students are in a unique stage of life in which many professionals are very willing to assist you. If you have a question about their work, if you want to know more about their career path, or if you’re seeking an opportunity to get involved, many professionals are willing to take the time to assist if they can. Not everyone will respond, of course. Not everyone is willing or able to assist you in the way you’d like. But sometimes, messaging can really help.

I get a lot of messages from students that follow this format:

“Hello. I am a student/recent graduate in aerospace engineering. I am seeking a full-time job in aerospace. Do you know of any openings? Thank you.”

I usually ignore messages like this or reply with a short, “It’s nice to connect with you,” because there’s really not much these students are giving me to work with to help them or further the conversation. Students, please let me help you rewrite this message so it’s better received and more useful for the recipient and for you.

First, this message does some things well. It’s brief, it includes an introduction, and it’s polite. Those are key when networking with any acquaintance or new connection.

Keep your message brief
Introduce yourself
Be polite. Conclude by thanking the recipient.

I don’t demonstrate it in these message examples, but it’s also important to use proper titles or honorifics (Dr., Professor, etc.), err on the side of formal, and use gender-neutral language (do not call everyone sir).

But how could this message be rewritten to be even better?

Include more information about you and your goals. “Aerospace engineering” or whatever field you majored in is broad. What specifically interests you? What area or subfield would you like to pursue or learn more about? What kind of job are you seeking or would like to learn more about?

Double-check the background of the person you’re sending a message to. Are they the best person to help you in that pursuit, or are you contacting them for another reason? Target your messages appropriately. If you’re contacting me about nuclear propulsion jobs, I can’t help you much more than Google can.

Read up on the person you’re contacting. This is particularly easy if you’re contacting someone on LinkedIn because you have access to their profile with a click. If they are associated with a university, they likely have a university website or biography. If you can’t find much about them, Google them. You only need to spend a few minutes reading up on their background and expertise, but be sure to take that time. Do not contact someone asking them what they do when you can find that information for yourself in minutes. This also will help you to consider how this person can help you before you compose your message to them.

Ask them for something reasonable. It could be a question about their job, research, company, or field. It could be about their background or career path. It could be for specific advice (more along the lines of, “Do you know of any professional societies I should get involved with?” than a more general, “Do you have any advice for me?”). It could be a request for an informational interview (via phone or video chat for now). By asking them something specific, they immediately know how they can respond to your message.

Whatever you ask them, be reasonable. It shouldn’t be a request for a job in most cases. Most people don’t have the ability to hire, and even if they do, proceed with caution. Don’t ask for something deeply involved or time-intensive. Remember, they don’t owe you anything, not even a response.

Let’s return to our sample message and rewrite it for the better. The following messages are entirely fictional.

“Hello. My name is Alex. I’m about to graduate with a aerospace engineering degree from Georgia Tech with an interest in hypersonics. I completed a senior design project designing a hypersonic engine. I noticed you live in Atlanta. Could you help connect me with companies in the area doing this research? Thank you.”

Even though my background isn’t in hypersonics, I would still immediately know how to help Alex because I know the aerospace companies in my area. I also happen to know the executives in companies that may be a good match for Alex. It would only take me a few seconds to reply to the message with the names of those companies. Or, if I felt it was appropriate, it would only take a few minutes to make introductions to CEOs or relevant employees within those companies.

Or the message could be:

“Hello. My name is Casey. I’m a junior in aerospace engineering with an interest in International Space Station payload design. Given your background working on ISS experiments, would you be able to recommend any companies involved in creating payload designs for experiments? Or do you know who at NASA works on payload design? Thank you.”

Casey read up on my background, took note of one of my previous jobs, and is asking me a very direct question: the name of companies or the name of NASA individuals involved in ISS payload design. I may or may not be able to help, but at least I know exactly how I can help.

Or, it could be this message:

“Hello. My name is Kay. Thank you so much for writing this blog! I’m an English major and I’ve always had an interest in space. Do you know of any resources on science communication and how I could get involved? Thank you.”

In this case, I know a lot of space communicators and I’d refer Kay to a few blogs, websites, and the names of individuals. It might take me a little longer to gather together a good list, but it’s not a lot of effort to encourage someone’s pursuits.

In part 1 of this blog series, I emphasize that anyone can pursue a space career. Scientists, engineers, and yes, even English majors. I know several!

Although now is a challenging time for many students and recent graduates, it can also be a good time to try to build a space network online. We’re all online these days! In addition to direct messaging via email or LinkedIn, there are also great ways to connect and network on social media and space-related websites and forums. You could also ask existing connections (professors and colleagues) for recommendations on who to contact and even ask them to make introductions for you if they’re willing.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions or if I can be of any assistance to you. You can learn more about my space career coaching services and the Your Space Career Journey for Students and Early Career Professionals course at Astralytical.

This is part 2 of a four-part series. Click here for part 3.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Discovering Your True Space Career Path No Matter Your Background

“You need to be an engineering major to apply for an internship at NASA.”

“You shouldn’t go to grad school because there are too many grad students and not enough jobs for them.”

“You need to go to grad school to become a scientist.”

“You may not think you want to become a professor, but you’ll change your mind.”

“You should drop out of your PhD program and get an MBA instead.”

“You don’t want to be a scientist. You just like the idea of becoming a scientist. You don’t belong here.”

“You don’t have enough experience to start your own consulting company.”

“Why don’t you quit building your own company and return to academia?”

This is some of the bad advice I got over the course of my career in the space sector. I’m sure you’ve gotten bad advice along your way, too. Discouraging advice. Wrong advice for your situation. People who assume they know your goals better than you do. People who only know their own corner of the world and just aren’t aware of the possibilities out there that might be a better fit for you.

Throughout my career as a high school and university student and early career professional, the big questions I kept returning to were, “What’s it really like to do __ job? How do I pursue __ job? Am I on the right track?”

I began mentoring students when I was in graduate school, answering their questions and guiding them as best I could. Over the years, I became more frustrated that I could only spend a short amount of time with each student. A quick conversation or two wasn’t enough to really dive deep into the lives, goals, and struggled of these individuals.

I hired a career coach when I felt stuck in my first full-time job. I felt like a caged bird yearning to soar freely. I knew I was capable of more than my employer was allowing me to do. Although my coach didn’t know anything about the space sector, she helped guide me along me path to becoming a manager in a space startup in my next job.

Curiously, there were no career coaches specializing in the space sector. I could have really used a coach to help me through such a specialized and misunderstood sector! A year into starting my space consulting company, I added space career coaching as a service as a way to give back to the community. A couple of other space-related coaching services have popped up since then, a sign of a growing space sector.

Surprisingly, in the three years I’ve been coaching individuals along their space careers, I’ve learned the greatest demand for my services has been not from students but from established professionals in other industries who want to switch to a career in space. Whether they always wanted to work in space or their interest is a more recent development, these professionals are seeking guidance on how to break into the field. The majority of my coaching clients have been mid-level professionals wanting to pursue their dreams.

I’m so excited to share a project I’ve been working on in the background for the past seven months: two online, self-paced space careers courses. One is tailored for university students and recent graduates and one is tailored for mid-level professionals. In these 50-some page workbooks and 90+ minute videos, I share much of the experience, advice, and questions I’ve worked through with my space career coaching clients. I also ask the individual to work through a number of exercises to focus on introspection, do some research, and take actions to move their space career pursuits forward.

In this blog series, I’ll be sharing some general advice for pursuing a space career. I’ll go over some basics of identifying the type of job you truly want, searching for potential employers and jobs, networking (online!), messaging, and more.

The main message I want to leave you with today: space is for everyone. Are you an aerospace engineer? Great! Are you a scientist? Great! Do you have a technical background? Great! Do you not have any technical background at all? Great! Space is still for you.

The space sector is truly interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. It touches on so many industries and fields of study. People of all backgrounds and skills are needed.

It would be impossible for me to list all of the fields one could study in university in order to pursue a space career. Take a look at your university’s degree offerings. Do you see all those majors? Every one of them could apply to space. Don’t ever let someone tell you that you can’t pursue a space career because you don’t have a certain degree or background.

Similarly, you do not need a certain skill set to work in the space sector. Love math? Great! Math isn’t your thing? That’s fine too! If everyone had the same skills, important jobs would not be able to be accomplished and the space sector would be weak from the lack of different perspectives and abilities.

As recently as two weeks ago, I had to push back on a science communicator who recommended everyone pursuing a space career should learn computer programming. I was also given this advice when I was an undergraduate astrophysics major. Computer programming is a great skill to learn! It’s also not at all essential. If you love it, great. If you’re like me and run far away from coding, that’s fine too. Honestly, if I had allowed myself to obtain a job that required programming, I’d be miserable and I wouldn’t have the space career I have today. Be true to yourself. Ignore even well-meaning advice that doesn’t feel true to you and your goals.

Return tomorrow for part 2 in which I dive into some specific advice covered in the Astralytical space career courses!

This is part 1 of a four-part series. Click here for part 2.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Rise Above Today's Challenges to a Better Tomorrow in Space

These past few weeks, I’ve been dedicating more of my time to audio and video recording and editing. This includes creating the audiobook version of my book Rise of the Space Age Millennials. Because I live with three other humans, two of them very energetic and noisy, I can only record late at night after others have gone to bed so I can achieve the necessary quiet to hopefully pass Audible’s quality standards.

(Tip to authors who plan to release an audiobook: consider recording it before you release the paper and ebook versions of your book. It’s embarrassing how many typos I’m discovering even after reading the book aloud to myself previously and passing it by an editor. A second paper edition of my book might be in order!)

The last chapter of my book, How Far We’ll Soar, provides an outlook on the hopes and dreams of millennials working in or studying to work in the space sector. From the first footsteps on Mars to private space stations to discovering life on exoplanets, millennials have high hopes for the future.

That was before the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 infected the world, locked many of us in our homes, and disrupted work in all industries, including the space industry.

A few days ago I conducted an informal poll on Twitter asking when NASA will achieve its first human lunar return in its Artemis program, currently still officially scheduled for 2024. With 265 respondents, 88% predicted 2026 or later. Some commented doubting whether, in our current times with our current financial and political priorities, NASA would return humans to the Moon at all, let alone go on to Mars and do the other things.

I haven’t yet narrated and recorded the last chapter of Rise of the Space Age Millennials, but I have recently recorded the second chapter, Why We Boldly Go. I asked millennials why we humans explore space. Opinions are varied, but one concept kept coming up again and again: we are explorers. Exploring is in our nature. No matter the challenges needed to climb the mountain, we will climb it, because it’s there, and that’s just who we are.

We rise. We are a people who rise to challenges, who rise above the confines of Earth that pull us down. We see the horizon, the distant lands containing the unknown, and we want to know. We need to know. And so, we go. And eventually, we take all of humanity with us.

I recently read Carl Sagan’s book Contact for the first time after seeing the movie many times since childhood. Very few things could ever unite a diverse, conflicted planet of nations. In Carl Sagan’s view, the puzzle of an extraterrestrial message could unite us all as a human species to rise to the occasion of communicating with an alien civilization.

In today’s world, we see the planet uniting to solve the problem of COVID-19 and the resulting public health and safety issues. We work together to overcome global challenges. We can work together to achieve global successes.

Will millennials see humans land on Mars for the first time, create affordable space tourism opportunities, send robots to distant Solar System moons in a search for life, and the many other dreams filling the pages of the final chapter of Rise of the Space Age Millennials? I don’t know. I hope so. We have the ability to come together and rise above today’s challenge and the challenges to come to explore new worlds for all of humanity. We’ve never let a setback define us.

I’d like to think the goals and dreams of millennials working in space are the same now as they were then. Mine are. Maybe the current world’s challenge gives us in the space industry more motivation to become more multidiscipinary, share more new technologies and methods with the medical community, and inspire people with how the world could be.

We could all use the inspiration to help us rise above this storm to a new day.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Working From Home With Kids

Balancing a laptop and a sleeping newborn in my lap

With many people working from home and a more general acceptance of employees being full human beings with families and personal interests, I’d like to discuss my experience working at home with young kids.

“The ability to work with young children at home is zero,” claims a popular tweet posted a couple weeks ago as many companies and institutions in the United States temporarily shifted to encouraged or mandatory work-at-home status for many of their employees.

I assure you, it’s not zero. I’ve been working at home with young children for 4 years. In this time, I’ve created and run a small business, traveled for conferences and other business trips, helped organize conferences and events, taken on additional pro bono work, written and published a book, and cared for two young children. Without childcare or local family to assist.

Here are my tips to help with working from home with kids, which may or may not resonate with you:

  • Embrace the flexibility of working from home.
  • Embrace kid interruptions.
  • Encourage your kids to become independent.
  • Take advantage of quieter times.
  • Accept help if you can.
  • Accept that some days are really, really hard.
  • Have fun!

Embrace the flexibility of working from home

So many work-from-home guides encourage keeping a strict office schedule, only working in a home office, avoiding house chores during the day, and other strategies to emulate the office environment at home. That seems to work for many people. That does not work for me.

I proudly defy most conventional work-from-home advice. I encourage you to embrace the flexibility working at home offers. You can work from anywhere. Any piece of furniture or even standing up or walking. From any device or platform (desktop, laptop, phone, tablet, even a pen and paper if that’s your thing). In any room. Even outside in your yard or out-and-about. A working environment does not need to be constrained by the office life you’re used to.

Most of the time, you can also work when you want. There may be immovable telecons, phone calls, deadlines, and others’ schedules. But outside of those constraints, your time is yours to plan the way you’d like. If you’re a morning person, embrace the quiet still of the morning and be productive at 5 AM. If you’re a night owl like me who sleeps in as much as motherhood allows, embrace the quiet still of the night. Some days, I’m in the zone at midnight and can work for a couple hours at home at a time not conventionally seen as a time to work in an office.

Flexibility of schedule also means you can break up your day as you please. In an office, you may take breaks to grab a snack, use the bathroom, strike up a conversation with a coworker, take a walk, and whatever else you need to do to recharge. At home, you have even more flexibility to take a breather during the day when you need to. Don’t feel guilty for not working 8 hours straight at home; you’re a human, not a machine. Life is more than just working.

Embrace kid interruptions

Young kids will need you. Depending on the child, the situation, and the home environment, some kids are more in need of help and attention than others. This may seem incompatable with work, but with practice, you can work around these interruptions. See above: your time is flexible. A coworker may interrupt you at any time in an office setting. Your kids are your coworkers and they provide you with breaks from work throughout the day.

My 2-year-old is still in diapers so I expect breaks for multiple diaper changes throughout the day, usually not on my schedule. The kids need to eat, so I feed them when I eat: breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks throughout the day. My 4-year-old usually fetches her own snacks when she’s hungry. I also provide them with drinks throughout the day.

When they need me, depending on the nature of the need and what I’m currently working on, I either pause work immediately to care for them or find a good time to pause my work before caring for them. Coincidentally, I was in the middle of writing the previous sentence when my 2-year-old asked me for a drink refill. It’s not an urgent need, so I will pause my writing to refill all our drinks at the end of this paragraph, so, now.

Breaks can also be for fun rather than for need. Enjoy time with your kids. Give them your attention when you can. Play with them. It doesn’t need to be long, just a few minutes. Or perhaps you can spare an hour to do an activity with them or to take a full afternoon off. Even just a few minutes here and there helps to reconnect throughout the day.

Encourage your kids to become independent

The ability for your kids to occupy themselves independent of you depends on their age, their personality, and your home environment. Where at all possible and safe, allow your kids to play or work independently while you work. Depending on their age and inclination to get in trouble, you can be in the room with them or allow them to be elsewhere without you.

Both my kids have been very independent from a young age. I’d even call my 4-year-old fiercely independent. Neither has ever had any problems entertaining themselves. Whether this is innate within their personalities or just how I raised them, I’m not sure. But it sure helps to get work done when I don’t need to divide my attention too much.

This doesn’t mean I work as if my kids don’t exist. I almost always work in the same room where my 2-year-old is playing. I keep an eye on him with my laptop in front of me. I prefer to watch both my kids in the same room, but this usually isn’t the case. My 4-year-old, as independent as she is roaming the house, is also endlessly curious and very clever with a tendency to get into things she shouldn’t, so I take breaks to check up on her frequently.

How would this work if my kids were older? Your parenting styles and education philosophies likely differ from mine, but I’ll offer my viewpoint anyway: we embrace adult-facilitated student-directed home education, often called unschooling. Home education does not need to look like school at home. Trust that your kids are learning all the times and especially learning when they are self-directed and engaged in an activity or topic that is interesting to them. Under normal circumstances, we take our kids out into the world to learn from the world and from other people. But even at home, we have books, toys, iPads, TVs, activities, and the endless resources of the internet.

Babies are understandably the most in need of your time and attention. Maternity leave is truly needed after a baby is born. I do not expect to get much work done in August when my third baby is expected. Parents with young babies need to be the most gentle with themselves about how much work they can realistically accomplish. Some babies sleep long stretches or are content to exist without much direct attention. Neither of my babies were like this. My babies were constantly attached to me. In those early months, I used voice diction or typed with one hand, used my phone more than my laptop, warned people about my baby-in-arms during calls, napped throughout the day, and set low expectations for my own productivity.

Take advantage of quieter times

When my kids were younger, they used to nap more frequently. There were times I struck gold and both napped simultaneously! I took advantage of those quieter times to really focus on work that needed my undivided attention.

More often, I find the quiet freedom of late nights when I’m still awake and can work while activity in my house has stopped and activity online (email and social media) is minimal. My husband, for the same reason, works his side project in the very early morning hours before the sun has risen and the hustle of the day has begun.

Accept help if you can

Many work-from-home parents have spouses, other family members, babysitters, or other childcare options they can take advantage of to give them more time for focused attention on work. If you have someone who can help you watch the kids, for your own sanity, I encourage you to accept.

Because of the circumstances of our family, only my husband and I watch our kids. Usually he works from home on Wednesdays which gives me a little more freedom to step away to be by myself on Wednesdays. Currently, he’s working from home indefinitely, which allows us to share parenting responsibilities even more than usual. There have been times when I’ve needed to leave him with the kids in the evenings or on weekends for an hour or two while I go off to another area of the house to work.

Accept that some days are really, really hard

This is not easy. This is seemingly impossible when you’re first thrown into it. I had the advantage of working from home before I had kids so I could set my own routine and slowly figure things out as my first child grew. For parents abruptly put in the position of caring for kids while working from home during a stressful time, this is going to be a very difficult transition. Don’t beat yourself up.

Even for an experienced work-from-home mom, some days are about survival. I had a challenging first couple of months this year with my 4-year-old. Some days all I could do was the bare minimum of work while I tried to keep my sanity. That’s okay. Be patient with yourself.

But some days just fly by in a zone of low turbulence, checking one task off the list after another, making extensive progress on a project, and keeping the kids and myself alive and happy. Those are the days when I know I can do this. And you can too. Maybe not now, under the current circumstances. But maybe one day.

Have fun

My favorite work-from-home memories of last year were watching the kids play in the backyard in the warm months of the summer and early autumn while I wrote my book using voice dictation on my phone.

Yesterday, with business slow and my mind distracted with the troubles of the world, I took some hours “off” in the afternoon to garden in the backyard with my 4-year-old. I checked email on my phone every so often, but mostly, I was out enjoying nature with my daughter.

I watch rocket launch livestreams with my kids nearby (who often aren’t interested, but I try) and talk with them about my work frequently. I truly enjoy being with my kids every day and I enjoy building a business in the career I love.

I’m so thankful for the opportunity to work from home with my kids. I wish everyone could experience this in a positive way as I’ve been able to.