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.