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.

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