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.

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