Disclaimer: the opinions below are my own and not representative of my employer or NASA.
I received an email from a Udacity student (and Grow with Google scholar!) named Calvin recently. Calvin, like many people studying online, was interested in a career change. His work and educational experience spans civil engineering, structural engineering, Android, and front-end apps. He reached out because he, like me, wants to be a part of the human spaceflight resurgence we’re seeing take shape.
“I would love to follow a similar path and would love to ask you for any advice or tips you can give someone who loves science and education and coding to pursue a similar career path,” Calvin asked. “I would love to someday play a role in helping advance space exploration and education and would love to do it with my skills in software and engineering.”
Human spaceflight is an amazing, multidisciplinary adventure. The only way we’ll be able to maintain a sustainable space program is with a large, diverse workforce. I’d love to see more people like Calvin make their way into the space industry to help us get to the Moon and Mars. We need their skills and their ideas and their passion. Here’s what I wrote back.
I got into my current position at NASA by volunteering. I volunteered on various NASA projects for 2+ years before finally getting hired. In that time, I focused on learning as much as I could about the missions, people, and organizational structures at NASA. I tried to add value and make myself as useful as possible. I took any and every responsibility anyone was willing to give me. Eventually I met people who were impressed by my work and hired me full-time as soon as a position became available.
I also got really lucky. My time as a volunteer began because a friend of a friend was in an aerospace eng. PhD program and was already on track to get a job somewhere in the space industry. He needed some software for his PhD research and I wanted to get into space. I used my nights and weekends to write software for him. We basically made a handshake agreement that I would make sure his software was ready for him to graduate on time and he would make sure I met the kind of people who could help me get into NASA. We both followed through and we still work together on a lot of projects.
I’m telling you this story because there’s no way I could have planned it this way. I’m not the kind of person to plan out a career path - I just keep my eyes open for opportunities. My biggest piece of advice is to just try to meet as many people as you can who are passionate about the same problems that you are. University labs usually need talent. You could try reaching out to labs in interesting fields to see if they need anything. Conferences are another great way to meet people, especially conferences that host networking sessions. IAC and IEEE Aerospace are the two biggest aerospace conferences. There are other local conferences (I find the big international conferences to be a bit overwhelming). Meet people, find out what problems they’re working on, and let them know what kind of skills you have to help them solve their problems. Keeping a portfolio handy to show off your work is definitely a good idea.
Besides that, never stop learning! Keep taking classes, keep building projects. I still do. I’ve always got a side-project where I’m trying to learn something new. Right now I’m focused on learning everything I can about [physical] sensors and ML. I’m constantly taking online courses. This fall I’m heading back to school to take an in-person class at a local university (real grades and all!).
What do you think? What else would you do to change careers? Any more advice for Calvin?