Advice To Graduates On Getting Into Aerospace

04/30/09 00:00:00    

By Michael Mealling

This time of year I usually get a few requests from aerospace students about how to get into the business. Some have usually talked to someone who is convinced that aerospace is a dead end business. Over time I've developed a few themes that I'll list here:

Old vs New

I'm in the “new” space business so my advice is kind of skewed. This end of the industry is fun, vibrant and cash poor. The “old” end of the business pays well but it is fickle: contracts are canceled, government programs are realigned, and your career is more in the hands of Congress than yours. I don't know squat about the aeronautical side of the industry. If you are thinking about joining the New side of the industry you should be prepared to be poor and live the “startup” life for a while. Its a fun ride, especially if you are young.

Work for NASA but leave before it makes you cynical

Parts of NASA can be fun and interesting. NASA Ames is a good example. Having NASA on your resume is valuable (I'm not sure why, but it is). But only stay there a few years or else you will get sucked into the cynicism and bureaucracy.

Work in Mojave but leave or else you'll never get married

Find a company bending metal somewhere in Mojave and work with them for a while. Do an internship if you can. The point of view out there is invaluable for letting you know that, in the end, working hardware always trumps Powerpoint. But the social life in Mojave sucks if you are a guy. If you are female and into space then Mojave gives you a target rich environment.

No matter what, build something

Some Aerospace programs focus on simulations. Some focus on hardware. No matter what your program's focus, get out and build something on your own. Get some of your buddies together and commit to building a regeneratively cooled biprop rocket engine before you graduate.  Or go rebuild a car. Or a house. Just build something. Especially if it requires you to learn welding, machining (no, not CAD/CAM, but basic old school non-CNC mill/lathe stuff). Then go learn CAD/CAM and make something really pretty and complicated. Use all of this to create a portfolio. Put that portfolio on your VisualCV.


Several people on twitter reminded me of this one. I thought it was kind of obvious but it needs to be said. Assume that you will spend each summer doing an internship somewhere. Do two at a MINIMUM. Paid or unpaid doesn't matter. The unpaid ones are usually more interesting and fun. Try and do one outside your comfort zone (if you are an AE try something like working with a company building grocery carts). Use internships to explore your target employers later. Many companies hire interns in full time after they graduate. Some internships suggestions: a Web 2.0 startup, your Congressional representative, a design house, a non-profit (XPRIZE, AIAA)…

Go to some key conference and meet people

My current short list for conferences to go to: ISDC, Space Access, NewSpace, and SmallSat. Make yourself some business cards. Talk to people. Dress well, but don't wear a suit. If you're not used to networking then go to some networking events in your local city and get some practice at it. But don't be mechanistic about it. That other person is just as interesting as you are, find out about them before you start selling yourself.

Use LinkedIn, VisualCV, and yes, Facebook

There are a lot of tools out there that help you keep in touch with the people you meet and help you expand your network beyond the ones you already know. Use them. And clean out your sophomore year frat party pictures on Facebook.

Know your industry intimately

Read all of the space related blogs and trade rags you can. You don't have to know every dinky little NASA program, but be aware of industry wide politics and trends. While you are networking with people you should be able to speak intelligently about and be current on things like NASA's Constellation program woes, who SpaceX, what ULA does, what Operationally Responsive Space is, etc.

Join Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS)

If you don't have a SEDS chapter then create one. If you do, then join and get involved. The friends and connections you will make are invaluable.

*Go get an advanced degree. Get it from the International Space University (ISU) if you can *

With the economy the way it is, think about continuing on and getting a Masters. Think seriously about getting your Masters in something different than your undergrad. An AE undergrad and an MBA is a formidable combination. Think seriously about getting that Masters from the International Space University (ISU). ISU alumni are a very tight and influential group. Spending a year in France is something you can do easily when you are young. Its much harder when your married and have a mortgage and kids.

Become an expert at something

Find some aspect of aerospace that you know better than your professors or anyone else in the industry. Blog about it. Buck the trend of your fellow graduates and learn project management. Find some way to differentiate  yourself from everyone else.

Do something risky

You are young. Your living expenses and commitments to others are as low as they will ever be in your adult life. Now is the time to double down and try something that us old farts would think its insanely foolish and risky. If you do this right it will probably lead to the next piece of advice.

Spectacularly fail at something

Try something really hard and really risky that you care about. If you succeed, then try something else until you fail spectacularly. Failure is a great teacher. And you will fail at something. Its helpful to learn how you deal with failure early.

Be Loud! (via @tim846)

Via twitter Tim Bailey (@tim846)said, “being loud about what you're doing & want to do: vids of what you build, write a blog/forum/comment, ask for internships”. Engineers sometimes forget that part of your career is marketing yourself. You don't need to be the Sham Wow! guy, but you do need to proclaim who you are, what you care about, and what you have done loudly and proudly. Ben Brocket, one of the most recent hires at Masten Space Systems, moved to Mojave without a job, lived in a van and did everything it took to get a job with one of the companies out there (us! woot!). He didn't wait for a recruiter to call him. He saw the kind of job he wanted, made sure he was qualified and did what it took to get it.

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