Five Top Tips for Getting into the Space Sector
“I want to work in the space sector”. It’s a question that’s as old as time, well, a question as old as the space programme. In this article, Dr Emma Taylor gives her five tips for getting that first job.
“I want to work in the space sector”. It’s a question that’s as old as time, well, a question as old as the space programme. Whether you’re inspired by the early Apollo missions, using space to provide on the ground support to our daily lives, or Elon Musk’s showcase visuals, space is undeniably an interesting sector to be in. Here at SpaceCareers.uk, our mission is to bring together people who want to work in our exciting sector and people who need great people to help grow their teams and products and market share.
Over the past few years, we’ve noticed that many people are asking the same questions, and often they are getting stuck at similar points on their journey towards having a career “in space”. We decided to bring together Heidi Thiemann, Director of the Space Skills Alliance, and previous Team Leader of SpaceCareers.uk, and Dr Emma Ariane Taylor, an experienced mentor who has had a 30-year engineering career in space and safety, to provide advice on achieving your career goals.
Saying I want to work in space is a bit like saying I like sports. It’s a good opening statement but it does open you to more questions. What sort of sport, where, what level, who with, are all reasonable questions to ask. But it’s good to first work out where your natural talents and enthusiasms lie. A marathon runner might not bond with throwing a shot put but might rather like taking up hurdles. Note that you might like something with enthusiasm but it’s not your best strength. That’s okay too, just as long as you realise where you are at.
And so it is with a space career. There are many avenues to explore, and things to consider. No one has a ready-made map to tell you exactly what you need to do to get from A to B (expect some detours and dead ends) but we’ve outlined some route finder tips for you to consider.
Route finder tip 1: Research what bits of space you might want to work in
Think of this as the best way to find the best space (or sports) match for you. Sources of research include company websites, individual profiles on social media, and of course SpaceCareers.uk. The space sector needs at least 45 different disciplines, from data scientists to RF engineers, and space lawyers to educators, and they all need different skills and experience.
When you are building up your possible maps for your space career, it might feel a bit daunting. To start with, it’s easiest to rule out the bits you really don’t like the idea of doing.
It might take you 3-6 months, but that’s okay. Aim to have a short list of 5-10 potential destinations, including some destinations at early stages in your space career, and some for 5-10 years. Avoid categorising yourself and focusing on just one or two at this point.
Importantly, don’t feel committed to deliver something just because you put it on paper. This is your list and you don’t need to show it to any one else. It’s fine to have stretch targets on there.
Route finder tip 2: Show your interest and commitment through your online and in-person activities
Visible enthusiasm combined with clear talent (skills and competencies through exams and projects) will always get an employers attention, but how do show you are serious and interested in your selected areas? It’s simple. Just Do It. As a student, join all the professional societies you can get reduced memberships of, and go to events and network. Join webinars, read articles, have conversations. Don’t expect to get something useful from every interaction, but if someone says something useful or gives you advice, always follow through with a thank you message (see route finder tip 4).
It goes without saying that your social media profile needs to be well-populated, professional, and up-to-date (not just a version of your CV that doesn’t change). LinkedIn is an essential, and post on a regular basis. It’s your choice as to whether you want to use Twitter or Instagram to stay in touch with what’s happening, but remember that the people who may be hiring you may be using different social media platforms to yours, so consider how to make yourself visible to them. Don’t forget that space is a European and international business too. Don’t limit yourself to your own backyard, especially online.
As a guide for how much time to be spent in developing your visibility in a new sector, a rough rule of thumb is 7-10 hours per week. You may need to do a bit more in the early months.
And what does good look like? There’s a simple test to follow. As you are looking at profiles, one will catch your attention (in a good way or a bad way). Work out why you like it and do what they are doing. You may also see that many people have developed an online “brand”. Whilst this isn’t necessarily the direction you have to take, be aware that employers will likely look at your social media profiles during the hiring process, whether or not they’re meant to! In this instance, it’s definitely better to show that you actively care about and contribute to the space industry.
Route finder tip 3: Consider whether to do additional study or get internships
Traditionally, people have done additional full-time study - MSc or PhD - to help focus their space careers, examples being Astronautics and Space Engineering Masters at Cranfield University, Satellite Communications Engineering Masters at the University of Surrey, or Planetary Science Masters at UCL. A variety of courses can be found, and remote learning is another option; completing a course really shows your ability to lead yourself. If you are considering becoming a Chartered Engineer, have a look at UKSPEC ECUK criteria and start to pick up Competency C, D and E related courses. Don’t forget to add whatever you are doing your LinkedIn profile!
One easy way to find out what else you might need is to look at internships and jobs and think about how you might apply. As you put together your application the gaps will become clearer. Based on what you find out, keep developing your wish list of skills and experience, and take every opportunity that presents itself.
Working in space means a focus on lifelong learning and skills development. Show potential employers you get this and can put your energy into it, and they will be more likely to hire you.
Route finder tip 4. Start asking for advice, listening to it, and implementing it.
This is a key part of developing your personal route to a space career that suits you. Many people are happy to have one-off short conversations, particularly if you have got some well-framed questions to ask. Always show you have listened by sending a follow-up email and - I can’t stress this enough - visibly implement what you’ve learned (social media is helpful here - maybe write a blog post on your learning experience on LinkedIn).
A word of caution. At this point, people say, “I need to get a mentor”. Embodied in this mythical MENTOR is the expectation that they will magically create a route through to opportunities that you wouldn’t be able to discover yourself. Speaking as a mentor myself, these sort of expectations make me want to run in the opposite direction. Those expectations can’t be fulfilled easily….
But don’t worry, it doesn’t take much to change things. Firstly, think of building a team of mini mentors instead of just one. A mentor is simple, it’s someone who asks questions, listens and makes suggestions for you to consider.
Some easy questions you can ask include
- I have got a list of possible roles and companies I am looking at. Which do you think will suit me and why? Am I missing any?
- I am looking at options for further skills development. Which on my list will be most in demand and why?
- Have I missed any key skills? What can I do to develop these skills?
In fact, possible mentors tend to be watching for people who are proactive. They may test the waters by having one informal conversation and watching to see if you follow the advice and suggestions.
If you want to increase your odds of attracting mentors, follow my top ten tips to be a good mentee. If you follow route finder tips 1, 2 and 3, you will never be short of good conversation material.
Finally, do beware of the generation gap. People will naturally use their own experience to inform their advice, but the industry has changed in the past 10, 20, 30 years. This doesn’t mean all advice is wrong, nor that it is 100 percent right. Here, above all, it’s important to talk to more rather than fewer people, and to sample widely, across backgrounds and ages. You may also want to consider peer-to-peer mentoring, whereby you exchange feedback on CVs, skills, and job applications with those at the same career stage as you. Whilst it can be daunting to ask for feedback from a peer, you can practice being both a mentor and giving feedback, and a mentee and getting feedback.
Route finder tip 5. Don’t get disheartened, sometimes luck does play a part
There’s no getting around the fact that you can do all the things above and sometimes the opportunity doesn’t appear when you want it to. Sometimes luck isn’t on your side. It’s hard not to get disheartened when you see other people moving seamlessly along their career route.
But trust us, it’s a lot messier when you lift the lid. Even people with perfect-looking careers have dead ends, bad jobs and projects, and confusing advice.
Because there’s no one way through, think about your space career as being an explorer, crafting possible career identities and trying them out.
So there you have it, some handy and practical tips towards helping you draw out your own map to explore space career options for you. It might look like you are doing almost all the work, and it’s true, you are. But developing autonomy and self-leadership will help set you apart from everyone else, and also help you target down to the best fit.
It can be hard at first, but so is getting fit. And it does get results.