Changing Careers: Steven George
Steven George, a Space Systems Engineer at STFC RAL Space, discusses changing careers from the infrared optics industry to the space sector.
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Steve, I work as a Space Systems Engineer at STFC RAL Space, after graduating with an MSc Astronautics & Space Engineering at Cranfield University (2019) and an MSci (Hons) Physics from Nottingham Trent University (2016). During my time at university, I led Cranfield’s student engineering society, CranSEDS, in international & national competitions, which then led to being elected as executive committee of UKSEDS (2019). Beyond my day job, I have a strong ambition to play an active role in sustainable development through the use of Earth Observation, especially for emerging countries.
What does your role involve?
Systems engineering requires a particular way of thinking. The job is to ultimately understand, manage and track all the technical components in a given project. This can extend to any phase of the project's lifetime, from conceptual design to the testing of spaceflight hardware – in other words, a systems engineer is responsible for the overall technical delivery, which requires the foresight to anticipate the interaction and impact between sub-systems and coordinate a technical teams effort appropriately.
What's your background and career path?
Space systems engineering was a completely foreign concept to me. I only really learnt that designing space missions and spacecraft was a realistic career when I chose to go back to university in pursuit of a second master’s degree; MSc Astronautics & Space Engineering, Cranfield University (2018). Prior to this life choice, it was unclear where my career was heading. I spent approximately 10 years of my life competing internationally and nationally at badminton, my interests at school were woodworking and product design. I ended up pursuing an MSci (Hons) Physics at Nottingham Trent University which then led to my first job in the infrared optics industry. Only at this stage had I started to get a taste for engineering, which I quickly discovered was the career path I had been searching for all along.
Naturally, I began to search for a field of engineering that was bold and satisfying. I dreamt of a career that involved a vision much bigger than myself. Cranfield University was the beginning of my love and obsession with this industry. I ended up leading our space engineering student society, CranSEDS, in national competitions and events and was also elected to lead its national charity counterpart, UKSEDS. Mix all of my experiences together and you apparently have a successful STFC RAL Space graduate applicant.
What did you do to go about changing career?
I was fortunate enough to be very early in my career to take big risks. Aside from being relentless in my search for a career path that aligned with my ambitions, and multiple years of numerous job applications, I decided to go back to university in pursuit of a second master’s degree. Except, this time I chose a specialised course and a university that had industry links. Cranfield University collaborates with world-leading space organisations, especially during group and individual projects which was the beginning of a strong network of people.
What resources, organisations, events, etc. were most useful to you?
NASA blogs were my first resource that exercised my interest in space mission design. At this stage, I was completely convinced this type of job only existed in America and required an unnaturally high intellectual capacity. SpaceCareersUK broke that mirage and exposed a variety of potential career paths, including roles and organisations that operated out of the UK. After researching several of these organisations and their senior staff, a common theme presented itself: Cranfield University, MSc Astronautics & Space Engineering. During this degree, the resources, competitions and events UKSEDS held were invaluable to furthering my exposure and skill set that is required to be competitive in job applications.
How did you get your first job in the space sector?
I purposely chose a specialist course in space engineering to put me in the competitive pool for graduate programs. A combination of all my experiences, and determination to follow a career path in this industry led to a successful application in the STFC RAL Space graduate program.
Why did you want to move to the space sector? When did you decide to try?
I’ve always been searching for a career that aligned with the bigger picture – I didn’t know space was going to be that until I exhausted several other potential career paths in my search. I held an offer from Cranfield University but was still debating if this was the right decision to make; after all, it was a huge career and financial risk. SpaceX Falcon Heavy debut launch made the decision for me. I watched the Falcon 9 boosters land simultaneously and knew that was something I just had to try for. I remember the moment like it was yesterday.
Did you feel like there was a job for you in the sector?
Honestly, I didn’t. I had all this built-up ambition and desire to be part of something bigger than myself, and I ultimately let that fuel my drive. Space systems engineering presented itself to me at Cranfield University and I became utterly absorbed by the idea of it. I now live and breathe the space industry.
Were there any barriers you had to overcome? How did you overcome them?
Anything worthwhile is difficult and requires a drive and ambition to overcome any obstacles in your way. I personally found the route into the space industry exceptionally difficult; it is extremely competitive to get your foot in the door. I went through years’ worth of job application rejections, years’ worth of exhausting potential career paths (those that didn’t end up resonating with me) and then deciding it was necessary to commit financially to another year in academia. Throughout this process, I recognised the high level of emotional attachment and energy I put into every idea, career path and job application. I learnt the hard way, but you have to be ready to let go and move on from the rejections that come your way, it’s not personal. You must chase 1000 opportunities, plant 1000 seeds for just one to be fruitful; the truth of the situation is that a large part of it is a statistics game.
Was the style of your job applications in the space sector different from what you were used to?
Typically speaking, graduate program applications are very popular. This means you will be competing against a large pool of candidates that are ambitious, talented and excited about the role they are applying for. Most application processes entail an initial CV screening, online test, phone interview and then an assessment centre which is designed to find the best-fit candidate. This was a completely new concept and experience for me; prior to Cranfield University, I had not passed the initial CV screening, which led me to use recruitment agents and applying for direct entry roles. This was how I got my first job in the infrared optics industry
What do you enjoy most about your role?
As cliché as it might sound, this job offers me the opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself. The variety of work that comes through RAL Space could mean you’re working on the latest frontier of space exploration to using satellite imagery for landmine detection in Cambodia. Systems engineering is a role that lets you follow a project through from start to finish, which eventually leads to a sense of appreciation, ownership and being immensely proud of your work.
RAL Space has also nurtured a work environment that respects the difficulty of the job. Space is hard, period. I value the job being about the engineering, the science and the actual impact space technology can have before any commercial return. Similarly, the organisation (and staff) are exceptionally receptive and accommodating towards everyone’s career ambitions and interests. I’ve never felt more at home than with the staff and community STFC and RAL Space have built.
Do you have any other advice for people wanting to make a similar change?
Don’t be brainwashed into thinking the space industry is just for engineers and scientists. There is a huge variety of roles, and with enough searching and perseverance you will find one that fits you – we are a rapidly growing industry. Space is also becoming more accessible and cheaper – a lot of the roles don’t even exist yet.
Be patient, pace yourself, keep your options open and take opportunities when they present themselves. The plan you have now will likely be very different from how it turns out but keep going – ever since my early days, I had developed a taste for the grind and hard work. There have been more times than I can count where my efforts and hard work felt fruitless, but that’s just not true. Every single time you step out of your comfort zone or put in more work than is expected of you, personal growth will follow. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Keep going, stay patient and continue giving it 110%; you will get there.