Blog Posts

Engineering

What’s NASA’s Astronaut Application Like?

That’s one small step towards my childhood dream. In 2016 a record-setting 18,300+ people applied to be an astronaut. NASA chose 12. How do you like those .066% odds? This year, even with the additional requirement of a Master’s degree, NASA still received over 12,000 applications. One of them was mine. I think this may just be the most competitive job in the universe! Since the application changed a little bit this year, I thought I’d share with you what the application looked like.

Part 1: Build Resume in USAJOBS

This is probably one of the most time consuming parts of the application and can be quite frustrating. Although USAJOBS has an option to import your resume, for certain postings it requires you to use the USAJOBS Resume Builder. This is one of those positions. You will be required to manually enter each of your professional experiences individually and select whether you’d like to allow them to reach out to your supervisor. I would suggest that you only say yes if you are sure they’ll remember you and/or you’ve let them know you put them down. I felt like this process made it a bit difficult to set yourself apart from the crowd, but then again, I’m sure there are others who felt that way as well.

Part 2: Upload Required Transcripts

It’s a good idea to keep electronic copies of your college transcripts on hand because you never know when you’ll need them (ex. job applications, professional certifications like the P.E., etc). In addition to your USAJOBS resume, you will also have to upload and submit transcripts for all degrees you want credit for. If you do not upload these transcripts or other required documents as listed in the job posting, you will likely be disqualified right off the bat. You are not required to upload official transcripts but keep in mind that if selected, you will be required to provide official transcripts.

Part 3: Qualifying Questions

Just when you think you’ve completed the application and say to yourself “Wow, that was surprisingly simple” you submit and are routed to the agency specific section. Don’t worry, this isn’t difficult either. You’ll be asked questions that help further determine if you meet the basic requirements of the job listing and whether you understand the risks of the job, etc.

Part 4: Assessment

The assessment is something new this year. Within about 30 minutes of submitting the application, you will receive a link to the assessment which needs to be completed within 48 hours of the application closing. The assessment contains three parts and it is recommended to take the entire thing in one sitting but you can save it and come back if you’d like. The assessment is management by OPM (Office of Personnel Management), the federal agency responsible for managing the government’s civilian workforce.

Assessment #1: Work Experience Assessment. This one is not timed and about 25 multiple choice questions. The questions ask things like “When asked, your supervisor would explain your work style as” and then gives you a number of choices.

Assessment #2: OPM Essay Test. You will be given 25 minutes to write an essay which the system says will be graded by computer. The prompt I was given related to writing about the pros and cons to a particular subject. Astronauts are often the face of NASA and human spaceflight so I presume this is supposed to assess whether you are able to communicate effectively.

Assessment #3: Work Styles Assessment. This one felt like it went on and on…and on. It is non-timed and forces you to select one of two given options related to what describes you better in a work situation. Sometimes this is incredibly difficult as I often felt like neither choice applied to me and they both sounded like negative attributes to have! The ones I remember most were related to how you react to being stressed at work or how you feel when others at work are stressed out.

A helpful note is that once you have submitted your application, you are able to re-enter the system and make changes up until the application closes. Start your application early because it will likely take you longer to complete than you expect.

The selection process takes the agency approximately one year to complete and NASA plans to announce its next astronaut class sometime during early Summer 2021. I’ve heard a good sign that you may have made it into the running for the final interview round is if you hear that your references have been contacted.

For astronaut selection criteria and tips, click here to read my previous blog post. This post outlines the minimum requirements for NASA astronaut selection.

Godspeed friends,

Kate

Health & Fitness

How I Qualified for the Boston Marathon & the Life Lessons it Taught Me

Our journey as runners often takes us down shared roads. At times, those roads are harder and more challenging than we planned for and we need to adjust our pace to make our way through. But always, our grit, determination, perseverance, humanity, and sheer belief in ourselves and our community guide us to the finish line.

Michael Capiraso, President & CEO, New York Road Runners

Today I should be toeing the line at my first Boston Marathon. Just qualifying to run this historic race is an accomplishment I will hold as one of my proudest for as long as I live. It is not lost on me that of the 27,288 people that BQ’d (Boston Qualified) for this year’s race by running a qualifying time at another marathon, there are still more than 3,000 that did not make the cutoff (1:39 faster than the posted qualifying time). Months of sacrifice, mental and physical exhaustion, and a few lost toenails (lol) went into preparing for this day that will now come and go much like any other.

Instead of spending today dwelling on that which is out of my control, I’ve decided to reflect on the important life lessons that I have learned along my journey to becoming a runner but more importantly, what it has taught me about learning to love myself. My running journey started as something I did because I thought it would make me beautiful by society’s standards and quickly morphed into something essential to my well-being, almost how air is required for our lungs to breathe.

Like way too many young girls, I used to waste a lot of emotional energy wishing to be viewed as only one thing in this world: skinny, as if somehow our worth is measured by how little space we take up. When I think about the beginning of my running journey I specifically recall setting out to run on a treadmill one night towards the end of high school. I had made it maybe a quarter of a mile when I flat out gave up, nearly in tears. It was uncomfortable, it was hard, my leg fat jiggled with every step and I was self-conscious, but most of all my mind was telling me “you can’t”. I don’t remember how long it was before I ran again but I’d venture to guess it was well over a year. Eventually I set a goal and began working towards it. I added distance little by little and over time running became easier and I began to appreciate the way it made me feel once I had accomplished a goal I’d set out to achieve, no matter how small. When I lacked motivation, I found a friend to run with so we could keep each other accountable.

Nowadays, if I could be described in only one word, it would be disciplined. I view one form of discipline as honoring the commitments we make to ourselves. After all, shouldn’t we value the relationship with ourselves as much as those we share with our closest friends? I’m not going to lie and say that at times my friendships haven’t taken a backseat as a result. I sometimes questioned myself when I’d stay in weekend after weekend so I could go to bed early in order to wake up the next day and get a training run in (I ALWAYS questioned my sanity when that was 4 a.m. on a Saturday). One thing I’m certain of is that by continually honoring this commitment I’d made to my goals, somewhere along the road running became a source of comfort, my time to reflect and unwind, a birthplace of strength and mental toughness where I could escape to when life felt difficult. When I finally let it, running showed me that my mind and body are capable of so much more than I give them credit for on the average day. Most importantly, running allows me the time for myself in a busy world that is constantly telling us we aren’t enough and begging us to turn our attention elsewhere.

When I started getting messages from friends who wanted to try running but didn’t know where to begin, I reflected and realized that there really isn’t much magic to it. Whether you run several miles a year or several hundred, you are a runner. It’s sticking to that personal commitment that makes all the difference.

Be patient with yourself and your body. Weather, hydration level, what you ate (or didn’t) the night before or morning of, amount of sleep you’ve gotten, stress level, can all impact a run. At the end of the day, running shouldn’t feel like a burden. There are days my pace is an entire 2 minutes slower than another. There are days I could run for miles and days I want to quit, just like I did all those years ago on the treadmill. Just know that each run you go on, each time you honor the commitment you’ve made to yourself, you are improving the person you were yesterday. Remember to celebrate your accomplishments no matter how small they may seem. Running has given me strength, pushing my body places my mind told me were impossible for it to go and reminds me to keep score of my successes not just the failures.

My first marathon vs. my BQ race. Hundreds of miles went into cutting more than 54 minutes off my personal best marathon time. Success never happens overnight.

At 17 I never imagined I could run a mile. At 19 I never imaged I could run a half marathon. At 21 the idea of running a marathon seemed ludicrous. At 25 I said I could never Boston Qualify. At 27 I attempted my moonshot and I succeeded. The only thing that ever changed is my mindset and the way I viewed myself.

The path to life’s greatest achievements is seldom straight and those accomplishments almost never happen overnight. Instead life will take you weaving and bobbing sometimes to unknown destinations with uncertain outcomes. When times get difficult and you feel like giving up, remember that the things most worth having in life seldom come easy or without sacrifice. Remember why you started and why it’s worth finishing. My quest to BQ taught me that I am mentally and physically stronger than I ever dreamt and that with a little discipline and some self-confidence, no goal you set out to achieve is ever out of reach. More than anything, I learned the value of making promises to myself and keeping them no matter what conspired to get in the way.

“Running has given me so much-friends, a strong and healthy body, a reason to travel to new places, an outlet after a tough day, and the confidence to chase difficult goals. Today and everyday, I’m thankful for my legs for all the adventures they take me on.”

Mara, one of my best friends & the person who helped convince me that I had a BQ in me

Every run doesn’t have to end with a cheering crowd, as they seldom do, to warrant celebration. Be proud of each and every mile and cherish your body for all the amazing things your eyes can see because your legs took you there. No matter what road life takes you down I’ll be right here, celebrating with you during every step of the journey.

Kate

Education, Engineering

Graduate School Application Tips

Around this time 4 years ago (I honestly can’t believe it’s been that long!) I was researching and applying to graduate school programs. Although grad school was the best investment I’ve ever made in myself (more info on that in past blog post “Is Grad School ‘Worth It’?”) and would do it all over again if given the chance, there are several aspects of the process I wish I had known going in. I often get questions not unlike the ones I wish I had answers to back then so I’ve compiled a few tips here. Feel free to drop a comment if there’s something you’d like to know that I haven’t included!

Set yourself apart as an applicant. I’m not sure how it works at every school, but I know that many graduate programs compile a committee of faculty and staff that help select incoming graduate students. While applying to schools, I looked online at which professors were conducting research in the areas I was interested in and sent my resume along with a short intro about me to each one asking to hear more about the research they were currently working on. It is never (NEVER!) a bad idea to reach out and attempt to make a personal connection with someone. I’ve come to learn this is not something many people do but it can go a long way in setting yourself apart from the crowd. This is how I got my foot in the door at NASA and it is the reason I found a professor to tell the admissions committee at Georgia Tech that he wanted me as one of his students. The committee doesn’t have to follow through with the recommendation of the professor, but it can greatly improve your chances of acceptance to the school which I believe is the number one reason I was accepted to my “reach” school.

Apply to more than one school. Do not, do not apply to one school, close your eyes, cross your fingers and hope you get in. There are so many factors beyond your control that could cause this plan to go awry. For instance, I applied to a school, chatted with a professor on the phone and was told that as long as the admissions committee approved my application I would become his student. A week later I was rejected with no explanation as to what had happened. I will never know if it was my GRE score, another student had a parent who had donated a bunch of money and been promised a spot, or a multitude of other things beyond my control. What I do know is that if I had placed all my bets on that one application I would have been very sorry. Don’t make that mistake.

Apply to the school you think you’ll never get into. When I called Georgia Tech during the application process, I was told that the average incoming PhD student had a 3.9 GPA and very high GRE scores. My GPA and GRE scores were not poor by any means but they were definitely not exceptional. I remember thinking I didn’t have much of a chance of being accepted to the #2 Aerospace Engineering school in the country, but I told myself that if I didn’t apply I already knew the answer; my odds were better if I applied. I was accepted. Apply to that “reach” school!

If you need funding, apply early. Many programs have an earlier deadline for students requesting funding and a later admissions deadline for those who have their own funding or aren’t requesting any from the school. This means that if you’re looking for a Graduate Research Assistantship (GRA) or Graduate Teaching Assistantship (GTA) you should apply and reach out to faculty early. There are only so many of these paid opportunities available and you don’t want to miss out on a free degree because you were too late!

Treat advisor selection seriously. I would argue that your choice of advisor may be the single most important decision you make once you’ve selected a school or been admitted to a graduate program. The working relationship the two of you share and your ability to communicate can potentially make or break your experience and what you get out of it. Think about your personal and professional goals for your time in graduate school. Do you wish to publish a paper? Is it a goal of yours to present at a conference? Do you dream of working for a specific company or scoring a postdoc at a certain university when you finish up? Make this clear up front, and see if this person supports your goals too. Next, consider your communication style and ask your potential advisor about his or hers. The last thing you want is to be stuck with someone who won’t or can’t communicate with you. This can make completing research and accomplishing the goals I mentioned before difficult and more stressful than necessary (hint: grad school is already stressful enough).

Get that money, honey. Think about how you will pay for school and the implications of that. Are you working for a company that will reimburse you? What kind of commitment will that require during school and once you get out? Are you paying out of pocket? Do you have plans for how you will pay your student loans when you’re done with your program? Will your advisor or the school provide you with a teaching or research assistantship to cover tuition? This is a major step of applying to school that shouldn’t be overlooked. A lot of us (me included) come out of undergrad with a mountain of debt. The last thing you want to do is take on even more without a plan for how to pay it back. I was forward, upfront and persistent about my need for funding anytime I spoke to my advisor. Although this can somewhat limit your flexibility on exactly what you research, I can attest that if possible, it is a huge relief if you can secure a tuition waiver and monthly stipend for the duration of your program.

Godspeed,

Kate