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

Education, Engineering

Astronaut Selection Criteria & Tips

If there’s one place you’re almost certain to encounter an astronaut it’s NASA’ s Johnson Space Center. JSC is home to the astronaut corps and the people that select this elite group of men and women.

Throughout my time at NASA, both as a co-op during my college years and now as a full-time employee, I’ve had the opportunity to work and speak with current and former astronauts and even the very woman in charge of the astronaut selection process. Many people are surprised to find that the basic requirements to apply are fairly straightforward.

All astronauts can be lumped into two categories: pilot or non-pilot. The following are a list of minimum requirements that must be met before applying. Click here for more information.

  1. A Bachelor’s degree from an accredited university in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science, or mathematics. Degrees in technology, psychology, nursing, aviation, social sciences, exercise physiology are considered non-qualifying.
  2. At least 3 years of relevant, progressively responsible professional experience OR at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in a high performance jet aircraft (these are generally your military pilots who often happen to be graduates of a military test pilot school). Advanced degrees are desirable (and almost certainly increase your changes of being selected) and can be substituted for years of experience (Master’s degree=1 year of experience, Ph.D.=3 years of experience).
  3. Ability to pass NASA’s long-duration astronaut physical which is very comprehensive and from what I’m told, often the largest hurdle to clear once a person has made it to the interview portion of the application process.

Interestingly, military helicopter pilots are considered non-pilot astronauts. Take Shane Kimbrough, Sunita (Suni) Williams, and Anne McClain as examples. Civilian applicants must apply during an open application period through USAJOBS (www.usajobs.gov) and active duty military members must submit applications both through this site and to their respective military service.

It may not come as a surprise that NASA looks for many of the same traits in its astronaut candidates that any employer values when interviewing candidates for a position. Leadership, teamwork, and good communication skills are all important to the selection committee. Current astronauts themselves sit on the selection board to provide insight into whether they believe an applicant is the right fit for the job. After all, they want to be sure to select people they’d have to work with (and tolerate!) for extended periods of 6 months to a year, or even more as we look towards Mars.

So what’s the secret?

Every astronaut I’ve ever spoken to for tips about being selected (namely Shane Kimbrough and Karen Nyberg) has had almost the same answer. Choose a career and hobbies that you love. Every astronaut I’ve come across will tell you that they are extremely lucky to have been selected. NASA is not seeking a group of people looking to check boxes off a list of requirements, but rather those who are passionate about what they do. Do not get an engineering degree, join the military, or get a pilot’s license solely for the purpose of boosting your resume for the astronaut program. This is likely to lead to a lifetime of unhappiness. I am of the opinion that passion is what makes you the best at what you do. This is why the list of requirements seems so simple and attainable-there is no ideal person for this job. NASA wants a passionate and diverse group in order to build the best team for its missions. NASA currently has 38 active astronauts. The chances of being selected, especially on a first attempt, are not impossible but the chances are not immediately stacked in your favor. NASA wants people who, although obviously disappointed, are so passionate about what they do they would be happy in the careers they’re currently in whether they were to be selected or not. In fact, people often apply many times before they are selected. Clayton Anderson was rejected 14 times before finally being selected in 1998.

Applications for the Astronaut Candidate Program typically open about every 4 years these days. It is reasonable to assume the next call for applications will occur sometime around 2021. I’m definitely applying next time they open up, will you?!

Ad Astra,

Kate

References:

  1. https://astronauts.nasa.gov/content/broch00.htm
  2. https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/postsecondary/features/F_Astronaut_Requirements.html
  3. https://www.businessinsider.com/nasa-astronaut-application-process-2016-2#advice-for-aspiring-astronauts-7
Education, Engineering

Is Grad School “Worth It”?

I often get asked if you need a Master’s degree to XYZ (i.e. become an astronaut, work for NASA, be a respected, successful engineer, you name it). My answer is generally no, you do not NEED it but I always follow it with an important caveat. I think getting an advanced degree can be incredibly beneficial for several reasons. Here are my top four:

  1.  It’s an investment. Grad school was an incredible investment I made in myself. There was not a single day that passed during those two years where I didn’t question my decision because the process was extremely challenging. When I start to feel discouraged I remind myself that the things most worth having in life seldom come easy. Life’s biggest struggles often produce the best results-stick with it!
  2. You’ll grow your self-confidence. Although I learned many important lessons throughout grad school, most importantly I would argue, is that I learned an invaluable lesson in self-confidence both as a woman and an engineer. Yes there were days where I experienced imposter syndrome (more on that in a separate blog post), but the amount of pride I felt in knowing that I succeeded through the struggle is one of my life’s proudest moments. I emerged with the knowledge that I had learned to think critically and developed an ability to solve problems independently.
  3. It allows you to focus your interests. Although I had taken a couple of aerospace classes over the course of my undergraduate education, I chose to focus my efforts on the general field of mechanical engineering for my bachelor’s degree. I had my sights set on a career in aviation/space from the beginning but kept in mind that my interests may shift down the road. Grad school gave me the opportunity to finally narrow in on the aerospace field in a more specialized way with the security that I could market myself to businesses in aviation, oil and gas, automotive, robotics, healthcare, etc if my interests or career opportunities shifted.
  4. It sets you apart from your peers. According to the 2015 U.S. Census*, only 12% of the population over the age of 25 holds an advanced degree. Due to the pretty widely understood rigor of graduate school, you’ll likely emerge an “expert” in at least one specialized area and can use that to better market yourself to an employer. Not to mention that individuals with an advanced degree can often negotiate a higher starting salary and will earn more in their lifetime.

Have questions about graduate school? Leave me a message and I’ll do my best to answer it!

*Source: https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p20-578.pdf