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

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

Engineering

A Day in the Life of an Aerospace Engineer

When I started my studies as an engineering student at RIT, I had no idea what engineers did, just that I wanted to be one so that I could score my dream job at NASA. When I speak at outreach events I often get asked by young people, “What does your average day at work look like?” So, as I celebrate my one year work-iversary, what better way to explain than to run through my average day at work as I’ve experienced it over the last year?

I currently work at NASA Johnson Space Center in the Aircraft Operations Division’s Engineering Branch. We provide sustaining engineering support and upgrades to JSC’s fleet of more than 25 aircraft which support astronaut Spaceflight Readiness Training, fly airborne science missions all over the world, and provide direct return services to our astronauts when they land back on Earth from the International Space Station. I wanted to give you a (very) small glimpse into what a typical day might look like for an engineer working in my field.

8:00: I generally arrive at work between 7 and 8 a.m. depending on what’s planned for the day. I start by catching up on e-mails and checking in with the Gulfstream mechanics to see if they have any questions pertaining to ongoing tasks I may have requested them to work on through an Engineering Work Order

9:00: On Wednesday mornings our Gulfstream team of engineers, pilots, maintenance, and the program manager gets together to discuss the status of the program. This is an opportunity to get everyone on the same page with the schedule and status of both our GIII and GV jets.

We use this Gulfstream GV to pick up astronauts when they land in Kazakhstan from the International Space Station. We also fly airborne science all over the world in this aircraft.

Background: Our Gulfstream GV has recently returned from Georgia where it was modified to include two large cutouts in the bottom of the aircraft. Two fused silica optical glass windows will soon be installed in the nadir viewports to better serve our Airborne Science customers.

Practicing window cleaning on an old Space Shuttle window.

I’ve been designated as the GV Window Systems Engineer. In this role I am responsible for ensuring our windows are cleaned, handled, and maintained properly. This is an important task as each of these windows costs upwards of $25,000 and take approximately 8 weeks to manufacture. In this role I am also responsible for using fracture mechanics principles to ensure that the proper time to failure of the window has been calculated to keep our aircrew and customers safe during science flights. If damage is discovered on the windows, I am responsible for providing engineering disposition. I love that I am able to apply some of the concepts I learned in graduate school to my job and doing so has helped to build self-confidence in my technical abilities as they relate to engineering.

One of our fused silica windows-it is 1.5” thick!

10:00: Although we have the option to use other materials (stretched acrylic has recently been found to have fantastic optical quality while being lighter, more cost effective, and easier to maintain), our first customer has chosen to utilize fused silica. This material has great optical clarity but is highly susceptible to damage and static fatigue. After receiving a piece of glass, we perform a “receiving inspection” to ensure no damage is present and to check that the manufacturer has provided us with a piece of glass that meets the specifications we requested on the order.

Background: One of the first projects assigned to me upon starting full-time at NASA was to get both Gulfstream aircraft ready to support the Commercial Crew Program by providing capability to transport up to four astronauts directly from their spacecraft’s landing site back to Houston. It’s important to get them back as quickly as possible so that valuable science data isn’t lost.

The Commercial Crew office coordinates with Commercial Crew partners Boeing and SpaceX who will soon launch astronauts to the International Space Station from the U.S. These upcoming launches are exciting because they will be the first time we have launched Americans to the ISS from U.S. soil since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011.

12:00: I hold a CDR (Critical Design Review) to get buyoff from both the customer (Commercial Crew Program) and important Aircraft Operations Division and Engineering Branch management to ensure they are comfortable moving forward with my designs. If any action items or safety concerns are brought up by attendees at the meeting, it will be my responsibility to make any necessary changes to the design in order to receive final approval to modify the aircraft. These design reviews are reminiscent of the design reviews I was responsible for holding during Senior Design class in undergrad. I must walk management through the customer requirements and how I plan to meet them, my design and what I plan to modify on the aircraft, complete a risk analysis that the safety engineers must sign off on, and my projected budget and schedule as well as maintenance impacts.

1:00: I head out to the hangar to meet the vendor that will be installing carpet in the aircraft for my Commercial Crew aircraft modification project. I pick the carpet color and discuss where they will need to cut the carpet in order to accommodate existing seating as well as equipment I will be adding for my project. I’m a very hands-on person so one of my favorite parts of this job is that I can go out to the hangar, get on the airplane, and check measurements or whatever else I need to see in order to better complete my project.

3:00: At CDR, 90% of the design must be complete. I have two aircraft installation drawings to complete so that it is clear for the mechanics where the beds and oxygen tanks I have included in my design should be installed in the aircraft. I work on these drawings using Creo which is a 3D modeling software. Most mechanical engineers learn some sort of CAD software as a part of their undergraduate curriculum. Don’t worry if your employer utilizes a different software from the one you learned in school. Many jobs will either provide or send you to training, or give you the time to learn how to use it on the job.

This is a T-38. Astronauts train in these jets to learn how to react quickly in an environment where your decisions could have dire consequences. These are the same jets they trained in for the Apollo missions!

This is just a snapshot of a typical day at work for me. I love that I have the freedom to work on different tasks within a day so that I am never bored or stuck doing one thing. I thoroughly enjoy the hands-on nature of my work and the fact that I am surrounded by aircraft on a daily basis. This is just one example of the many exciting career paths available to engineers today. Keep checking back to connect and learn more about me as I update the site with more stories,  resources, and support to help you confidently thrive in the world of STEM.

Ad Astra and Godspeed,

Kate