This week an undergrad from the University of Florida (my alma mater) reached out to me for some advice on getting into MIT for grad school and working for NASA. In writing the response it got me thinking about how we should be coaching the next generation of scientists, engineers and technologists to be preparing for their careers. I’ve copied and pasted the advice I gave to the young student below, based on my personal experience and path.
I’m curious what others think though. How would you give a freshman in college advice for prepping for a career at NASA or in any other science and technology job? Do you agree with me? Disagree? What other tactical pieces of advice did I miss? Is this advice universal or are there pieces of advice that should differ depending on geography, background, gender or other considerations?
Freshman Physics Student at UF: "What are some crucial steps to take now if I want to get into a school like MIT or get a job at NASA?"
My Response: “For MIT, keep your grades up and get a sense of what you want to study in grad school. A compelling research proposal is KEY to getting into a grad program at MIT. The dirty little secret though is that you can change your direction once you get in. You just have to write a good one to get in. Use your time in undergrad to explore many different topics and classes. Get to know your professors so you have good recommendations. Don't just rely on grades--actually develop relationships with professors you have classes with or do research with. If you get along with one well, ask them to be your mentor. You are really smart for starting to think about these things as a freshman. You have plenty of time to figure out what intrigues you and develop relationships. Your recommendations, grades, and research statement are critical to getting into MIT based on my experience. Furthermore, once you think you know what topics you want to pursue for grad school, start researching the professors at MIT and their research groups that are involved in those topic areas. Reach out to some of the students in their labs to understand their work better. During your junior year make a trip up to MIT and schedule appointments with the faculty who's work you like and who you might want to do research under in graduate school. Have them know you before you even apply.
On top of grades, recommendations, and research topic, stay well rounded. Take some politics classes or a foreign language class. Stay well rounded outside the classroom. I joined a sorority to keep me social and was involved in student government. I hung out with more than just scientists and engineers. Also, travel if you can. Do a study abroad program and see a different part of the world and experience different cultures. I was never abel to do a study abroad but I did backpack Europe on the cheap for a few months right after graduation. One of the most shaping experiences of my life. Travel, friends outside of your academic area, and making sure to schedule in social activities is key to developing your emotional intelligence and ability to work with many types of people. That will be a critical skill for your future career. It's important to have PEOPLE skills and not just smarts.
And while all this stuff is swimming in your head remember that college is about having fun as much as it is for prepping for your career. Sometimes careers are a combination of hard work, luck and seizing opportunities when they come. Despite your most well laid out plans, the path might look different than you thought. Resiliency, adaptability and curiosity are really critical skills nowadays. College should prepare you to be adaptable, curious, good with people, and intelligent (emotionally and mentally). So don't put too much pressure on yourself. Do your best to study topics you find interesting and learn how to learn. Too often we just study for the test and don't really learn. Learn how to learn. You'll do it for the rest of your career. That's a skill employers and graduate programs will look for.
Also for space specific stuff, you should try to get involved in the NASA Social activities (follow them on twitter) and also if you're not already find the people the participate locally in things like Yuri's Night. Those fellow space nerds are a great network to have and great people to help you get connected to what’s going on in space). Apply to a summer internship or co-op program at one of the centers. Email NASA engineers and researchers at centers and see if they’d be willing to grab coffee with you and talk about their work. And never be afraid to reach out to people doing a job you think you might want to do (like you did with me). Building your network through those types of informational interviews is really smart.
To me, the key really is learning how to learn and growing your network. Experts in particular know what they don’t know and know when to ask someone a question. You shouldn’t strive to be perfectly qualified from the beginning. You can’t possibly be. You should strive to develop the tools you’ll need to be able to grow and effectively implement projects throughout your career. The intangibles are just as important as the tangibles (grades, test scores, etc) but they will be infinitely more critical as a foundation for the rest of your career. And you only live once, so you should make sure to enjoy the ride :)
Good luck, and Go Gators!”