The National Aeronautics and Space Administration – better known as NASA – is an organisation with a colourful history: it put the first humans on the moon, it’s responsible for much of our visual understanding of the universe around us and, most spectacularly, it even saved the world from getting destroyed by a deadly asteroid in 1998.
Okay, that last one was actually the movie Armageddon, but it still counts.
Either way, given their almost mythical status in popular culture, it’s no surprise that a lot of people want to work there. After all, aside from the prestige of the name, there’s also the chance to be involved in an array of ground-breaking projects as well as work with some of the most sophisticated minds and technologies on the planet.
But how do you go about getting your foot in the door? After all, NASA is notoriously spoilt for choice when it comes to filling its job openings. As well as being a competitive candidate, a knowledge of the recruiting process and how to get through it will also be key to your chances of job search success.
So, if a career exploring the literally unlimited potential of space sounds like your thing, then read on: this is how to work for NASA.
1. Research the Company
In any field or industry, doing company research is essential, and NASA is no exception. Therefore, you should consult as many sources as you can, online and offline.
One crucial point that you’ll discover is that there’s a big difference between working for NASA and working at NASA. This is because the administration is a US government agency and, as a result, is consisted of a mixture of civil servants and outsourced contractors (either through private firms or other government arms such as the Department of Defence).
If that sounds slightly confusing, then don’t worry. The main takeaway is that there’s more than one way to work on NASA’s projects, even if you’re actually employed by someone else. For instance, according to NASA engineer Robert Frost, many of the engineers working on the International Space Station (ISS) are seconded from the likes of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, as well as numerous other contracted aeronautical engineering firms.
This is good news if you’re unsuccessful with your internship application (which we’ll discuss later). ‘If you can’t get a coop position’, says Frost in Quora thread, ‘apply for engineering positions with one of the contractors that support NASA. You’ll be doing the same job, just with a different badge’.
As for NASA themselves, one of the more interesting things about the hiring process is the kind of personality they’re looking for. Previous interns have all expressed their surprise that, given NASA’s status and mission, many of the scientists and engineers at the agency are not necessarily pioneers and leaders in their field; rather, the common denominator is a strong work ethic and a willingness to learn.
Which, of course, is not to say that your potential colleagues are particularly mediocre; Dr John C Mather, a senior astrophysicist at the agency’s Goddard branch, is a Nobel Prize winner, while a wealth of ex-employees have gone on to start their own technology or engineering companies.
2. Explore Your Options
Naturally, when you think of NASA, you can be forgiven for thinking only of astronauts, engineers and scientists. But as senior recruiter Leticha Hawkins explains, there’s a lot more to the agency than just STEM.
‘NASA hires almost as many administrative personnel, or non-STEM as we do those science, technology, engineering and math positions’, she says. ‘[People] rarely think of the administrative positions we have’.
This highlights the need to have an open mind when considering where you could fit into the organisation, with roles in a variety of areas, including:
Media / PR
The level of qualification that you need will, of course, depend on the profession that you wish to pursue, but for engineering roles, Frost is keen to emphasise that paying over the odds won’t necessarily work in your favour.
‘As long as the school’s engineering degree is ABET accredited, it doesn’t matter at all which school you choose’, he says. ‘There is no advantage in picking an Ivy League school over a state school’.
Frost also claims that obtaining an MSc in engineering is an unnecessary waste of money and time and that a BSc will suffice. ‘Let the company that hires you pay for your grad school’, he adds.
For scientists, meanwhile, it’s almost certain that you’ll need a minimum of a PhD in your chosen area of expertise; unsurprisingly, astronomers and physicists are in particularly high demand. While most engineers are recruited straight from college, the scientists that NASA hires tend to be far more experienced and advanced in their careers.
Generally speaking, knowledge of other languages can be useful, too. Any sought-after modern language would be an advantage, although Russian and French are particularly relevant to the partnerships and collaborations that NASA is involved in.
If you want to work for NASA, then you may need to relocate. The agency’s 18,000-strong workforce is primarily spread across a variety of locations, the most prominent of which are:
- NASA Headquarters (Washington, DC)
- Ames Research Center (Silicon Valley, California)
- Armstrong Flight Research Center (Edwards, California)
- Glenn Research Center (Cleveland, Ohio)
- Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt, Maryland)
- Johnson Space Center (Houston, Texas)
- Kennedy Space Center (Cape Canaveral, Florida)
- Langley Research Center (Hampton, Virginia)
- Marshall Space Flight Center (Huntsville, Alabama)
- Stennis Space Center (Hancock County, Mississippi)
As previously mentioned, those employed directly by NASA are classed as civil servants and you, therefore, must be a US citizen. However, if you’re a foreigner, it is still possible to be employed by a contractor (such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin) and work on NASA projects, although some may require high levels of security clearance.
3. Complete an Internship
Aside from the contractor routes that we have already discussed, it’s generally acknowledged that the only realistic way into a NASA civil servant position is through an internship. Generally, these come in the following three forms.
Pathways is by far the most popular and effective route into NASA and, as the name suggests, is a federal government programme aimed at transitioning students into a full-time position. Effectively one long interview process, Hawkins defines it more simply as an ‘opportunity for students to figure out, “Do I want to be doing this?”, and for the hiring official to say, “Is this person a good fit?”’.
In terms of getting onto the programme, you will need to register on the USAJOBS website and set up email alerts for when the scheme is hiring. When uploading their CV, Hawkins advises students to ensure that it is up to date and in a healthy condition, especially if an application window opens quickly. She also emphasises the importance of using keywords correctly to survive NASA’s applicant tracking system. ‘Use the right words… [and] phrases so that the automated system can pick up on the fact that, yes, you are highly qualified… and you should be moved to the next level of review’, she concludes.
Remember: the idea of Pathways is that you will return to NASA upon graduation to take up a full-time, permanent position, so don’t underestimate the value of getting on this programme.
One Stop Shop Initiative (OSSI)
OSSI internships generally last for between 8 and 10 weeks but, unlike Pathways, the goal is not to transition you into a full-time employee. OSSI is more ‘here’s an internship for X amount of weeks’, says Hawkins, then ‘it’s done, it’s over, [and] you have this cool thing on your [CV]’. On the upside, OSSI opportunities come about far more often than Pathways, with recruitment cycles available throughout the year.
To apply for OSSI internships, you will need to go directly to NASA’s internal recruitment page.
Presidential Management Fellows (PMF)
PMF is a government-sponsored programme that enables candidates – via a rigorous and competitive selection process – to be matched with any number of potential employers through a jobs fair. While this is considered a relatively niche way into NASA, it is still a possibility; Hawkins herself was recruited to NASA’s Washington headquarters in this way.
Finally, a ‘recent graduate’ programme also exists, whereby graduates of relevant degree disciplines who have left school within the last two years can apply for roles. Generally speaking, though, the majority of personnel who are hired in this way have interned at the agency previously and are already known; this simply reinforces the point that unless you are a contractor, an internship is the only realistic way into NASA.
4. Ace the Interview
Whether as part of the internship process or as an experienced hire, at some point you will have to undergo interviews; luckily, unlike other tech giants such as Google or Facebook, the process is far more conventional and straightforward.
According to candidate testimonies on Glassdoor, NASA is professional and formal in their approach, with the standard motivation and background questions supplemented by probes about profession-specific problems. Although practices seem to vary across the different locations, a common theme is an initial phone interview, followed by a face-to-face panel interview.
On the whole, though, as long as you prepare thoroughly and remain calm and composed, you should have nothing to worry about. Simply avoid ugly Twitter spats with bona fide NASA legends, and an endlessly fascinating career at one of the world’s foremost employers should be yours.
And that’s essentially it.
NASA is a relatively small organisation, and opportunities to work there are difficult to find, but it’s not impossible. The key is to prepare well, do your research in advance and understand the different avenues that are open to you.
Remember: you don’t necessarily need to be an engineering whizz-kid straight out of Harvard; you just need to be committed, patient and determined. The rest can be left to the stars.
Have you ever interned or worked at NASA? What advice would you give? Let us know in the comments section below!