Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Planetary Scientist in Industry

by Elizabeth Frank

Elizabeth admiring a sample of pallasite,
her favorite meteorite type.
I’ve come to dislike the cliché interview question “where do you see yourself in five years?” Five years ago, I was in my last year of grad school at the University of Colorado at Boulder studying planetary geochemistry. Had I been asked to predict my future, there’s no way I would have guessed it would include an asteroid mining company, unemployment, and a systems engineering start-up.

Since high school, I knew I would become a scientist. I had long had a desire to work on a NASA mission, and an internship at JPL during grad school confirmed that interest in spades. By the end of my Ph.D., however, I’d started to become disenchanted with academia. Early in grad school, I realized a professorship wasn’t for me, but the idea of relying on soft money (the most probable alternative) for my whole career left me preemptively stressed out.

I brushed those feelings aside with my excitement about my postdoc at the Carnegie Institution for Science working on NASA’s MESSENGER mission at Mercury. Although I was living my dream as a NASA mission science team member, I still wasn’t enamored with the realities of being a research scientist. The idea of being pigeonholed in the same narrow projects for my career was unappetizing, I found publishing papers to be an unsatisfying deliverable to years of work, the rate of progress in research is slow, and I didn’t want to rely on writing proposals to pay my salary.

Elizabeth explaining meteorite formation to Etienne Schneider,
the Deputy Prime Minister of Luxembourg, as the lead scientist on
Planetary Resources’ asteroid prospecting mission.
But what choice did I have? I had had little exposure to career options beyond academia and no one to turn to: my education had been tailored to students on an academic or research career trajectory. I made up for this by spending much of my free time during my postdoc educating myself on career options, the industry job search process, how to market myself as a candidate, and networking. The goal was to be a good candidate when the right opportunity arose.

This preparation paid off: immediately after my postdoc ended, I started a position as a geospatial analyst at Planetary Resources, Inc. (PRI), the asteroid mining company. Initially I was supporting PRI’s Earth observation campaign; when PRI pivoted back to asteroids, I was promoted to Director of Data Products. In that role, I was the lead scientist on the development of an asteroid prospecting mission.

The pace was dynamic, and my coworkers became like family. I was using my expertise and network in planetary science to define and solve practical problems while still being engaged in the planetary community. I learned heaps about spacecraft engineering and how businesses work—exposure few research scientists get. It wasn’t perfect (no job ever is), but I learned that industry is a much better setting for what I want out of a job.

Given PRI’s lofty goals and start-up status, I knew going in that there was a risk the company would fail. That risk became reality when the entire PRI staff was laid off in early 2018 due to a funding shortfall. The time leading up to the layoffs was incredibly stressful, and then I found myself unemployed without a backup plan. Rather than diving into the job search process right away, I took a few months off from employment to travel and decompress, a luxury I’d never had before.

While I was traipsing through New Zealand, 11 former PRI coworkers founded a systems engineering start-up called Synchronous. Business was taking off, and I was invited to join the team. I had worked with these people for 2 years, and they knew what I could bring to the table: there was no application or interview. Drawing from our diverse expertise, we use the tools of space systems engineering to solve problems in and beyond aerospace.

One of the joys of working at a startup is the ability to pick your own title. I chose “Applied Planetary Scientist” because although I’m not doing research, I’m leveraging my background to bridge the divides between academia & industry and planetary science & NewSpace. The role involves a mix of technical project support, project management, and business development (with a sprinkling of “choose your own adventure”).

As a brand-new startup, there’s an inherent amount of risk, but the risk/reward ratio is worth it to me in a way that a soft money career is not. The road to get here wasn’t easy, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. In the hopes of making the journey a little easier for others, I’ve started a blog, Colliding Worlds. Here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned:

You’re not a failure for leaving academia.
Your industry career search should reflect your core interests and passions.
Your competitiveness as a job candidate is based on what value you can bring to an employer.
Value is defined by your transferable skills, not your research projects.
Network like your career depends on it—because it does.

So where do I see myself in five years? I have no idea, and I like it that way.

Elizabeth Frank is an Applied Planetary Scientist at Synchronous in Seattle, WA. She shares her experiences and advice on working as a planetary scientist in industry in her blog, Colliding Worlds.