How to land a space gig
My “lessons learned” from more than 60 informational interviews
by Daniel Duchaine
|The most important thing I’ve realized about networking is this: the goal is to find helpful people, not to make everyone you talk to help you.|
It’s common and good practice that people interested in a career should conduct informational interviews to learn about the field, to find potential opportunities, and to meet people who might vouch for them. Only then can—or should—you earnestly apply for a job you’re interested in. The methodology from this book is how and why I conducted more than 60 informational interviews in three months.
The most important thing I’ve realized about networking is this: the goal is to find helpful people, not to make everyone you talk to help you. As an introvert, networking was terrifying to me (and it still is.) When I landed my first informational interview, it took so much effort to build up the courage to even reach out. I wanted this one interview to be the only one, so I wanted to make it perfect. The truth is, you can do the perfect interview and the other person possibly still won’t help you. They may not be well connected themselves, or they might not feel comfortable supporting anyone at their level. I’ve been to networking events where panelists told the audience they would never help a job seeker unless they met some arbitrary qualifications: like they had to ask deep questions, wear a suit and tie, or have a fancy business card. The opposite side of this coin is that you can have a terrible, awkward interview, and the other person can still offer to help. I’ve had interviews where I barely introduced myself and the other person was offering to flag my resume and giving me contacts, and I’ve had interviews where we hit it off, only for the other person to ghost me after.
That’s why the goal is to find helpful people, not make people help you. Not every networking interview will yield results, but that’s not your fault. Just keep doing them and eventually you’ll meet helpful people.
This is not a scientific study. I never even planned on writing this article. It just happened that I have a large amount of information that could be useful to people, and I didn’t want to hoard that knowledge to myself. Any facts or figures from this article are not my own and should not be cited. During the interviews, I followed the methodology from The 2-Hour Job Search. In each interview I asked the same four types of questions:
When I give my own opinion as advice, I’ll italicize it so you know it’s coming from me. Since I’m currently still jobless, you might want to take it with a grain of salt. Most, but not all, of these contacts are in the DC area. If you are located somewhere else, your mileage may vary.
Honestly this has been a surprisingly positive experience. No two interviews were exactly the same. I have met fun and interesting people; I have had my elevator pitch picked apart; I’ve been offered jobs that never appeared; I attended Spaceball and happy hours; I was told to give up a couple of times; and I met my editor of this article! Here is what I learned so far.
Regardless of sector, I got the same basic answers when I asked “trend” questions. I heard about renewed interest in space, and I heard about great power competition.
Governments, prime contractors, think tanks, and commercial space companies are all seeing renewed interest in space. From the DoD to NOAA, government contractors told me that they are seeing new and strong interest in space. My prime contractor contacts told me that they are seeing an increase in next-generation low Earth orbit (LEO) architectures and new technology developments. Contacts in commercial space told me how the commercial space industry is maturing, with new players entering the field and mergers and acquisitions becoming more common. Think tank researchers told me how an increasing number of governments are paying attention to space traffic management and the Moon. Government interest in space is beginning to transcend just US-China dynamics. There is also the emergence of new space companies with a focus on Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and debris removal. Clearly, space is having a renaissance in the US.
I believe that part of this renewed interest is the hope that space will become valuable in and of itself, instead of just as a supporter to Earth based industry. For example, new commercial companies have business models entirely in space, like satellite gas stations or in-space manufacturing. This is true for governments and the primes as well. Countries are trying to put permanent presences in space and on the Moon, and prime contractors help build these capabilities.
The second trend I heard about was great power competition. Contacts in the government told me about how the DoD is shifting its focus from terrorism to strategic competition, with China recognized as a pacing threat and Russia as an acute threat. Think tanks are also paying attention to great power competition. Researchers told me how there is now interest in protectionism and competition with China in the field of space technology. They also told me how there is growing recognition of space as an operational zone, with an increased focus on security, with specific attention to US-China and China-Russia dynamics.
In May, my first month of interviewing, I was actually targeting Capitol Hill jobs. “The Hill” has a culture of networking, so it was a great place to learn the ropes of informational interviewing. I spoke with staffers in personal offices and in committees like the Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee. During this month, I learned that the Hill was not for me. In one interview, a contact asked me why I wanted to work on the Hill. I told him about my interests in space, international relations, and public service. He told me to give up: “on the Hill, you only learn about the Hill.” The Hill is a political body: you are not necessarily doing what’s best for the taxpayer; you are doing what’s most likely to get your boss reelected.
If you are interested in going to work on the Hill, make sure you are doing it because you are passionate about politics. If you are passionate about public service, look at the public sector. If you are passionate about a subject, look at think tanks or the private sector. If you are passionate about money, I heard startups or consulting are your best bet.
In June, I pivoted to a sector where I could grow my expertise: academia and think tanks. I interviewed with 14 think tank/academic researchers. This included traditional think tanks like CSIS and the Atlantic Council but also policy research institutes like the Aerospace Corporation and the Secure World Foundation.
|The common wisdom is that working at a think tank is a waste of time because they are hollow in the middle. You can be a research assistant or associate, but you can never climb to a senior position.|
In many ways this was the opposite of my experience networking on the Hill. The “trends” answers were deep and insightful, but I rarely got offers to connect me with new contacts. There were a few exceptions, where contacts were exceptionally helpful and gave me free merch. They invited me to happy hours and even a networking baseball game.
This, for me, was a terrifying proposition. As mentioned, I am an introvert, and honestly, a year ago I would have decided to stay unemployed to avoid going to networking events alone. This time I went. I didn’t know anyone, but I was pleasantly surprised. The key is to be honest. Walking up to a group of people and telling them it’s your first time at an event like this and you don’t know anybody can seem like it would get you laughed out of the room, but in my experience, it is an effective strategy. Most people are welcoming and remember what it was like when they were in your shoes. If you run into me and try this tactic, I promise I’ll talk with you for as long as you like.
Real-Life Experience: Time and time again, the think tank researchers told me how valuable real-life experience was for a think tank researcher. If you can bring outside experience, you are more valuable. For example, a contact told me that having an engineering background is valuable for doing space policy research at a think tank.
The True Think Tank Career Trajectory: The common wisdom is that working at a think tank is a waste of time because they are hollow in the middle. You can be a research assistant or associate, but you can never climb to a senior position, so don’t bother. My contacts confirmed this. They also told me that think tanks can be a great jumping off point. You gain expertise in a subject, and you’ll have options to choose from afterwards. Going from a think tank into the government, consulting, or commercial space are all typical and possible options.
Networking: One contact told me that networking is so important for think tanks, that Brookings would not even consider someone for an internship if they hadn’t done at least one informational interview. Many people in the think tank world told me they wished they were better at networking and emphasized how important it is. Another contact explained to me how, in the space policy world, there are five people and four jobs.
This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, there are not very many jobs available. On the other hand, if you network, you’ll know when one is available.
Get Published: My contacts in think tanks told me again and again that I should try to get published. I was told that The Space Review is a good target. SpaceNews, War on the Rocks, and Breaking Defense may also publish you, if you send them your work.
Publishing shows you are a good writer, and in a world where ChatGPT can write ok, you need to be able to write well to stand out for a job. I recently had my first ever article published, and it was easier than I expected. You don’t have to write a 50-page peer-reviewed dissertation. If you have something to contribute to the conversation, do it!
There are a number of organizations that do research on space issues, where you can volunteer your time. You’ll meet new people, demonstrate an interest and some knowledge about Space, and the barrier to entry is much lower than a job.
I’m currently a research fellow at the Center for Space Governance. Reach out on LinkedIn if you’re interested in learning more.
Here are some think tanks/research institutions in the space policy world that I’ve been able to identify in my search:
Other think tanks may have a space project, but they are typically very small and do not hire associates.
I’ve done eight informational interviews with employees of prime contractors. A prime is an engineering and/or manufacturing company that serves as the main contractor for a government agency. So far I’ve interviewed employees at Lockheed Martin, L3Harris, and Northrop Grumman. I was told Lockheed Martin is 70% engineers, 30% analysts. Contractors, like commercial space employees, were familiar with the informational interview process and were typically quick to offer new contacts or resume referrals. In my experience, these folks expect you to have a baseline of knowledge in their field.
|Northrop Grumman has more than 90,000 employees and more than 4,000 job openings. Lockheed Martin has more than 115,000 employees. You can’t just scroll through the job postings and find something interesting.|
When going into an informational interview at one of these companies, you might want to do some extra background research. For example: at an interview with a prime, I was embarrassed to not know the difference between Space Force and Space Command. Despite this slip up, the interviewee still offered to flag my resume. The goal is to find helpful people!
Benefits of Working in a Prime: According to my interviews, working at a prime contractor comes with a lot of benefits. For example, one of my interviews took place in a cafe in the middle of the day on Friday because Lockheed Martin employees can work four-day weeks. Apparently, prime employees enjoy flexible hours, ample professional development, a good work/life balance, and competitive pay.
Navigating the Primes: Maybe it’s just me but understanding these behemoths came with a learning curve. Northrop Grumman has more than 90,000 employees and more than 4,000 job openings. Lockheed Martin has more than 115,000 employees. You can’t just scroll through the job postings and find something interesting.
I still find these companies to be pretty opaque, but here is what I learned. A contact explained to me how Northrop Grumman is mainly broken up into four business sectors: Aerospace, Defense, Mission Systems, and Space. Above all of this is corporate and corporate strategy. Each business sector also has a strategy unit. Within the business sectors are different divisions like engineering, manufacturing, and human resources.
Lockheed Martin is much the same. The business sectors are: Aeronautics, Missiles and Fire Control (MFC), Rotary and Mission Systems (RMS), and Space. Above this is corporate. Within these sectors are various divisions and departments. Lockheed Martin just reorganized their space sector. You can read about it here.
Functional Skills: Many prime contractor employees mentioned the value of functional skills like PowerPoint and Excel. I was advised to even include these skills on my resume. Other skills I was told were important were the ability to work independently and to be able to self-manage. L3Harris told me that youthful energy and ambition is also valuable.
Application Tips: You can apply for positions at Lockheed Martin even if they are not near you. They will also often sponsor a security clearance, which is particularly useful in DC. As a note, contractors do not like to be called commercial. According to one contact, they prefer the term industry.
What is a Prime? Though there are actually many prime contractors, “Primes” usually refers to the largest defense contractors to the US government:
Stay up to date: Most of the people I talked to read SpaceNews, many also read Defense News. I like Defense News’ Podcast The Early Bird Brief. For space specifically, I like the podcasts T-Minus Space Daily and This Week in Space.
In June, I expanded my search to the commercial space sector. The commercial space folks were clearly the most comfortable in an informational interview. I talked with people at industry associations, new space companies, and more. From these interviews I gained abundant advice and received tons of resources to check out.
Trade Associations: Many of my interviewees told me about the value of working at a trade association. One likened his time at a trade association as “grad school” because he was able to learn and meet basically everyone in the industry.
|It seems silly to me that job seekers collect vast amounts of information and then forget it all when they land a job.|
Networking: I was told that networking is especially important for commercial space since many of the non-engineering jobs are government affairs related. Networking on LinkedIn will work well. I’ve come to realize that in-person is better than zoom, which is better than phone calls. The DC space scene is pretty small, and you’ll run into the same people over and over again. This is good, if you know what they look like, so avoid telephone interviews.
Look for “Happy Zone” Companies: According to one contact of mine, the best companies to look at are companies in the “happy zone”: neither too big nor too small. Very small companies are unlikely to be hiring since they do not have funding yet. Very big companies often have very high barriers to entry. If you can find a company that just got seed funding or is small but expanding, these are great opportunities to break into the industry.
Here is a list of the industry associations I’ve learned about in my job search:
A good place to look for happy zone companies is on the trade associations member lists, or at spaceangels.com and spacecapital.com.
Networking: If you get invited to the national security space happy hour, you should go. People tend to go in groups with other members of their company, so it can be a little intimidating to go alone, but everyone will be friendly if you approach them. Be honest and think about it like all other networking—your goal is to meet helpful people, not to make people help you.
It seems silly to me that job seekers collect vast amounts of information and then forget it all when they land a job. A silver lining of being jobless is that I had time to put this information into something readable. I hope that new job seekers like myself can benefit from the advice I heard, professionals can gain from the trends and insights I heard in other sectors, and everyone found this enjoyable to read. Maybe you have notes from your job search too. Publish it! While informational interviewing can be a rewarding experience, the job search often feels like you’re running in circles. If my experience doing lots of informational interviews is helpful to someone, I would feel that my efforts haven't been in vain.
If you want to do an informational interview with me, you can find me here: firstname.lastname@example.org or at https://www.linkedin.com/in/daniel-duchaine/. I benefited from the advice and information from so many professionals in this field, and I hope I can repay it one day.
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