Career: Aerospace Engineer
“I’m a rocket scientist,” one of our survey respondents wrote in a sentiment echoed by many others; “who wants anything more?” Aerospace engineers examine, analyze, design, produce, and occasionally install components that make up aircraft, spacecraft, high-altitude vehicles, and high-altitude delivery systems (missiles). Satisfaction with the romantic image of rocket-building can buoy many engineers through the highly anonymous work environments that many of them face. Individuals don’t assemble rockets; teams do, dozens of teams working in highly supervised coordination. An aerospace engineer plays some part on one of the teams, spending more of her/his time (roughly 70 percent) in a lab, at a computer, and assembling reports than doing anything else. Not being able to see the “big picture” frustrates some professionals. “What do I do? I don’t know,” wrote one engineer, who later claimed to be a victim of this moonshot myopia. Due to the complexity of the final product, an intricate and rigid organizational structure for production has to be maintained, severely curtailing any single engineer’s ability to understand his role as it relates to the final project. It is not unusual to be pulled off one project without explanation and thrown into the midst of another already in progress. As one person explained it: “This is not referred to as disorganization; it carries the name prioritization.”
The path to becoming an aerospace engineer is a rigorous one, but those who manage to survive the difficult lift-off emerge with an above-average degree of career satisfaction. Academic requirements are strict and wide ranging: Physics, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, materials science, statistics and engineering courses provide the base for any aspiring rocket scientist. Some colleges offer a degree in aerospace engineering; others offer a more generalized engineering degree with some coursework in aerospace engineering. These courses might include aerospace guidance systems, extreme-altitude material science, and the physics of high-altitude radiation. Internships, summer jobs, and any experience in the field are helpful, as entry into this industry is highly competitive. Many aspirants may need to relocate to California, Washington State, or Texas, where the majority of defense industry aerospace work is done.
Aerospace engineers end up teaching far more frequently than do members of most other professions. This isn’t surprising due to the dual nature of the discipline; professionals love what they do in exploring concepts and building them, and in academia, they avoid the anonymity the profession fosters. Most people who leave the profession do so because of lack of work, lack of responsibility, or lack of control. Jobs are highly responsive to defense industry spending and anticipated aerospace orders. Those who leave tend to find themselves satisfied in other scientific or manufacturing positions.