Today, we spoke to Anthony Zippay, Project Administrator at NASA‘s Undergraduate Student Research Program, about what it takes to make it at America’s space agency.
How did you get started in the industry? How can someone who is interested in your work get started?
I work for NASA, but I have a background in communications and marketing. I began my career as a program administrator with a project in South Texas called HESTEC that is designed to help get kids fired up about science, engineering, mathematics and technology (STEM). The program was created to help supplement the NASA and engineering workforce. After HESTEC, it was a natural transition to the role of a program manager at NASA’s Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP). For the USRP, college students come on board and spend 10-15 weeks during the summer, fall or spring working on a technical research project.
Especially in the tech and engineering workforce, there is a definite need for communications skills. There are lots of people with tech skills, but the ones who know how to communicate are invaluable. Within every role, people need to communicate with external stakeholders, co-workers, managers, etc. Knowing how, what and when to communicate is key. When I was in college, I started doing communication just because I liked it, but I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. Those skills I gained from my communications major have been invaluable in my career.
What’s the future of your industry or job?
In the communications industry, I would suggest students have a communications background but specialize in something: marketing, tech, computer science, accounting. Having a specialization helps you make your communications degree work for you. These days, people have to know how to not just think linearly, but globally as well. Broad skills within specific areas will make you more marketable.
Here at NASA, we get lots of requests for engineering majors, but also engineering majors with a business background. This type of broad skill set can open up doors and allow a candidate to really stand out when applying for an internship, co-op, or job. In this competitive market, candidates with versatile experience and skills will distinguish themselves from the pack.
What do you look for when you hire an intern or entry-level candidate?
We always are looking for students who are enthusiastic, energetic, and excited to learn. Beyond that, they need to match well with our mentors and the skills required for current projects. Students also need to be excited about NASA and what NASA does. Some of our locations are in fairly remote areas, such as the Dryden Research Center. However, our aeronautics students love it out there—there are always jets flying overhead and it’s a hub of cutting edge aeronautics research.
What can an intern do to make a favorable impression?
Convey confidence. Try not to be too nervous. Know what it is you’re talking about. Talk about your experiences and what you’ve done in school. Talk about passions and what excites you. We know that you don’t know everything and that’s OK, but let us know you’re excited about working with us.
Can you share a positive intern story and an intern horror story? No names needed …
I have lots of fantastic stories! There’s one student who does come to mind. He came from small town — Pablo, Montana, and was a very shy kid. He was a computer engineering major and had raw talent. He was well spoken, so it was clear that he was smart. He did well in the interview, his resume and GPA were great, but seemed like he’d be an introvert and we weren’t sure how he’d adapt — joining our program was going to be a huge culture shock for him. This year, he’s back for his second internship and has completely come out of shell. He works in the robotics group and is doing cutting edge stuff. He’s leading by example and is not afraid to voice his opinions. It’s been so great watching him grow and develop into such a strong, positive presence.
As for the horror stories … no really bad ones. There are always a few students who look good on paper and then we talk with them on the phone or meet them and turns out that they aren’t as confident in their abilities or maybe NASA just isn’t the right place for them. For example, at NASA, you have to work your way up and have to like working in space. Sometimes it becomes apparent that a student is a better fit for a job in industry like at Apple or Google. But that’s the best part of an internship program — figuring out what you want to do. For us, we really want to bring in the students who are just passionate about NASA — it’s in our and in students’ best interests.