I've decided to do a new round of profiles in the Project for Non-Academic Science (acronym deliberately chosen to coincide with a journal), as a way of getting a little more information out there to students studying in STEM fields who will likely end up with jobs off the "standard" academic science track.
Sixth in this round is an "adult-onset engineer" working at NASA on some cool stuff.
1) What is your non-academic job? I am a thermal engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, working in the Cryogenic Systems Engineering group. Our group provides thermal engineering support (both cryogenic and non-cryogenic) to groups designing and building instruments and cubesats (rather than full/large payloads) at JPL. We also do work on testing/qualifying cryogenic hardware for space use. I joined JPL very recently (April 2014).
2) What is your science background? I have bachelor's degrees in physics and astrophysics from U.C. Berkeley and I have a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University (I did my thesis work on millimeter-wave Cosmic Microwave Background instrumentation for a ground-based telescope). After grad school, I was a postdoc at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities), also working on CMB instrumentation, but this time on a high-altitude balloon payload. Throughout my academic career I was very much a hands-on hardware guy. Because my degrees are not in engineering, I like to call myself an "adult-onset engineer."
3) What led you to this job? Knowledge of cryogenics and thermal engineering is necessarily intertwined with doing CMB research. The most sensitive CMB instruments these days have detectors that are cooled to below 300mK (sometimes even as cold as 50mK). A fair amount of my work both as a grad student and postdoc fell into the realm of "thermal engineering", so moving to a cryogenic engineering group was a very natural transition.
4) What's your work environment like? (Lab bench, field work, office, etc) I work in an office that I share with another engineer in the group. Our group also has labs for testing/characterizing cryogenic systems, but thus far I have not done much lab work here. I hope to do more lab work as well as perhaps even some field work in the future.
The group I work in has about 10 people total. JPL as a whole has about 5000 employees and a very pleasant campus.
5) What do you do in a typical day? It's mostly bread-and-butter thermal engineering (heat flow calculations or simulations), along with a little bit each of meeting with other people involved in the project(s) that I'm working on to work through issues (either technical or so-called "programmatic" -- budget/schedule/staffing), materials testing, talking with vendors, etc.
On the other hand, sometimes I get sucked into non-thermal-engineering related activities. Most recently I was working on a few instrument proposals for a potential Europa mission, and one proposal in particular needed help with "bigger picture" things and they asked me to help (a consequence of having a broad-based physics background as well as an interest in the actual science goals of the instrument, which isn't always true of engineers). That proposal in particular ended up being a lot of long days working in conference rooms with a bunch of people, including scientists, instrumentation specialists, and systems engineers.
6) How does your science background help you in your job? My science background helps in two ways. One is the very obvious one: I know how to do calculations of things like heat transfer. The second is what I alluded to in the previous answer: having the broader science background provided me with the tools to look at big picture (what is referred to here as "system-level") issues, and it allows me to communicate effectively with the scientists who want their instruments to work in order for them to get the data they need. It allows me to make contributions beyond just the little box of 'thermal engineering', and JPL seems to like having people that can take cross-cutting views of a project. And the physicist's "understand things from first principles" mentality helps a lot when trying to grasp unfamiliar concepts.
7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it? Most of the people working in my group have mechanical or aerospace engineering backgrounds, and a good fraction also have Ph.D.s (there's one other physicist, and everyone has at least a Master's degree). So that would be a good place to start if you haven't already chosen a major. Make sure to take courses on heat transfer. And get some hands-on experience...build something and make it work!
8) What's the most important thing you learned from science? Probably the general problem-solving skills are the most important -- how to approach problems, how to ask the most relevant questions to allow you to define problems in a solvable way, and how to simplify problems in a way that illuminates the important behavior of a system rather than getting bogged down in irrelevant details. Next would definitely be having some experience/knowledge in a wide range of areas (from heat transfer to electronics to fabrication to mechanical systems to software).
Specific technical knowledge is the certainly the *least* important. I don't think anyone in our group is doing work that's exactly what they were trained in school to do. One guy has a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences. Another's Ph.D was combustion studies. Another's was on piezoelectric devices.
9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers? I'm kind of a terrible person to ask that, since I basically just did whatever I happened to enjoy doing at the time and it's worked out well for me. I'm lucky enough that the things I enjoyed doing (experimental physics, cryogenics, hardware design/build/test, etc.) happen to be marketable in some sense. And I'm guessing it doesn't hurt to have gone to schools with good reputations.
10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like? I make just over six figures a year. That said, JPL is in the Los Angeles area, which is a pretty expensive place to live (most of the numbers out there seem to put it somewhere around 30%-40% higher than the national average), and I have a Ph.D. and had almost eight (yes, eight) years of relevant postdoc experience coming in.
Good grief - there's something seriously wrong with the amount of funding the JPL receives if someone with a Ph.D. and eight years of postdoc experience in Los Angeles is earning less than me, a software engineer with less than 5 years of relevant experience in a support role for a vacation rental website. Especially given the huge cost of living difference between L.A. and Austin.
While I would love to make more money (who wouldn't!), JPL's salaries aren't drastically lower (at least at the individual contributor level) from those at the private aerospace contractors in the area - though we don't get things like equity or yearly bonuses, so our total compensation is probably not as high.
You can't really compare software engineer salaries, either, because there's so much more demand for software engineers in general than for aerospace.