Career Advice for Golden Boy
Career Advice for Golden Boy WE THE CURIOUS vol.2 no.12
“You’ve got your degree or degrees. You may have a Bachelors or Masters, even a Ph.D. You may have a 4.0 GPA, 1600 SATs, and 2400 GREs. You may have graduated first in your class at MIT, Caltech, Stanford, or one of the Ivy League schools. So you should be a smashing success in the workplace, right? Not necessarily. But you’ll certainly be offered a job.”
Jim Longuski’s little book, Advice to Rocket Scientists, is light—hilarious even— and brutal. He spells things out, leaving no room for doubt. For example, “If you have a degree in aerospace engineering or in astronautics, you are a rocket scientist. If you work at NASA, JPL, APL, the Aerospace Corporation, or Draper Lab, you are a rocket scientist. If you work at Lockheed Martin, Boeing, TRW, or any other aerospace engineering company, you are a rocket scientist.” Most of all, Longuski drives home what is, for rocket scientists and indeed for anyone who excelled at school, one of the harder truths of life: that the workplace is different from school.
Take the case of “Golden Boy.” Golden Boy is the kind of student whose confidence in his own abilities is so great that he has moved beyond the eagerness of the know-it-all. When the professor asks a question, Golden Boy waits. He waits until the rest of the class gives up.
“The professor looks around for any other answers,” Longuski writes. “The golden boy with the 4.0 casually raises his hand. ‘Yes,’ asks the professor. ‘The answer just given is the popular misconception. If it were true, no rocket
would work in space where there is no air to push against,’ says Golden Boy. ‘The correct answer is based on the linear moment exchange….’ The professor beams a smile of approval upon Golden Boy. Not only has he given the correct answer, but he has devastated the previous answer (and the student who gave it).”
Golden Boy thinks he has it all figured out—and why shouldn’t he? School is simple. There are fellow students, and there are professors. Compete against (i.e., devastate) students, and impress professors. That’s how to get ahead.
So what happens when Golden Boy gets into the workplace? He assesses the people around him. To devastate or impress—that is the question. “He has only been at the prestigious laboratory for six months, but he has already assessed that he knows more than his immediate boss about spacecraft maneuver analysis.” In other words, his immediate boss is not worth impressing, and it never occurs to Golden Boy to collaborate. There is only one thing to do.
“The boss of his boss of his boss has called an all-hands meeting for a critical review of mission plans, including spacecraft maneuvers. Golden Boy’s boss will present an evaluation of the maneuver analysis, work mostly done by Golden Boy himself. During his boss’s presentation, Golden Boy’s hand casually raises. ‘Yes?’ asks his boss, nervously. ‘Do you have a question?’ ‘More of a comment rather than a question,’ says Golden Boy. ‘Your spacecraft maneuver analysis is incorrect because you assumed you’ll have gyro readings available to calibrate the accelerometers, but you forgot that in all-spin mode the gyros will be saturated, so your assumption is incorrect and your analysis is therefore invalid.’ At this point, Golden Boy looks to his boss’s bosses for a gleam of approval. He
sees a wry grin on the top boss’s face, what might be interpreted as anger on another’s and in his own boss’s face he sees confusion and embarrassment. Later that year, Golden Boy gets a below-average raise. What has he done wrong?”
Maybe Golden Boy just got what he deserved for being arrogant and obnoxious. But Longuski won’t let up. So, maybe you’re not the Golden Boy. Maybe you are the “Good Student.” Longuski still doesn’t want you to make the same mistake. The case of the Good Student might evoke more sympathy than that of Golden Boy. He is not so smug, not so competitive. But the underlying confusion is the same.
The Good Student has excellent grades, of course. After graduating from a topflight aerospace engineering school, he joins the navigation section of an important government laboratory. “He was excited about the work and very happy with his starting salary. His first boss, a stocky, handsome man—who looked a lot like Orson Wells in his latter years—seemed OK.” Good Student that he was, he still felt very much like a student, and he assumed that his well-credentialed boss would be like one of his professors.
“The young man wanted to learn everything he could about how to navigate spacecraft among the planets. ‘I want to study the problem, derive the equations, and check the lab’s simulator for accuracy,’ he told his boss. The boss shook his head. ‘I don’t want you to reinvent the wheel here, boy! Look, I’ll tell you what to do. You put these numbers into the NAV simulator and bring the output back to me and I’ll tell you what it all means.’ Disappointed, but still hopeful, the young man did as he was told.”
In fact, the young man did as he was told all that year—and for the next six years. Every year he got lower and lower salary raises. The Good Student believed that everything would work out as long as he stayed true to being the Good Student. Finally, he couldn’t believe anymore: his boss was definitely not one of his professors; work was not school.
He started looking for another job. Fortunately, he had a great job interview at another top government laboratory. His resume made it all the way up to the vice president. “Then the young man’s dreams were dashed because the vice president did not give approval. Why not? The young man’s salary was too low. ‘It’s a sure sign of a problem when a candidate from a top lab has a low salary like this,’ the vice president said.”
For nearly two decades, Longuski has advised colleagues and students on how to survive in the workplace of aerospace engineering and academia. “By the way,” he writes, “I’d like to explain how I chose to deal with the he/she pronoun dilemma. Some authors have found that simply alternating she and he neatly solves the problem. But the aerospace industry is dominated by males—and in this book I relate real-life stories that often involve dumb mistakes made by (guess who?) men. It would not be fair to attribute half the errors made in the field to women (who are the minority)!”
Golden Boy and the Good Student are real-life examples. To the non-rocket scientist, they may seem like extreme examples. Why didn’t they just use some common sense? Longuski acknowledges as much. “While rocket scientists are generally regarded as brilliant when dealing with space travel, physics, mathematics, and technology (that is, things), they are often notoriously inept when dealing with office politics, personality conflicts, and power struggles (that
is, people).” In their innocence and their ignorance, Golden Boy and Good Student become cautionary tales for the rest of us. Because they so unhesitatingly, perhaps even unthinkingly, kept on doing what they had done in school, they show us the very real differences between the classroom and the workplace.
People in a classroom are either students or teachers. People at work…well, nothing in life is quite so straightforward as school.
REFERENCES Advice to Rocket Scientists: A Career Survival Guide for Scientists and Engineers by Jim Longuski, Ph.D.
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