Dream Jobs: How I Started My Career at NASA

Source: Monique Floyd Photography

Source: Monique Floyd Photography

If you’ve ever dreamed of working for NASA, know that you don’t have to be an aerospace whiz to join the team. There are many different roles that need to be filled. Plenty of options exist for those interested in jobs within the growing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field. Employment in STEM occupations is expected to grow to more than 9 million between 2012 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is an increase of roughly 1 million jobs compared to 2012 levels.

If you have a passion for collecting, organizing, and analyzing data, one option you may want to consider is a career in statistics. One person who decided this was the field for her is Dr. Teneka Steed. The senior statistician has been working with NASA’s Ohio Aerospace Institute for the past three years. Steed says she had a deep interest in algebra since the eighth grade, but she knew she wanted to be a statistician after taking a statistics class in college. Her decision was confirmed during her internship at Duke University while she was an undergraduate psychology major at North Carolina Central University. “When I took my first statistics class, I fell in love because it’s similar to algebra, since it involves working out equations,” Steed told The Cheat Sheet.

Steed says she had an opportunity to work in a biofeedback lab, evaluating and diagnosing patients. That experience helped her learn her likes and dislikes. Steed, who originally wanted to become a psychologist, discovered that her passions lie more within statistical research and analysis.

“I decided that I didn’t want to label patients for the rest of my life. The thing I did like about the internship was that we did testing. We provided psychological testing to the patients, and I also got to analyze the results. That’s the part that I really liked,” said 32-year-old Steed.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The road to NASA

Steed credits hard work, two master’s degrees, a Ph.D., and a solid professional network with helping her land a job at NASA.  Steed received a Ph.D. in educational assessment, testing, and measurement from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her first master’s degree is in sociology from North Carolina Central University and the second is a master’s in educational assessment, testing, and measurement from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  Steed says education is important when it comes to advancement in the STEM field, but having mentors and a firm network are also key ingredients in the recipe for success.

“What I’ve learned is that people like to get referrals. Someone from the outside referred me to someone who worked at NASA. I came on first as a contractor and I worked with them for one year. At the time I was working with the Georgia Department of Education in Atlanta, so I contracted with NASA on the side. Then I got a phone call from NASA and they asked me if I wanted to join them full time. I was brought on as a statistician to help evaluate their educational programs,” said Steed.

Creating opportunities

Another key component to landing the job of your dreams is getting relevant experience. Steed says she made sure to look for opportunities where she could supplement what she learned in the classroom with real-world experience.

“Throughout my academic career I have always had some type of internship or consulting job. I put myself out there and I let people know what I was looking for,” said Steed.

Even if the internship is unpaid, Steed says it is worth pursuing the position so that you can learn as much as you can about your chosen field. What matters most is obtaining knowledge that will help propel you to the next stage in your career.

A career with flexibility

What Steed enjoys most about the field of statistics is that it offers flexibility when it comes to job choice. Steed says she can work in a variety of industries.

“…I can go into any field. It doesn’t matter if it’s medicine or education, I could use my background in statistics to analyze data. I can pretty much work in any field that is looking for someone to analyze their data and solve problems for them,” said Steed.

According to the American Statistical Association, job opportunities can also be found in fields such as computer science, finance, law, engineering, and national defense. A degree in the statistics field can also provide a comfortable starting salary. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the mean salary for statisticians is about $75,560. Furthermore, job growth is expected to increase by 27% from 2012 to 2022.

Carving out a path

If you are interested in a career in statistics, know that there are several paths you can take to your career destination. As can be seen with Steed, one route is through a degree in the social sciences, such as psychology or sociology. You can also choose to major in statistics.

“If you major in statistics, it will involve hardcore mathematics and maybe some programming. The route that I took was through social sciences. Within the social sciences programs, you will have to take a lot of statistics courses,” said Steed.

Giving back

Steed says she is grateful for the opportunities she has received. Consequently, the statistician has recently completed forming a scholarship fund.  The Dr. Teneka C. Steed Scholarship Program will give away its first scholarship this month.

“I’m giving away my first college scholarship to a young lady from my former high school this month. The applicants must have a minimum grade point average of 3.0. Applicants must also provide a transcript, an essay, and letters of recommendation. Financial need is also taken into consideration.”

Local community leaders and supporters have stepped in to assist Steed with providing more scholarships going forward. Steed says she also hopes to start a STEM-focused foundation in the future.

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