December 18, 2003
Purdue prof's book gives employment advice to 'rocket scientists'
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A Purdue University professor has some employment advice to help young scientists and engineers deal with workplace politics without compromising their professional integrity.
In his new book, "Advice to Rocket Scientists: A Career Survival Guide for Scientists and Engineers," James Longuski includes insights and anecdotes gleaned during his 25-year career in aerospace and academia.
The 84-page book provides pointers to help people thrive in technical fields in which "science and politics often clash," said Longuski, a NASA veteran and professor in Purdue's School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
The book was published this month by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Longuski uses the term "rocket scientist" as a metaphor "for anyone in technical endeavors that might involve a lot of people working together under a management system that is promising to deliver some major project, like a rocket to the moon or maybe a new drug or a new computer chip.
"What happens in those types of environments is that you have two realities coexisting side by side. One is the political reality, which is what the managers are promising to their sponsors, and then you have the physical reality, which concerns the work of scientists and engineers."
Surviving in the workplace does not mean engineers and scientists must bow to the political reality, Longuski said.
"I tell people to be honest and stick to their guns," said Longuski, who worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in January 1986.
Many engineers were outspoken in their opposition to launching Challenger in the frigid cold, which led to the accident. Even though the political decision makers won the argument to launch the shuttle, the engineers never compromised their principles, Longuski said.
"The engineers were practically unanimous in their opposition, and they proved to be right," he said. "I recommend that engineers and scientists do accurate work and provide an honest and correct assessment of the systems they are working on."
In a chapter called "What if the Rocket Doesn't Work?" he helps engineers cope with failure. Longuski also tells readers how to produce technical reports and give presentations that keep colleagues interested.
"The book focuses on making the leap from college to the workplace, whether that is graduating with a bachelor's degree and starting to work in industry or getting a Ph.D. and starting to teach at a university," Longuski said. "In some instances, some of the best students find that transition very difficult because the skills that they applied to be successful as students do not relate entirely to the skills required to be successful in industry."
Whereas the best students are the ones who show up their counterparts in sometimes ultra-competitive academic environments, working in industry often requires a cooperative team approach.
Here is a typical classroom scenario:
"A professor will ask a question in class, and one student will say, 'Here's the answer,'" Longuski said. "Then another student, one of the stars, will say, 'What you just heard is wrong here is the right answer, and here is why this other student is wrong.'"
The star student gets an A by demonstrating a better understanding of the material and sometimes even embarrassing other students.
"When these students go into industry, what they often don't realize is that they have just changed from an environment of competition to an environment that tends to be a cooperative venture," he said. "Young scientists and engineers new to industry commonly make the following sort of blunder: The boss is making a presentation to upper management during a critical project meeting. The student raises his hand during the meeting and points out why what his boss just said is wrong, exposing an embarrassing gaffe to upper management.
"This may be the right thing to do in the classroom, but it's a very stupid thing to do in the workplace, where the key principle is 'make your boss look good.'
"When I tell students that it's crucial to make their boss look good, they ask me, 'Does that mean I always have to agree with my boss?' And I tell them absolutely not, because only incompetent bosses don't want to be challenged by employees, and my students are not going to work for an incompetent boss because I am going to tell them and the reader how to avoid that."
Students should use the interview process to conduct their own interviews, tactfully asking the prospective boss questions and arranging one-on-one meetings with employees to get the inside story.
Longuski said he began lecturing and advising students on employment-related issues about 10 years ago.
"I found myself giving the same advice over and over again to individual students, telling them the same stories and the same principles," he said. "I finally decided to write it all down, mainly as a time saver, but also to spread the word."
The paperback book sells for $34.95 but is $24.95 for members of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. People interested in reading more about the book or purchasing it may call (800) 682-2422 or visit AIAA store online.
Longuski was a maneuver analyst and a mission designer for nine years at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., before coming to Purdue in 1988. He teaches courses in dynamics, aerospace optimization and spacecraft design. He is an Associate Fellow of the Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and has written more than 100 conference and journal papers in the general area of astrodynamics, including such topics as spacecraft dynamics and control, re-entry theory, mission design, space trajectory optimization and a new test of Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity. He also has worked with Buzz Aldrin on a human transportation system to Mars.
Writer: Emil Venere, (765) 494-4709, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources: James Longuski, (765) 494-5139, email@example.com
Note to Journalists: Press copies of the book are available by contacting Janice Saylor at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. (703) 264-7539, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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A publication-quality photo is available https://ftp.purdue.edu/pub/uns/longuski.book2.jpeg.