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Careers in Aeronautics

Examining wind tunnel modelAfter reading about how airplanes fly, what tools are used to design them, and the people behind it all, you might be interested in a job in such an exciting field! Just think, that could be you creating and using the technology for a futuristic passenger airplane or fighter jet. You could be improving and modifying existing airplanes for safer, cheaper and more environmentally friendly flights. You could be responsible for the new types of air and space vehicles today's engineers haven't even dreamed of!

Check out the wide range of research areas (fluid mechanics/aerodynamics, propulsion/thermodynamics, stability and control, and structures and materials) needed throughout the airplane design process to get an idea of what you might want to do. What is really neat is the way these research areas all overlap, meaning you get to collaborate with many different people in many different fields. If you are interested in learning more about the fascinating jobs in aerospace, read on!

What are the different kinds of jobs in aerospace?

There is great variety in the types of jobs available in the aerospace field. A great way to learn more is to read about specific NASA engineers and scientists and to follow their day-to-day work in their field journals. An aerospace team is made up of: engineers, scientists and technicians working together towards a common goal. The following are some of the major kinds of roles. (Source: AIAA)


  • Analytical: Analytical engineers use their knowledge of engineering concepts to analyze data and make conclusions. For example, based on their understanding of aerodynamics and structures, engineers can figure out what makes an airplane fly the way it does and how to make it safer and stronger. Engineers often specialize in a particular field (like thermodynamics, aerodynamics or structures) and work with other experts in order to solve a problem together.Making adjustments on wind tunnel model
  • Design: Engineers use some of their most creative skills when it comes to design - they determine the size, shape, structure, arrangement, and function of components of airplanes that meet the specifications set by the customer and safety or cost constraints. They also need to keep in mind how the aerodynamics, power requirements and weight will affect the overall design.
  • Materials and Processes: A big focus in the design of airplanes is to make them weigh as little as possible. Materials engineers study materials, both conventional and composite for use in airplane structures. Some areas of concern are the strength and rigidity of the material, its availibility, its ease of processing, and its resistance to temperature and fatigue.
  • Systems: Because an airplane's design is really the combination of a bunch of smaller sub-systems, a systems engineer tries to look at the big picture. They use their overall knowledge of engineering to determine whether all the systems interface with each other correctly. Often they need to check back with the customer to make sure the design being developed is on the right track and meeting their specifications.
  • Software: Because almost all systems on an airplane are controlled by computers, software engineers design and test the software that control and instruct those computers. Software engineers also develop the computer simluation and data collecting software used in the airplane design.Team working at a computer console
  • Manufacturing: Working closely with design engineers, manufacturing engineers make sure that an airplane design can be manufactured quickly and easily. They plan the tooling, construction, and assembly of airplane components and determine whether they still meet necessary requirements throughout the process.
  • Flight Research: Flight research engineers analyze data that comes back from research flights to figure out how well a design performed on an actual flight. From these observations, they can suggest what might need to be changed in future similar designs. They also are involved in the research test flight planning and the preparation of final flight research reports.
  • Field Service: Once an airplane is manufactured for general use, engineers are needed for what is called field service. They provide maintenance and service information to the airplane's users (usually airliners or the military) to make sure the product is used safely and most efficiently. If there's a problem that needs to be resolved with the airplane's design, field service engineers contact the manufacturing and design engineers.

Scientists and Technicians

Before engineers can try to answer "how" questions like "how can we design an airplane for this specific function?" they need to have an understanding of the science behind it all. Scientists seek answers to "why" questions that provide these clues to the general science concepts that are applied by the engineers.

Scientists usually work in one of three places: Industrial Research and Development (R & D), Private and Government Labs and Academic Research. Scientists are vital to the discovery of new products and processes or to broaden the field of science by deriving or clarifying theories and concepts to be used by others. In an academic setting, many scientists teach at a college or university while they are also doing their research.

Technicians support aerospace engineers and scientists in many roles - from assisting in the collection and analysis of data to building and maintaining important models and equipment.

Almost every task in the aerospace field requires the teamwork of engineers, scientists and technicians.

What kind of education and experience do I need?

Most jobs in a high-tech field like aerospace require that you have a college degree. To get accepted to your first-choice college it helps to take as many challenging classes in high school as you can.

High School Preparation

While academic requirements vary from college to college, most four-year colleges like their students to have taken the following types of classes while in high school. (Source: NASA)

English (4 years)
Classes like: composition, American literature, English literature, world literature
Mathematics (3 to 4 years)
Classes like: algebra I & II, geometry, trigonometry, precalculus, calculus
Social Studies (2 to 3 years)
Classes like: geography, U.S. history, U.S. government, world history, world cultures, civics
Laboratory Science (2 to 3 years)
Classes like: Earth and space science, biology, chemistry, physics
Foreign Language (2 to 3 years)
Classes like: French, German, Spanish, Latin, Russian, Japanese
Visual and Performing Arts (1 to 3 years)
Classes like: art, dance, drama, music
Appropriate Electives (1 to 3 years)
Classes like: economics, psychology, statistics, computer science, communications

Choosing a College

It's never too early to start thinking about where you want to go to college. A two-year college offers students a certificate, an associate of arts (A.A.) degree, an associate of science degree (A.S.) degree, or an associate of applied science (A.A.S.) degree. A four-year college or university is where you can earn a bachelor of arts (B.A.) or bachelor of science (B.S.) degree. Most colleges and universities also offer graduate degrees like a master of science (M.S.), master of engineering (M.Eng.), or Ph.D. as well as professional degrees.

Student studyingBesides the kind of program, classes, and degrees that are offered, some of the most important things to keep in mind when looking at particular colleges are the cost and amount of financial assistance available. In general, state and city colleges and universities have lower tuition while private ones generally cost more. The total cost of attending a school includes: housing, food, clothing, books, laboratory fees, and other travel, entertainment, and living expenses. Take a look at the college catalogs of different schools to get an idea of what costs you can expect. Most colleges offer students financial assistance in the form of scholarships, grants, loans, and work-study programs. Also check with your high school's guidance counselor to learn about the number of outside scholarships available from companies, private foundations, and local, state, and federal government.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Education has a student guide to financial aid. SallieMae has on-line calculators you can use to estimate the cost of college, savings goals, and expected family contribution. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators has a free, comprehensive financial aid information page. Finally, there are a number of online college informational and planning guides including: the Peterson's Colleges and Universities, the Princeton Review College Guide, Yahoo!'s American's Most Wired Colleges, The College Board, and CollegeEdge. Once you gather all these facts, you can sit down with your family and make a decision together on what college is right for you, your goals and your budget.

Classes to Expect in College

Here are some of the classes that are typical to a college program in aerospace. Because classes vary from school to school, this outline is here only to give you an idea of the types of classes and when you would be taking them. As you can see, you get to study a wide range of subject areas in science and engineering. Often, in the later years of your college career, you can focus in a particular area of aerospace and develop that into your specialty. As a professional, you can use this specialty to work together with other people in particular fields. (Source: AIAA)

FIRST YEAR English    
  Analytic Geometry & Calculus    
  Chemistry and Physics    
SECOND YEAR Humanities and Social Sciences    
  Calculus & Differential Equations    
  Engineering Mechanics    
  Statics & Dynamics    
THIRD YEAR Aero-Design Program Aero-Research Program Common to Both
  Applied Aerodynamics Analytical Mechanics Fluid Mechanics
  Elementary Structural Analysis Electromagnetic Fields Heat Transfer
  Materials and Metallurgy Advanced Calculus & Analysis Electrical Circuits
      Aeronautical Lab
FOURTH YEAR Aero-Design Program Aero-Research Program Common to Both
  Flight Vehicle Design Engineering Mechanics Gas Dynamics
  Vehicle Stability and Control Vehicle Systems Electronics
  Structural Analysis Flight Mechanics Modern Physics
    Trajectory Dynamics Aerospace Propulsion
      Boundary Layer Theory
      Advanced Mathematics


Graduation dayAgain, take a look at different catalogs to get an idea of the classes being offered at the colleges you are interested in. As for getting experience in the aerospace field, it gets easier to get internships and valuable work experience once you take some classes in colleges. Check out the college's career services office to find out about summer internships and part-time jobs with high-tech companies. Some colleges allow students to do hands-on research with professors and faculty during the school year. Not only will you learn a lot through these experiences, but you will stand out more with possible employers.

Towards the end of your college career when you start thinking about a full-time job, consult the career services office again to see what job placement services are available to you. Often large companies visit college campuses to interview students for full-time jobs.


Two more tips to make yourself more marketable to potential aerospace employers: sharpen your communciation and computer skills and stay informed of current events in the world of science, technology, and particularly, aerospace.

In today's world, it is essential to be able to communicate technical ideas clearly and effectively in written and verbal form. And, as careers in science depend more and more on computers, it's also important to be familiar with various computer systems and programs.

Because the aerospace industry is constantly changing, employers like students who keep up with what products (aircraft, systems, software) are made by which companies. Read the newspaper. Periodicals like magazines like Air & Space and Aviation Week are also good places to start. Staying informed on what's new in aerospace might also modify your specific interests in this exciting field.

Where else on the Internet can I learn about careers in aerospace and aviation?

Here are a number of guides, job listings and other organizations and societies where you can learn more about and search for careers in aerospace and aviation:


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