Lauren Neely (MEng ’09, Ph.D ’17) says there were many times, between completing both her degree programs and being employed full time, that she felt more than a little overwhelmed. However, she’s very glad she remained focused on her goals. “These programs showed me the benefits of encouragement and how knowing someone is really rooting for you can help push you past the challenging times,” she says.
Today, Lauren is a range systems engineer at the Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia—the only space launch range in the country owned by NASA. The Range Mission and Management Office (RMMO) manages the systems on the ground that interact with the vehicle during flight and Lauren’s job is to support the RMMO in the planning and execution of space launch missions.
“My job has two parts,” she explains. “I help develop and streamline the technical management processes used by the range to bring launch projects from inception to close out. I also work with project managers on specific missions to provide assistance in requirements development, support plan development and test execution.”
Prior to beginning her master’s program, Lauren was serving in the U.S. Air Force and she remembers her boss as a mentor who helped guide her toward her best chance for success. “He told me that my chances for promotion would be improved if I earned my master’s degree and encouraged me to pursue it,” she says. “I knew that in my career field, I’d probably end up in a role related to project management, and the distance-learning program University of Maryland offered was a great fit.”
She had been considering getting her doctorate and shortly after receiving her master’s degree she decided it was time to begin working toward that. While still working on her degree, she separated from the Air Force and got a job as a contractor doing project management work at Wallops. “The project management knowledge I gained while studying for both my degrees helped me gain a better understanding of the project processes that both my company and NASA followed,” she explains. “Having that baseline before I started the job helped me understand the language and allowed me to focus on learning the specifics of the job, instead of learning the basics of project management.”
Because of the flexibility of both her degree programs being a distance learner was easy for her to navigate. “When I was getting my master’s degree, I had all the resources I needed to successfully complete class assignments,” she says. “Being able to watch the class videos was a huge perk because I could watch them as my schedule permitted, and re-watch them as needed.”
Later, as she began her doctoral program, her adviser, Gregory Baecher, was great about working with her schedule. “I was working full time and it allowed me to pursue both my career and my education at the same time,” she says. “And despite the fact that I was not on campus, the accessibility of resources, like the library for literature reviews, and the computing programs such as MatLab, were critical.”
Still, Lauren remembers that getting through her doctoral program was challenging at times. “I had to get past some mental roadblocks,” she says. “I had a vision in my head of what I was trying to accomplish, but I would have trouble translating that concept into a concrete equation or method. My adviser was great in helping me talk through problems and offering suggestions to help me look at problems from different angles.”
But it wasn’t just her adviser who offered support during those difficult moments, Lauren recalls. “There were a group of people who were inspiring and motivational to me,” she says. “Part of my Ph.D involved sending out surveys. They weren’t too intense, but it was still ‘one more thing’ on the plates of people who were already very busy. But they were willing to help me achieve my dream of getting a Ph.D.”
The willingness of those people to help by completing those surveys was one reason Lauren says she didn’t give up. “Whenever I felt like I could never finish and I should throw in the towel, I would think about those people,” she says. “I felt like I owed it to them to do everything in my power to finish.”
Lauren has recently made a career jump from contractor at Wallops, to civil servant. “My job as a contractor allowed me to travel all over the globe to help launch rockets, from the Marshall Islands to Fairbanks, Alaska—and even up to a tiny scientific community called Ny-Alesund, on the archipelago of Svalbard, north of Norway,” she says. “My new job won’t involve as much travel, but I’ll get to help define the processes and requirements that will help others travel to those exotic locations.”
Lauren believes expanding her skill set in project management has been an integral part of advancing her career. “Anyone considering enrolling in UMD’s Project Management program should know that whether you attend on campus or as a distance learner, you’ll get the same great education,” she says. “The program is very well organized with a clearly defined path to show exactly what is required to graduate. The professors are great and willing to work with you to help you achieve your goals.”
Earn your competitive advantage just like Lauren Neely and many other UMD graduates. Apply for a Master of Engineering in Project Management (MEng) today.