If you have a desire to work in space exploration – and plenty of scientific curiosity – a number of different college degrees could prepare you for work as a NASA scientist. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration seeks scientists with various educational backgrounds to help further the scientific community’s understanding of space and the universe. Some of the scientific disciplines that are in the best position to lead to a job at NASA include astronomy, atmospheric science, physics and astrobiology, the field of space biology.

NASA employs 15 different types of scientists, proving that scientists in all specialties play an important role in space exploration. If you want to work for NASA, you will need to stand out in whatever field of science you choose to study.

what degree do you need to work at nasa

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What Degree Do You Need to Work at NASA as a Scientist?

For aspiring astronauts and others who want to work at NASA, a bachelor’s degree in just about any of the physical and biological sciences can help you qualify for employment with the agency and potentially put you on the path to the astronaut candidate program. A master’s degree in one of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields is a typical requirement for astronauts, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Although astronaut may be the most well-known NASA job, most NASA scientists complete their work from locations on Earth, not out in the vastness of outer space. Of the 17,000 workers employed by NASA as of 2016, just 45 were active astronauts, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. The legion of NASA scientists that support space exploration efforts may work behind the scenes in some capacity, but these highly educated professionals are essential to making safe, successful missions happen.

If most NASA scientists don’t actually work in space, what are their work environments like? Some NASA scientists, as you might expect, work in control rooms and on airfields. Other NASA employees do their work in office buildings, laboratories and even wind tunnels, according to NASA

Astronomy

Astronomy is the scientific study of the objects that compose the universe. Astronomers address questions about the stars, planets, comets, galaxies and other celestial bodies. To gather and evaluate data, astronomers use telescopes on Earth and probes that have been launched into space.

Astronomy Jobs at NASA

Nearly one in four astronomers worked for the federal government as of 2020, according to the BLS. If you work at NASA as an astronomer, you’re likely to spend your workdays in much the same way as astronomers in academia or in scientific research and development. You will spend a lot of time using computer modeling software and mathematical formulas and calculations to manipulate and make sense of data.

Much of the data on which you base your research comes from satellites, but astronomers also gain information through telescopes. NASA astronomers aren’t the only astronomers who are undertaking the challenge of discovering new truths about the celestial bodies, solar systems, galaxies and universe, but they do have access to special tools and resources, such as the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA observatories.

How to Become an Astronomer for NASA

If you would like to work as a NASA astronomer, the first thing you need to do is start working toward earning an astronomy degree. An undergraduate degree program in astronomy includes coursework in introductory through advanced astronomy, computer science and mathematics classes such as statistics, linear algebra and calculus, according to the BLS.

A bachelor’s degree often isn’t enough to study the mysteries of the universe as an astronomer. Generally, you will need a Ph.D. in astronomy to work in this scientific discipline, the BLS reported. More than 90 percent of astronomers reported having at least a doctoral degree, and nearly two-thirds of the occupation had completed postdoctoral training, O*NET reported. Aspiring NASA astronomers, especially those who hope to advance to a high level of research work or potentially become an astronaut, should plan on going to graduate school.

In your graduate-level work, you may choose an academic concentration in a subfield like planetary astronomy, stellar astronomy, galactic astronomy or cosmology, the origins of the universe. Graduate programs in astronomy tend to be research-heavy, and students will most likely have to complete some original research and a thesis (for a master’s degree) or a dissertation (for a Ph.D.) to earn an advanced degree in the field.

For the 460 astronomers who worked for the federal government in 2020, the average annual wage was $70.40 per hour, or $146,440 per year, according to the BLS

Atmospheric Science

If you have never thought about weather phenomena in space, perhaps you should. Atmospheric scientists who work for NASA think about weather and climate events in outer space all the time.

Atmospheric Science Jobs at NASA

Atmospheric scientists use equipment such as satellite images, radar systems and weather balloons to forecast weather and climate events in both the near future and the distant future. Just as broadcast meteorologists develop the local weather forecasts that appear on television and radio news, atmospheric scientists who work in the field of space exploration use data to predict what weather and climate changes will occur beyond the Earth. For example, the atmospheric scientists who work for NASA may research the atmosphere conditions and phenomena that occur on other planets, as well as moons, in our solar system.

How to Become an Atmospheric Scientist for NASA

Unlike astronomers, atmospheric scientists can qualify for employment with NASA with just a bachelor’s degree. If you are hoping to move up into a research leadership role at NASA, though, a graduate degree may be needed. The National Weather Association maintains a list of the colleges and universities that offer degrees in either atmospheric science or meteorology, a major subfield of atmospheric science.

Aspiring atmospheric scientists will take courses in subjects such as meteorology, computer programming, advanced mathematics and advanced physics, the BLS reported. If you want to work as an atmospheric scientist for NASA, it makes sense to use your electives to take classes that will be relevant to studying weather and climate events in space. Some atmospheric science degree programs allow students to select areas of specialization such as chemistry, climate, meteorology and data science. There’s no “wrong” choice of specialization for aspiring NASA atmospheric scientists. Researchers in the field of atmospheric sciences who work out of NASA’s Langley Research Center are involved in areas like data analysis and modeling, laboratory studies and instrumentation and data acquisition, and subject matter in the areas of chemistry, climate change and meteorology are all important in NASA data modeling work.

For the 2,850 atmospheric scientists who worked for the federal executive branch in 2020, the average salary was $51.32 per hour, or $106,740 per year, according to the BLS. NASA meteorologists and other atmospheric scientists may have an even higher earning potential. For research meteorologists at the NASA Goddard Space Center, job search website Glassdoor reported a base pay average range of $113,934 to $124,317 per year.

The federal government employed 30 percent of the atmospheric scientist occupation in 2020.

Physics

Physicists study matter, and matter is what makes up the universe, including every aspect of space. When physicists emphasize research and study of the astronomical bodies and phenomena through the use of physics concepts and methods, they are sometimes called astrophysicists.

Physicist Jobs at NASA

Aside from joining NASA, astrophysicists can work for other organizations, including academic institutions with strong research programs. For NASA astrophysicists, some of the most integral areas of research include the workings of the universe and all of the components it contains, the origin of stars and galaxies and the potential of other planets in other solar systems to sustain life. Plenty of areas of physics research are concerned with energy and gravity, but astrophysics research at NASA emphasizes studies of dark matter, black holes and the genesis of the universe.

In the field of space exploration, plasma physicists are some of the most sought-after types of physicists. Plasma physicists focus their scientific inquiries on a state of matter called plasmas. The same state of matter that is manufactured for use on neon signs and television screens occurs naturally in stars and other bodies in space, the BLS reported. In particular, plasma physicists working in space exploration research the properties of naturally occurring plasma in space to learn more about matter in space as well as how it affects life on Earth.

How to Become a NASA Astrophysicist

Like astronomers, physicists who aspire to a role working at NASA typically need an advanced degree. A bachelor’s degree in physics often includes coursework in math and the natural sciences. Some of the subjects physics students will study at the undergraduate level include optics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism and classical and quantum mechanics, according to the BLS. At the graduate and doctoral levels, physics programs might offer students the opportunity to focus on a subfield like plasma physics, astrophysics or matter physics.

As of 2021, the astrophysics programs currently underway at NASA include the Astrophysics Explorer Program, Exoplanet Exploration, Cosmic Origins, the Physics of the Cosmos and Astrophysics Research more generally. 

Space Biology

You have probably heard of biology, the study of life and living organisms. In fact, you most likely took a biology class during high school. However, what many students don’t know is that biology and the study of space intersect. This discipline of space biology is often referred to as astrobiology.

Space Biology Jobs at NASA

Astrobiology emphasizes life throughout the universe, including the origins and evolutions of living things and the quest to identify evidence of current or past life on other planets. Astrobiologists are the scientists who search for the answer to questions like whether there is, or once was, life on Mars.

It is an exciting time to be an astrobiologist. NASA has reported that, despite there still being no conclusive evidence of life on other planets, the scientific logic and theory that supports the notion of extraterrestrial biology has begun to seem more plausible than ever before.

How to Become an Astrobiologist at NASA

As with many other NASA scientist roles – and many scientist roles in general – having an advanced degree is an asset when you want to work as an astrobiologist at NASA. Unfortunately, dedicated degree programs in astrobiology are relatively rare. NASA only recognizes five undergraduate astrobiology degree programs and eight graduate-level programs in astrobiology.

Earning your degree from one of these specialized programs is a great starting place for aspiring NASA astrobiologists. However, scientists also come to this field with an extensive background in one of the several scientific disciplines that combine to make up astrobiology. Biology is, of course, one of the best majors if you hope to work in space biology. Planetary science, astronomy, physics and even geology are other options to consider. Taking coursework in these other relevant disciplines can help you develop the full foundation of knowledge and set of skills in scientific inquiry that you need to be a successful NASA astrobiologist.

Searching for postdoctoral research opportunities in space biology can also help you point your career preparation in the direction of this job role. 

How to Work at NASA

There are many ways to prepare to work at NASA. One excellent option for current and prospective students is applying to the NASA Pathways Intern Program. This program doesn’t only allow accepted applicants to gain relevant internship experience and network with established NASA personnel. Through this program, interns can enter a pipeline that leads directly to full-time job roles after they graduate.

If you didn’t apply to or weren’t accepted into the Pathways Intern Program, that doesn’t mean you can’t work at NASA. However, you may need to put that career dream on hold while you build up your expertise and reputation in other job roles in scientific research. Whether you work at an academic institution or in an industry research and development capacity, you want to be consistently undertaking research, sharing your findings in conference publications and published journal articles and otherwise contributing in recognizable ways to the field of science in which you are involved. Earning an advanced degree and pursuing research that is relevant to NASA’s efforts will improve your chances of getting hired.

In 2020, NASA was named the best place to work in the federal government for the ninth year in a row. The excellent benefits offered by NASA may contribute to this reputation, but there are many other reasons to work for NASA.  

Additional Resources

What Kind of Job Title Should I Be Looking for at NASA With a Master’s in Astronomy?

Do I Need a Master’s Degree or Doctorate to Get a Job at NASA?

What Associate’s Degrees Can Help Me Get a Job at NASA?

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