If you have an interest in the search for extraterrestrial life or you’re intrigued by the challenge of identifying planetary habitability for future space travel, you might want to pursue an astrobiology career. Astrobiologists are the scientists who study life beyond Earth, planets that can sustain life and similar topics.
In astrobiology, as in other branches of science, students need an advanced education to pursue careers in the field. As a graduate student in astrobiology, astronomy, biology, physics or related programs of study, you will develop the skills to study topics of research at the intersection of space science and life science.
What Is Astrobiology?
Astrobiology is a field of science that combines the disciplines of astronomy and biology.
Astronomy is the branch of science that is concerned with the celestial bodies – the objects outside the Earth’s atmosphere, including stars, planets, moons and asteroids. Biology is the study of life and living things.
Areas of Research Interest in Astrobiology
The interdisciplinary field of astrobiology combines these two branches of science into a field of inquiry that focuses on life in the universe. An astrobiologist may be interested in the past – the origins and early evolution of life on other planets – or the future of life in the universe.
Identifying planets that may have the ability to sustain life, exploring the evolution and distribution of life as cosmic phenomena and conducting research to answer other questions related to life in the universe are all among the areas of focus that fit into the field of astrobiology.
Can You Earn an Astrobiology Degree?
There are some degree programs in astrobiology specifically, as well as minors, certificate programs, concentration tracks and non-degree online courses on the subject, according to NASA. However, formal education programs in astrobiology are rare, particularly at the undergraduate degree level.
A Glimpse Into the Curriculum of a Bachelor’s in Astrobiology Program
In the undergraduate astrobiology degree program at Florida Institute of Technology (Florida Tech), for example, students will complete a solid core of required courses in the fields of astronomy and biology and a course specifically focused on the fundamentals of astrobiology.
Another benefit of studying undergraduate astrobiology at the Florida Institute of Technology is having access to telescopes and other equipment required for research in Earth and space exploration. Florida Tech is home to the numerous research laboratories in the Harris Center for Science and Engineering and the research equipment in the Olin Physical Sciences building. Students in Florida Tech’s astrobiology programs primarily use the Ortega 0.8-m telescope, one of the largest telescopes in the Southeast region, in their studies and research. However, as a member of the (Southeastern Association for Astronomy) SARA consortium, Florida Tech also offers opportunities to use the Southeastern Association for Astronomy (SARA) 0.9-meter telescope based at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, AZ. Florida Tech students and faculty are also conducting research in laboratories located at the Space Life Sciences Laboratory at NASA Kennedy Space Center.
Astronomy is closely related to physics, the study of matter, energy, forces and change over time. As such, students in an astrobiology degree program should expect to take classes in general physics, modern physics, thermodynamics, physical mechanics, quantum mechanics and electromagnetic theory. More discipline-specific coursework includes studies in the foundations of space sciences, physics and space science, astrophysics and physics of the atmosphere.
The biological science aspects of the curriculum include studies in biological discovery, biodiversity and physiology, microbiology, biochemistry, genetics, evolution, prokaryotic molecular biology and biotechnology. Classes in general chemistry, organic chemistry, calculus, differential equations, and scientific and technical communication round out the major at Florida Tech.
A bachelor’s degree program in astrobiology is an excellent place to start your career path, but there’s a good chance you will need to take your education further. Most astrobiologists complete a graduate program, if not a doctoral program or professional degree course of study, to prepare for this career. Going to grad school is particularly important if you aspire to work as part of the faculty at a university or to lead major research endeavors.
Alternatives to Astrobiology Degree Programs
You might think that astrobiology – a field that focuses on life in the universe – seems pretty specialized. However, there are numerous areas of research to explore and numerous areas of study that go into this field.
If the school you want to go to doesn’t have a distinct astrobiology program – or if you just want to explore a broader area of study as an undergraduate – you can do what most students interested in astrobiology do: pursue a degree in any of the related scientific disciplines. NASA recommends that students interested in an astrobiology career “choose a field that really excites you.” Relevant areas of study include astronomy and biology, obviously, as well as physics, astrophysics, planetary and Earth science, chemistry and geology. Colleges routinely offer undergraduate degrees in these less specialized branches of science, particularly biology, physics and chemistry.
If you choose to major in any of these disciplines instead of earning an astrobiology degree as an undergraduate, make an effort to take courses and other opportunities to fill in the gaps in your knowledge. That is, if you major in astronomy, consider minoring in biology or using your electives to take extra biology courses. Look for opportunities to participate in a research group or project that has relevance to your area of interest. Seek out internship opportunities with local and national companies, such as NASA and the American Institute of Physics, to help you gain hands-on experience in research and work in the field of life-focused Earth and space exploration.
Majoring in Astronomy
A student pursuing an undergraduate degree program in astronomy will take required courses in subjects like physical astronomy, stellar astronomy, observational astrophysics and galactic and extragalactic astronomy. Students can use elective courses to take classes in subjects like the search for extraterrestrial life in the solar system, cosmology and culture, geophysics, and issues in astronomy or to participate in research being conducted by faculty members.
Earning a Degree in Biology
Of course, you could also prepare for an astrobiology career by pursuing a major in the biological side of the field. Students who major in biological science complete biology courses such as organismal biology, cell biology, genomes, genetics, ecology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology and biochemistry.
Getting a Physics Degree for an Astrobiology Career
That close connection between astronomy and physics makes a physics degree a relevant choice for aspiring astrobiologists. Physics is the scientific study of matter and energy, including movement, force and the natural laws that govern matter. A student who majors in physics can expect to take classes in modern physics, classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, electrodynamics, electrostatics and calculus.
Astrophysics as Your First Astrobiology Degree
Some colleges offer undergraduate degree programs specifically in astrophysics, a field that combines the sciences of astronomy and physics. A student pursuing this major can expect to take a blend of coursework pertaining to physics more generally and to astronomy. For example, students will likely study general physics, thermodynamics, classical mechanics and electromagnetism, as well as observational astrophysics, stellar astrophysics and extragalactic astrophysics.
Earning an Undergraduate Degree in Planetary Science
At some colleges, a student may pursue an undergraduate degree in planetary science. This field of study is related to astronomy, as planets are among the celestial bodies beyond the Earth’s surface. However, planetary science focuses narrowly on planets and their systems, as opposed to other aspects of astronomy or astrobiology, and the interdisciplinary field also encompasses aspects of chemistry, geology and atmospheric science.
To graduate from a planetary sciences degree program, students will need to take classes in topics like Earth systems, the evolution and history of the Earth, planetary astrophysics, geodynamics, geomorphology, atmospheric physics and the physics of the Earth and planetary interiors.
Studying Chemistry in Preparation for Astrobiology Research Projects
Another major to consider for an astrobiology career is chemistry. While it may sound strange to pursue a third branch of science in preparation for a career in a field of science that bridges two major disciplines, knowledge of chemistry is important in both the field of astronomy and the field of biology.
Chemistry is the study of the properties of matter and the reactions that occur when different substances are combined. Students of chemistry complete coursework in all aspects of the scientific discipline, including general chemistry, organic chemistry, analytical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physical chemistry, computational chemistry and biochemistry.
Majoring in Geology for Astrobiology Students
Geology is the discipline of science concerned with the Earth – its physical structure, the scientific processes that take place on the planet and its history. It may seem counterintuitive to major in Earth sciences when you’re planning for a career studying space and the bodies outside the Earth’s atmosphere. However, a geologist’s understanding of the scientific processes that have taken place over the course of history on our own planet can also inform research into the structure, physical substance and history of other planets.
Students enrolled in a geology degree program will commonly take courses in physical geology, igneous and metamorphic geology, geochemistry, mineralogy, paleontology and groundwater hydrology. By the time they graduate from a bachelor’s degree program in geology at a four-year college or university, students should know how to use computers and remote sensing technology in the practice of geological research.
What Level of Degree Program Do You Need for Career Options in Astrobiology?
How high a level of education you need depends on what you want to do with your astrobiology degree. For most astrobiology careers, you’re going to need an advanced degree.
Working in Astrobiology With a Bachelor’s Degree
The most entry-level roles in astrobiology may be available to those with only a bachelor’s degree. However, if you never advance your education beyond the bachelor’s degree, you will have a hard time moving up beyond roles like laboratory assistant or laboratory technician in academia or private industry research. For astronomers and physicists more generally, though, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that candidates with only a bachelor’s degree might qualify for some roles in the federal government.
Astrobiology Certificate Programs
Maybe you want to develop your knowledge of the field, but you’re not ready to commit to going to graduate school for an astrobiology degree just yet. Shorter and more affordable graduate certificate programs in astrobiology can help students from a variety of science backgrounds tailor their interests without the pressure of a full-fledged degree program.
The astrobiology graduate certificate program at Georgia Institute of Technology requires courses in areas such as planetary science and astrobiology and seminal papers in astrobiology. Much of the curriculum is left up to students’ choices. Course options include orbital mechanics, propulsion, microbial ecology and genomics, biophysical chemistry, geochemistry, organic mechanisms, the origin of complex life, aerospace systems engineering, instrument design and small satellite design.
Master’s Degree Options for Astrobiology Careers
The more advanced degree you hold in astrobiology, the more extensive your career options are. If you want to work on the faculty at a college or university or in a high-level research role, you will need at least a master’s degree, if not a doctoral degree and years of postdoctoral training. Going to graduate school is essential for students who want to take their astrobiology careers to their full potential. In a graduate program, students develop more specialized knowledge of the fields of science related to astrobiology.
Doctoral Study and Postdoctoral Training in Astrobiology
To become a tenured professor at a research university or serve as the lead investigator in astrobiology research efforts, you’re likely to need a PhD. Students in the United States often apply to PhD programs directly from their bachelor’s degree programs, although some students enroll in a master’s degree program first.
Even at the doctoral level, finding astrobiology degree programs, specifically, can be a challenge. The University of Washington, for example, offers a dual-title PhD in Astrobiology program. The program awards a degree in both astrobiology and a second field of a student’s choice, such as atmospheric sciences, biology, Earth and space sciences, genome sciences and microbiology.
You could, however, continue pursuing degrees in related fields, like astrophysics, cosmology, planetary science and biology.
Postdoctoral appointments are short-term research training opportunities that typically last only one to two years. Serious researchers and academics in the sciences often pursue postdoc opportunities. If you decide to undertake postdoctoral training, you might apply to work in university research labs, research departments in industry, government agencies like NASA and nonprofit organizations concerned with research.
Astrobiology Degree Options for Graduate Students
If the coursework you complete at the undergraduate level is what builds the foundation of your knowledge of space science, physics and biology, your graduate studies are where you develop a deeper and more integrated understanding of astrobiology.
Admissions requirements for graduate students in astrobiology and related subjects include a strong background in the sciences. A graduate program may also include admissions requirements in the form of standardized tests like the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) General Test and the GRE Physics subject test.
Generally, graduate programs at the master’s level take around two years to complete for full-time students.
At the undergraduate level, students are primarily learning through coursework and laboratory work. Students enrolled in an undergraduate program may have some opportunity to be involved in research, but for the most part, more extensive research opportunities tend to be reserved for graduate students. PhD programs take longer, often four to six years, to complete. In either case, a graduate student typically can’t get started until after they complete four (or more) years of undergraduate study.
In a graduate program in astrobiology or a related area, students complete upper-level courses that cover more advanced and specialized topics compared to their undergraduate studies. Part of graduate programs in astrobiology and related areas of science is conducting research and writing a master’s thesis. In doctoral programs, even more of the work revolves around the student’s original research and the writing of a doctoral dissertation.