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Study Astrobiology

Would you like to work for NASA and help search for life on another planet? Are you interested in planet formation? If so, then studying astrobiology might be a good choice for you.

Where can I study astrobiology?

There are only a handful of different places where you can really study astrobiology in the United States. In fact, there’s only one university with an undergraduate major called “astrobiology,” and it’s at the Florida Institute of Technology. The reason is because this is both a highly specialized and interdisciplinary field.

This post focuses on programs in two particular schools: Penn State and the University of Washington. These are the only two programs where you can earn a Ph.D. with the title Astrobiology, and therefore they offer a certain level of specialization that isn’t present in other programs.



How can I study Astrobiology at Penn State?

For undergraduate students, Penn State offers an minor in Astrobiology which can accompany a bachelor’s in Astronomy & Astrophysics. After completing your bachelor’s, you can apply for a dual-title Ph.D. in Astrobiology. A dual-title Ph.D. means that you’ll earn a Ph.D. in Astrobiology and something else, like Microbiology or Geosciences.

What kinds of classes would I take?

The Astrobiology minor includes classes in subjects like “Life in the Universe” and “Stars and Galaxies.” As a student majoring in Astronomy & Astrophysics, you’ll also take classes in physics, chemistry, and mathematics. These subjects will give you a strong academic foundation that you’ll need to pursue your Ph.D. later on.

What if I’m not sure I want to get my Ph.D.?

If you’re not interested in pursuing a Ph.D. after graduation, you may decide to major in Planetary Science & Astronomy instead. This degree includes many similar courses to the Astronomy & Astrophysics major, but also includes classes in science education and meteorology. This makes it a good choice if you’re hoping to start work directly after graduation.

What makes this program special?

In one word? Research.

“The Department has one of the most productive astronomy research programs in the country.”
— Penn State Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics

Penn State focuses on many different areas of research. If you’re particularly interested in High Energy Astrophysics, Exoplanets and Brown Dwarfs, or another area where Penn State specializes, then you’ll undoubtedly want to apply here. You might even get to learn alongside Alex Wolzczan, the Penn State professor who discovered the first known planet outside of our solar system.



How can I study Astrobiology at the University of Washington?

At The University of Washington, you can earn either a graduate certificate in Astrobiology or a dual-title Ph.D. in Astrobiology. The certificate is open to both master’s and doctoral students in any field. Since Astrobiology is a very multidisciplinary field, UW accepts graduate students with a solid foundation in any Astrobiology-related science.

“A good candidate for the Astrobiology Program will have a solid foundation in one of the sciences relevant to astrobiology, but will be curious about other topics, and willing to collaborate with those from different backgrounds.”

— UW Astrobiology Program

Undergraduate students at UW should consider a bachelor’s in Astronomy. This degree will give you an excellent background in physics, mathematics, and astronomy.

What kinds of classes would I take?

As a graduate student at the University of Washington, your courses will focus heavily on research in the field of Astrobiology. You’ll hear about current research that is being conducted and also conduct your own investigations into research topics that interest you.

In addition, you can choose from a host of different elective courses that discuss special topics in Astrobiology-related fields: marine bacteria and microbes, planetary surfaces, geochemical cycles, paleobiology, and more.

As an undergraduate student in Astronomy, you’ll also have the opportunity to start conducting some research and learn about the basics of astronomical data analysis and observation.

What makes this program special?

Perhaps one of the best parts about the UW program is the Undergraduate Astronomy Institute. This institute allows you to gain hands-on experience while majoring in Astronomy, allowing you to truly get a taste of what it might be like to pursue a graduate certificate or Ph.D. in Astrobiology later on. You’ll get to help operate the Campus Observatory and conduct both photometry and spectroscopy using a 12-inch telescope.

Plus, as past of the UW Pre-MAP (Pre-Major in Astronomy Program), you can start conducting research as a freshman. Check out some of the exciting projects that recent students have worked on!


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