How to Become an Astrobiologist: Education, Salary & Job Description

What is an astrobiologist, and what do they do? Read on to learn about the field of astrobiology and how you could become an astrobiologist from the overview below.

Astrobiologist: Career at a Glance

Astrobiologists are scientists who study all aspects on life in the universe -- how it began, how it has grown and evolved over time, and what other kinds of life might be out there among the stars. Because of the enormity of this focus, astrobiologists need to be well grounded in a variety of different branches of science. Astrobiologists, contrary to what the name might imply, are not only interested in life outside of Earth, but are very concerned with the origins of life here as well, and often study data from the ancient past as part of their work.

Education Required Doctorate degree (Ph.D.)
Education Field of Study Biology, chemistry, physics, geology, or astronomy
Key Skills Analytic and critical thinking skills, writing ability, and a strong basis in math and hard sciences
Job Growth (2016-2026)* 8% overall (for all microbiologists)
Median Salary (2017)* $69,960 (for all microbiologists)

Source: *United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Do Astrobiologists Do?

Astrobiologists deal with life, in all its forms and stages. They study how life started on Earth and how it might form elsewhere, both within our solar system and beyond it. By studying Earth organisms that thrive in extreme environments, such as the bottom of the ocean or Antarctica, they gain insight into how life could survive in the harsh conditions of other worlds. Astrobiologists also study the geologic and atmospheric conditions needed for life, and may put that knowledge to use assisting in the search for exoplanets, worlds that exist around stars besides our sun, and determining whether they might be able to host life.

What Education Is Needed to Become an Astrobiologist?

As a fairly new branch of science, degrees in astrobiology are rarely offered, so it is recommended that someone trying to break into the field choose one of the related areas to focus on for their undergraduate studies, such as biology or geology. Which of these a person chooses will likely influence their eventual area of expertise within the realm of astrobiology. Prospective astrobiologists should continue their focus as they advance to their graduate level studies, and begin networking and looking for astrobiology research that interests them in order to ensure their focus is as relevant as possible. After receiving their doctorate, an astrobiologist will need to be very proactive reaching out to these research groups in order to find a posting that matches their skills and interests.

Where Do Astrobiologists Work?

Most of the astrobiology research done in the US is performed through the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), an organization that is spread out across NASA's various sites. Astrobiologists generally work in teams with other scientists, lending their expertise toward the team's goal in any number of ways, often related to their degree. An astrobiologist with a degree in astronomy might work on discovering exoplanets, while another with a focus on biology might find themselves studying bacteria that live in extreme conditions. Astrobiologists, regardless of focus, will likely spend most of their time in offices and laboratories. Other jobs for astrobiologists can be found in postsecondary teaching, research, science journalism, or even the government.

How Is the Field of Astrobiology Doing?

Astrobiology is a highly competitive field, as the research is primarily government funded and holds little appeal to businesses. The NAI has about five hundred researchers working directly for it, comprising most of the astrobiologists working for NASA. Many astrobiologists work for universities, where they teach students while performing their research. Due to how specialized astrobiology is, hard numbers on career outlooks are difficult to come by, but microbiology jobs, of which astrobiology is sometimes considered a focus, is growing slightly faster than the national average for all careers.

What Fields Are Similar to Astrobiology?

Due to the way in which a career in astrobiology must be approached, someone following that course would have a high degree of flexibility should they change their mind. Astrophysics is another space-related career, which deals with large scale bodies such as planets and stars, and the interactions between them. Evolutionary biologists share the astrobiologist's focus on the origins of life and how it evolved over time. Biochemists study the processes of life, such as consumption and growth, which relate to the astrobiologist's questions about habitability and what is needed for life to exist.

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