Astrobiology is a young academic field that studies the origins of life on Earth and the hypothetical development of life elsewhere. In this article, you will find some areas of study you can expect to encounter in your coursework, as well as the prerequisites commonly encountered for graduate level programs.
General Astrobiology Graduate Program Information
Coursework in astrobiology will be highly interdisciplinary, involving a number of scientific fields. You also may have the option to design your own coursework or areas of focus. A few common areas of study in astrobiology are given below.
In microbiology courses, students learn about life at the microscopic level, including their structure, lifecycle, and impact on the environment. You will study the forms of microbial life on Earth and how they adapt to various environments. Depending on the exact nature of the microbiology course, there may be a required lab component through which you will spend time working in a laboratory and write reports documenting your findings.
Astrochemistry is the study of the molecules that make up the universe. In the astrochemistry classroom, you will learn about the chemical makeup of astronomical bodies, and the formation of biologically important molecules in our solar system and beyond. Astrochemistry can best be described as the intersection between astronomy and chemistry, and therefore before you take this class you should make sure you have a solid grounding in both.
In these classes, you will study the formation and development of planets and planetary systems. You may learn about different types of planets and planetary systems, and how astronomers discover new exoplanets (that is, planets outside our solar system). In an astrobiological context, these classes may focus on what makes a planet or moon suitable for life, and under which circumstances such conditions might form.
Molecular biology is the study of the molecules necessary for life, and how they arise. They are generally lecture- and reading-based. You may learn about topics such as genetics, DNA, RNA, and protein translation. These courses may require students to meet a number of prerequisites (such as earlier biochemistry or microbiology coursework) to enroll.
In courses about evolutionary science, you will learn about how life evolves, changing and adapting to its environment. You will learn about the evolution of life on Earth and how our scientific understanding of evolution has itself evolved. These courses may be entirely classroom-based, or they may involve field work, taking trips to geological sites where fossils can be examined.
Program Admission Requirements
As astrobiology is a new and interdisciplinary science, astrobiology graduate programs will most often be collaborative with other departments, such as astronomy, astrophysics, or chemistry. Graduate study in astrobiology, therefore, may be contingent on being accepted into one of these programs. You will need to have a relevant bachelor's degree with an acceptable GPA (this varies by university) and meet prerequisites for coursework; for example, graduate work in the hard science almost always has a mathematics requirement. Most programs will require you to submit a brief statement of purpose or statement of interest, describing your past academic work, areas of specialty, and reasons for pursuing graduate coursework astrobiology. Scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) general test will usually be required, and you may need to take one or more GRE subject tests.
Astrobiology is an interdisciplinary scientific field that is still emerging, with a small number of dedicated programs. Whatever compels you to this field, you will likely be able to find a program that speaks to your interests.