Planetary Geology Graduate Programs

Jan 21, 2019

Those who wish to consider a career performing scientific research in planetary geology may consider earning a Ph.D. in a variety of scientific disciplines.

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Planetary geologists study the surface processes of planets or other bodies in the solar system. Due to the intensive scientific background required for this role, most planetary geologists need to attain a doctoral degree to enter the field. Read on to find out about doctorate of philosophy (Ph.D.) options in a range of disciplines that can prepare graduates for a career in planetary geology, as well as some specific courses common to these programs of study.

Doctoral Programs Related to Planetary Geology

The topic of planetary geology involves knowledge of a range of disciplines; and several options for graduate study can be considered. In addition to the degrees discussed in detail below, other options for doctoral programs may be a Ph.D. in Astrophysics or a Ph.D. in Exploration Systems Design.

Ph.D. in Geological Sciences

One option for future planetary geologists is to work toward the Ph.D. in Geological Sciences. This degree provides opportunities to focus extensively on planetary settings. Typically, five years of full-time study is required. Students preparing for a career in planetary geology should ensure that there are professors at the universities to which they are applying engaging specifically in a range of planetary geological research. To complete this degree, students typically complete coursework, written and oral comprehensive exams, and a dissertation.

Ph.D. in Astronomy

Students who wish to focus their graduate study on a range of observational and theoretical techniques in the solar system may consider earning a Ph.D. in Astronomy. Students can typically finish their studies towards this degree in five to six years of study. When considering a Ph.D. in Astronomy programs, considerations such as access to research laboratories, observatories, and space instrumentation should be taken into account. To complete this degree, students take courses, complete dissertation research, and sit for oral and written examinations.

Ph.D. in Physics

Those who approach planetary geology from a framework of wishing to understand and apply the laws of nature may consider a Ph.D. in Physics. Typically, five to six years of full-time study is expected to earn this degree. When considering Ph.D. programs in physics, access to laboratories and a research group with a shared area of interest should be considered. Completion requirements include coursework, comprehensive examinations, and a dissertation of independent research.

Program Requirements

Application requirements for any of the above Ph.D. programs are competitive. Applicants typically hold a bachelor's degree in a closely related field, and undergraduate courses in geology, chemistry, physics, and calculus may be required. Students should also expect to demonstrate excellence in research, scholarship, and writing. They may be asked to submit GRE scores, a personal statement, and recommendations.

Those who graduate from any of these doctoral programs will be qualified to apply for positions in academia, research, space agencies, and private space exploration companies.

Core Courses

While the exact course sequence will differ depending on which degree is pursued, future planetary geologists may encounter several of the following courses during their program of study. These courses may be small and seminar-based, which can encourage the application of the course topic to particular areas of independent interest and research.

Evolution of Planetary Surfaces

This course provides information on understanding the geology of various space bodies. The types of bodies to be studied could include planets and satellites. The way the surface interacts with the atmosphere may be considered.

Remote Sensing

This course considers how remote planets are explored. The principles of remote sensing are the foundation of the course. A further consideration may be how to extract and analyze the data obtained with remote sensing equipment. Case studies or GIS in remote sensing potentially could be a component of this course.


This course explores the range of physical processes that contribute to geological change. Topics may include plate tectonics, gravity, and thermal processes. Students may be introduced to interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) or satellite techniques.

Observational Astronomy

This course provides students with an understanding current best practices in observational astronomy. Students may be introduced to the various instruments utilized in the field, including telescopes, spectrometers, and X-Ray observations. Direct observations designed by students may be included as an aspect of the course.

Planetary and Solar System Dynamics

This course introduces students to the dynamic processes of planets and other bodies in the solar system. The orbital evolution could be a particular focus, as well as nonlinear dynamics and chaos theories.

High Energy Astrophysics

In a high energy astrophysics course, students begin to study the basic processes of radiation within an astronomical setting. Study may include how these emissions are detected on Earth. Specific phenomena could include X-ray sources, quasars, and pulsars.

Space Physics

This course studies various physical phenomena in space, including plasmas, solar winds, and upper atmospheres of space objects. How the sun interacts with bodies in space may also be considered. The application of physics to planetary winds and wave particle instabilities could also be topics of study.

Planetary geologists have the opportunity to study a range of topics in outer space. A doctoral degree in a variety of fields can support the development of a career in this area.

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