How to Become an Astrobiologist

I often see posts online asking for advice on how to get into the field of astrobiology and have even had people reach out to me personally asking for advice. So I thought it might be useful to put all my advice into one place. Professor Lewis Dartnell also detailed his advice on his blog here. NASA’’s advice can be found here. To make it as applicable as possible I will cover things you can do when you are in school and then also at university. At this point it is important to note that my route to science has been very typical and focused and it is far from the only route into science. I will have posts in the future discussing atypical routes into science and astrobiology that my colleagues have taken. Most of this advice will be specifically relevant to science students, but hopefully non- scientists also find this useful. For now, here is my advice and my personal experiences with it.

#1 – Choose the Sciences and Keep Them for as Long as Possible

The easiest way to become a scientist is to study the sciences at school and for as long as possible. I know, fairly obvious. But I came very close to not studying biology for my GCSEs, the topic which would later become my career.

In third year I was picking my GCSEs and had provisionally picked physics and chemistry as my sciences. At the time I had no desire to keep on biology (I fully blame the curriculum for this situation) and had in fact chosen PE instead. It was then after a fateful PTA (Parent Teacher Association) meeting that my parents came home and told me that my biology teacher basically pleaded with them to have me pick biology as a GCSE subject. In the end I didn’t take much convincing and dropped PE in favour of biology. A decision, which in retrospect, set me up for the rest of my life so far. So thank you to my 3rd Year biology teacher, I owe it all to you. This forms the first part of my advice to you if you are at this early stage. Keep as many science subjects on as possible and for as long as possible. The doors these subjects open are vast and will give you plenty of options to pick for your A- levels and for university courses.

#2 – Know What Subjects you need for University

University is where you begin to become a specialist, therefore the courses have pre-requisites. Knowing what these are, is extremely important in picking your A- levels. Thankfully the sciences keep your options open and can branch into a large collection of degree courses.

For my A- levels, I broke from my own advice and picked biology, chemistry, history and politics. During my GCSEs I realised that physics and maths were just languages I couldn’t speak and so they had to go. This was somewhat of a departure from what a lot of my science/ medicine orientated peers picked, namely all three sciences and maths. My advice for picking your A- levels is to think about what you might apply to study at university and see what requirements those courses have.

#3 – Time for University

University is the gateway for most people into the world of science. Assuming you already know what subjects you are roughly interested in, your university degree should largely reflect those interests. People frequently ask what degree they should study to become an astrobiologist. I’ll explain later why it doesn’t really matter what you study specifically, just that you are interested in it. Being interested in your area will make all the work that much more bearable.

For university I applied to both UK and Irish institutions. I chose to attend Trinity College Dublin where I studied “science” for the first two years before specialising in biochemistry in my final two years.  Here I was able to further develop my interests in science and learnt some of the key techniques that I would need for research in my field.

#4 – What to Study to Become an Astrobiologist?

The answer to this, is that it doesn’t really matter. Astrobiologists study everything from the formation of planets and stars to the potential for human exploration of space. You can take almost any topic and apply it to space. So the key to becoming an astrobiologist is to find how your specific field of interest can answer questions related to astrobiology. If you like geology then there is plenty of rocks in the solar system to keep you interested, if you are a biologist like me there are plenty of habitats to interrogate for their habitability or even if you are a lawyer there is the ever looming question as to the legality of the actions of nations in space. Becoming an astrobiologist is then about how you frame the questions you want to answer.

I studied biochemistry at university. The main topics of my lectures were subjects like human health and disease, signalling pathways, metabolism and genetics. Not exactly astrobiology was it? The important thing was to then take the skills and knowledge gained from a primarily biomedical focused degree and apply them to astrobiology. This is what will allow you to become an astrobiologist. Very few places formally teach or lecture on astrobiology, so the key to becoming an astrobiologist is to apply your own skills and questions to the field.

#5 – Try to get Experience in the Lab

It’s one thing to be interested in science, but it’s another to actually do it. The day to day life of a scientist is extremely variable across fields, disciplines and individual projects. If you have an idea of an area that you are interested in, try to get a summer placement with a lab in that field, or even just a few days. This will expose you to some of the realities of research. You will get to meet and talk with active scientists and hear their advice. You will also see that the scientific method is a rather messy affair. Experiments fail for unknown reasons, equipment breaks, orders are delayed amongst other unpredictable chaotic events. It’s rarely a smooth road in research. Having research experience also looks good on PhD applications.

I was lucky enough to secure a few summer research placements and can truly say they were a massive benefit. I was able to get hands on experience with techniques that I didn’t have access to, either at school or university. The placements also afforded me the opportunity to discover that I actually enjoyed doing research.

For examples of funding sources for summer research placements, see the Nuffield Research Placement, BBSRC Research Experience Placement and this list compiled by the BNA for examples. This is a non-exhaustive list and more sources of funding exist. Also note that labs may already have funding allocated for summer placements and they just need people to reach out to them to fill those spots.

#6 – Find Your Passion

One day you will be sitting in a lecture hall, probably half asleep, and the lecturer will say something that absolutely blows your mind. If the nugget of information that they just professed utterly consumes you for days on end and all you can do is think about it, then you have just found your passion in science. Finding something like this in your field of study gives you an avenue to formulate questions through.

For me, this happened when I got a copy of “On the Origin of Species” in school and was blown away. As I am sure you know, the school curriculums are rather focused on presenting facts which you can recite in an exam to the best of your ability. The topic of evolution was also taught terribly in Northern Ireland, as in, it was largely absent. So when I came across Darwin’s seminal work, I discovered my passion. I became obsessed with evolution and how, if there is an evolution there must be an origin, and if there was an origin here on Earth, could it have happened elsewhere. That final question is what lead me to the field of astrobiology.

On a quick side note, when you google UK astrobiology, the top result is the UK Centre for Astrobiology (UKCA) at the University of Edinburgh. I called this blog “The Irish Astrobiologist” because when you google Irish astrobiology, there is nothing, nada, zilch. Just links to the UKCA. I wanted to then have something to appear for my fellow students from Ireland, north and south, when they went to investigate this topic and to act as a focal point where people could reach out to ask me about astrobiology. Anyway, moving on.

#7 – What to do After Undergrad?

Once you have obtained your undergraduate degree, there are a multitude of things you can do. You can take time away from academia and studying in general. This time can be used to travel, work or even take some much needed time for yourself.

If you wanted to work but keep it orientated with your long-term career goals, a position such as a research assistant might interest  you.

If you want to continue studying, then consider something like a master’s degree. They are becoming increasingly common in the UK and sometimes needed if you want to do a PhD in Europe. They can be a good opportunity to study something that is a little bit outside of your field to help you broaden and expand your knowledge and to get more time in the lab. They can also be useful to start generating ideas for future PhD projects and gaining skills and experience that can help you in the future.

Taking some time to figure out exactly what it is you want to do with your future can also be extremely beneficial in the long run. The decision over whether or not to do a PhD is one that should not be taken lightly. A PhD is a multi-year commitment and it may involve moving away from home to a new city or even country. In the end, you need to be sure that it is the right choice for you and that you are choosing to do one for the right reasons.

Ultimately there are many things you can do, and some things you may need to do due to personal circumstances. The main point I want to get across is that there isn’t any time pressure at this stage. You can take the time that you need before moving on to the next stage of becoming an astrobiologist. I will post interviews with colleagues who have taken breaks from university and academia to illustrate this point in the future.

#8 – Apply for a PhD

Obtaining a PhD is a goal for most scientists wanting to stay in academia. You will want to reach out to as many research groups as possible to enquire about PhD positions and the earlier the better,  roughly a year before you plan to start. To find labs, look at papers which you found interesting and scan the author list to see which institutions the groups came from. The Astrobiology Society of Britain lists institutions which partake in UK based astrobiology research here, but it is unlikely to be an exhaustive list. NASA Astrobiology have their own list here, as does the European Astrobiology Network Association, EANA, here.

I reached out to many labs, some replied, some didn’t. I applied for five PhD programmes and was initially rejected from all of them, even the one I am in today. Thankfully another pot of funding appeared, and I was fortuitousness enough to then be accepted into the University of Edinburgh as a PhD student. Ask your lecturers and professors for help with applications, they have all been through this before and likely receive applications every year, so they know what they are talking about.

Your PhD project doesn’t have to be exactly what you did at undergrad, there is room to grow and develop your knowledge and skill. You aren’t meant to know everything going into your PhD and no one will expect you to.

#9 – Enjoy Yourself

The most important thing is to enjoy yourself. The road from school to university and beyond is a long one. You have to look after yourself. It can be easy to get obsessed with trying to achieve every metric of success or to compare yourself with the progress of others. This is bound to end in burnout. Mental health is rightfully becoming a prominent topic of discussion in academia. I consider myself lucky in that I have not had to brunt the worst that academia has to offer. I know amazing scientists and truly wonderful people who have been hurt by this system. The system is broken, so the most important thing you can do is look after yourself and those around you.

Hobbies, sports and other pursuits will help you stay grounded and give you an escape from the constant academic demands. For me, friends have been an invaluable source of joy and inspiration, without whom, I would never have completed my undergrad. We are all human and we are just doing the best we can.

In summary, if science is your thing, then study it as far and as wide as you can. Find something about astrobiology that you are passionately interested in and the research questions will come to you. It also does not matter what your background is, space is an astonishingly big place, and there is almost certainly an astrobiology question that can be answered by your area of interest. Enjoy the journey.


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