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How Astrobiologists Work

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Training to Join the Search

Hardly any universities offer astrobiology degrees, but there a few, like Penn State and the University of Washington [sources: Dartnell, Lubick]. And you won't find a lot of job-search sites with "astrobiologist" in the drop-down menu.

So getting to astrobiology can be a roundabout path, and it takes forethought. There are basically two main factors to consider: What kind of astrobiology research do you want to specialize in, and in what scientific field will you lay roots on your way to astrobiology?

While nearly any scientific discipline can overlap with astrobiology, it's a good idea to get into a closely related field, such as astrophysics, astronomy, microbiology or analytical chemistry [sources: Dartnell, Lubick]. If your school offers any astrobiology classes, take them, too, while you fulfill the requirements of your degree.

The second question – which type of astrobiology research do you want to pursue – is tough to answer early on, but it's wise to do so. The best way into astrobiology is by joining an established team, and the best way to win one of those rare positions is by tailoring your own work to suit the team's area of research [sources: NASA, Dartnell]. So explore the various projects astrobiologists are working on and figure out what interests you most. Then contact the team's principal investigator and ask questions [source: Dartnell]. How can you tailor your coursework toward a position there? Are there any Ph.D. positions available? Summer internships you can apply for?

Astrobiology-related internships in general are a huge plus (NASA offers some, too), as are other extracurricular endeavors that put you in the world of astrobiology. Some are highly competitive, like the Josep Comas i Solà International Astrobiology Summer School, offered through a partnership between NASA and the Centro de Astrobiologia in Spain [source: NASA]. Others are more open, like the annual Astrobiology Graduate Conference, or AbGradCon. And anyone can subscribe to the Web-based NAI Seminar Series, in which astrobiologists discuss their work [source: NASA].

If all goes according to plan, you'll make your way into an exclusive field -- one based on answering the biggest questions faced by humanity. What is life? How did we get here? Are we alone in this huge universe?

At the moment, we could be, as no one has yet found scientifically valid evidence of extraterrestrial life [source: NASA]. But who knows. The next generation of astrobiologists could uncover microbes on Titan or decode a radio signal sent by intelligent life in a galaxy far, far away.

For now, though, MAVEN circles Mars, sampling the atmosphere for clues to habitability, planetary change and the universe driving it all.