Online PhD in Space and Planetary Sciences

The field of space and planetary sciences is almost as vast as the universe itself. Very much a multidisciplinary degree, this field touches on advanced fields of science, many of which still await significant discovery. In a doctorate program, students explore astronomy, astrophysics, space physics, planetary and solar studies, and the physics of lightning, to name a few. At the doctoral level, they can also narrow their studies to a specific area of interest by specializing in a niche discipline of the space sciences.

Because this is a competitive field, a doctorate increases students’ marketability in the global planetary sciences research community. With an advanced planetary science degree, students can pursue positions in research or academia that are on the cutting edge of this field. They may be trained to become qualified professionals for teaching and research in academic institutions. Or, graduates may go on to conduct important, groundbreaking research and related work in government and industry.

About Online PhD Programs in Space and Planetary Sciences

Fully online PhD programs in space and planetary sciences are currently pretty rare. You might find that a program offers some classes online or in a hybrid form, but the amount of technical equipment used in many courses makes these opportunities limited. For instance, classes might take place in a high-tech lab or planetarium. During a doctorate, you can expect to take core courses in the planetary sciences, as well as study a specialized area. This might include the experimental, observational, and theoretical study of planetary atmospheres; the interiors of planets and planetary satellites; asteroid and cometary astronomy and physics; meteoritics; problems of plasma physics associated with cosmic rays; the solar wind and its interaction with solar system bodies; celestial dynamics; solar physics; and investigations of the formation of the solar system and other planetary systems. For an idea of what specific types of classes you might take, here are a few that are offered by the University of Arkansas:


Year One:

  • Astrophysics. This course covers stellar evolution, interstellar medium, galactic nucleogenesis, and observational cosmology.
  • Planetary Systems. This course covers topics in the nature of the solar system and other planetary systems as deduced from observations and theoretical modeling; the structure and evolution of terrestrial and Jovian planets and their satellites; planetary atmospheres, magnetospheres, and the solar wind; and theoretical and observed properties of exoplanetary systems.
  • Space and Planetary Lab. This laboratory course in space and planetary sciences consists of experiments in the five major areas of space and planetary sciences: planetary astronomy, planetary geology, planetary atmospheres, origin and evolution of life, and orbital mechanics and astronautics.

Year Two:

  • Planetary Atmospheres. This course covers topics on the origins of planetary atmospheres, structures of atmospheres, climate evolution, dynamics of atmospheres, levels in the atmosphere, the upper atmosphere, escape of atmospheres, and comparative planetology of atmospheres.
  • Planetary Geology. This is the exploration of the solar system, geology and stratigraphy, meteorite impacts, planetary surfaces, planetary crusts, basaltic volcanism, planetary interiors, chemical composition of the planets, and origin and evolution of the Moon and planets.
  • Astrobiology. Discusses the scientific basis for the possible existence of extraterrestrial life, including the origin and evolution of life on Earth, possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system (including Mars), and the possibility of life on planets around other stars.

After completing all required and formal elective coursework, doctorate candidates can expect to spend about 15 credit hours on their thesis. This will involve conducting original research, culminating in a dissertation that they must then defend before a dissertation advisory committee. This defense is often the final requirement for the Ph.D. Areas of research may be limited to what the program offers, though can include studies on celestial dynamics, solar physics, or the formation of the solar system.

Value and Criticisms of a PhD in Space and Planetary Sciences

In most science fields, candidates require significant training and education to be eligible for these positions. This is especially the case in the space and planetary sciences. Pursuing a doctorate, therefore, can open the door to more opportunities, especially in research and education. With an advanced degree, you will be a more competitive candidate for positions in the civilian, industry, and military space endeavor. You also will be able to study in-depth a discipline within space and planetary sciences that interests you. A doctoral program can also put you in contact with the leading professionals in the field, which can lead to networking, career, and writing opportunities.

At the same time, a doctorate isn’t for everyone. It requires intense research and writing for several years. If those are two things that don’t appeal to you, a Ph.D. can be a very tiresome process that would be difficult to follow through. It can also be very time consuming. Oftentimes, students pursue their doctorate while still working, so you have to be willing to sacrifice much of your time, which may not be appealing or possible for people with many commitments. Opportunities to pursue fully online doctoral degrees in space and planetary sciences are also limited, so you may have to relocate to attend the program.

Application & Admission Requirements

Application and admission requirements will vary from program to program beyond your typical application and college transcripts. Given the high degree level, you can generally expect that programs will require you to have a specific GPA, such as a minimum of 3.0, and a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as physics, astronomy, geology, geophysics, geochemistry, atmospheric sciences, or planetary sciences. Applicants may also be required to submit recent GRE scores (within the last five years or so), including the physics subject test of the GRE, though this may only be recommended. Multiple letters of recommendation are also usually required as part of the admissions process.

Career Options & Job Market

Graduates of planetary science graduate programs usually work as scientists with their Ph.D., conducting research in their particular field of expertise. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, atmospheric and space scientists made a mean annual wage of $90,860 as of May 2011. The largest employers were the Federal Executive Branch; science research and development services; and other professional, scientific, and technical services; colleges, universities, and professional schools; and radio and television broadcasting, working as meteorologists.

According to the BLS, employment of atmospheric sciences is expected to grow by 11% through 2020, with new, advanced computer models increasing the need for these trained professionals to tailor forecasts to specific purposes. The BLS does warn that prospective atmospheric scientists should expect competition for research positions as colleges and universities, as well as in federal government, due to fewer positions than graduates of programs. The best prospects will be in the private industry and for those with a graduate degree.

Where to Find Information

  • American Astronomical Society: A major organization of professional astronomers in North America, this society provides information on educational and career services for those whose research interests lie within the broad spectrum of subjects now comprising contemporary astronomy, including planetary scientists.
  • Lunar and Planetary Institute: This research institute provides support services to NASA and the planetary science community, and conducts planetary science research under the leadership of staff scientists, visiting researchers, and postdoctoral fellows.
  • Astronomy Education Review: This online publication publishes research papers, short articles on innovative work, and comparative reviews of resources related to education and outreach.
  • U.S. News & World Report: The premier college guide provides rankings on a variety of graduate programs, including related fields like physics.

How to Get Funding

When you apply to an online Ph.D. program, it’s equally important to apply to any and all financial aid opportunities available to you. There are many options to help you pay for your program, as well as support yourself while you earn it. These range from fellowship programs, scholarships, and teaching and research assistantships to grants and federal loans. If you want to receive any federal aid, you’ll have to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), form online, as well as be attending an accredited institution of higher education. Eligibility requirements for scholarships and fellowships will vary by program, so be sure to check with your school’s financial aid office for any opportunities that are available to you. Also keep in mind that some forms of financial aid might only be offered to students who attend school full time.

  • Federal Direct Stafford Loan. This student aid program provides low-interest loans with a fixed interest rate of 6.80%. The maximum loan students can take out is $20,500 per academic year.
  • Federal Perkins Loan. Another form of federal aid, this loan has a lower fixed interest rate of 5.0%, though it offers an average of $3,500 per academic year.
  • Campus-Based Aid. Financial aid opportunities offered through your university can include fellowships, teaching and research assistantships, and scholarships based on need or academic merit.

Essential Advice

  • Is this the right step for you?: Committing to earning a doctorate is a big commitment, so before you apply, make sure that it is a smart move for you. You’ll want to figure out how it will benefit you in the long run, and if it will present any challenges to you immediately, such as financially. To help decide, you can reach out to people who are currently enrolled in online doctoral programs in space and planetary sciences to learn about their experiences.
  • Start early: Once you’ve decided this is the right move for you, it’s time to apply. It can take time to gather all the appropriate application requirements, from relevant test scores to recommendations to your statement of purpose, so make sure you start early in the process to give yourself enough time in case something comes up.
  • Value work experience: You don’t necessarily have to go straight from a bachelor’s to an online Ph.D. in space and planetary sciences. Taking a break from school and gaining work experience can also be beneficial by providing you with new skills, as well as helping you decide where you might want to conduct research further in the field.
  • Get financial aid: One of the biggest questions about continuing your education is not only how are you going to afford it, but how are you going to cover living experiences while you earn your degree? In the long-run, a doctoral program can earn you more than the cost of getting the degree, but in the meantime, you should get a plan in place on how you’re going to support yourself while you earn your degree, from financial aid to work opportunities.