SETI Sleuths: Are You a Future SETI Scientist?

by Edna DeVore, Director of Education and Outreach

I am often asked, "How can I become a SETI scientist and find ET?" Students are excited by the SETI searches and want to participate. Diverse academic pathways lead to career as a scientific sleuth seeking evidence for ET. Most of the time, students assume that they should train as scientists. True, but this is only one avenue to working on major scientific research projects.

SETI -- the search for extraterrestrial intelligence -- plies the sky for signals from distant civilizations by using ground-based technology. SETI scientists use the worlds largest radio telescopes to eavesdrop on ET. Additionally, new searches have started looking for very short but extremely bright pulses of visible light -- flashing beacons that announce ET's presence in our galaxy. These searches use cutting-edge technology and telescopes, and the people who run these projects have knowledge and skills from many disciplines.

At the SETI Institute, the scientists of Project Phoenix and the Allen Telescope Array have Ph.D.s in astronomy, astrophysics, physics, and mathematics. Other staff members are facilities planners, electrical engineers, computer scientists, and technicians in electronics and information systems. And, of course, they need administrative support of many types.

So, you want a career in SETI? In high school you should take as much science and math as possible, but don't neglect English. As SETI scientist Peter Backus states, "to be able to do science, I need to communicate effectively. I use what I learned in high school English classes much more frequently than the quantum mechanics that I learned in graduate school." Scientists write papers to publish discoveries and present talks for other scientists and the public. They write proposals to obtain funding, reports to communicate accomplishments, and they use e-mail.

To be a SETI scientist, you should think about an undergraduate degree in physics, mathematics or engineering. You might assume that you should pursue an undergraduate degree in astronomy. However, this is not sufficient. Generally, SETI researchers have advanced degrees such as a Ph.D. in astronomy, astrophysics, or engineering. Graduate programs generally require undergraduate degrees in physics, math, or engineering -- not astronomy. There is a very helpful Web site on careers in astronomy hosted by the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the professional organization for astronomers.

When you go to college, the most important thing to do is to find out what you like most as an undergraduate. That will help you decide which graduate school to attend and what to study. There are no graduate programs in SETI, so you'll have to work on something closely related like: theoretical cosmology (Jill Tarter), radio galaxies (John Dreher), astronomy (Mike Davis), astronomy (Frank Drake), galaxies (Seth Shostak), physics of the ionosphere (Kent Cullers) or pulsars (Peter Backus). Then, become a SETI sleuth seeking evidence for ET.