SETI is a very young field (academically)

SETI is not a field that has a large presence in academia, especially in terms of graduate education. Indeed, there are only two regularly numbered graduate courses in the world on the topic that I’m aware of (at Penn State and UCLA).

Because of this, it’s hard to get a PhD while having the primary focus of your dissertation be searching for technological extraterrestrial life. In fact, so far as I can tell (speaking with many of the people in the field) it’s only been done five six times:

  1. Darren Leigh (1998, Horowitz, thesis)
  2. Charles Coldwell (2002, Horowitz, thesis)
  3. Andrew Howard (2006, Horowitz, thesis)
  4. Andrew Siemion (2012, Bower & Werthimer (co-chairs), thesis)
  5. Curtis Mead (2013, Horowitz, thesis)
  6. Ian Morrison (2017, Tinney, thesis)

Paul Horowitz, SETI PhD adviser extraordinaire.

Until Andrew Siemion’s dissertation at Berkeley Paul Horowitz was responsible for supervising 100% of all SETI dissertations! Thanks, Paul! Of these six, three are professional astronomers today, Mead is at Apple, and Coldwell works in a astronomy-related industry (I don’t know where Darren Leigh is and Darren Leigh describes his career here).

This is not to say that no other graduate students have done work on the topic. Here are a few of the (presumably many) theses that had a significant SETI component:

  1. Maggie Turnbull
  2. Jayanth Chennamangalam
  3. Hayden Rampadarath
  4. Kimberley M. S. Cartier

And there has also been a lot of doctoral work in the social sciences studying SETI itself, for instance in this thesis by Daniel Romesberg.

I’m also aware of five current graduate students who have or have planned for major (50-100%) components of their dissertation work to be searching for intelligent life in the universe:

  1. Emilio Enriquez (Falcke)
  2. Sofia Sheikh (J. Wright)
  3. Paul Pinchuk (Margot)
  4. Bryan Brzycki (Siemion/dePater)

And two more with at least a portion of their thesis about SETI:

  1. Gerry Zhang (Siemion/dePater)
  2. Maren Cosens (S. Wright)

So the number of thesis is poised to go up by at around 100% in the next few years! This is (weak) evidence of what certainly feels like a resurgence in the field. Still, these numbers are tiny compared to the perception of the amount of SETI work being done, and illustrate how young the field really is, despite the nearly 60 years that have elapsed since its inception.

[Update: The first SETI PhD, Darren Leigh, comments!]

[Update: I missed one! Ian Morrison points me to his thesis, which I have added to the list]

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