House of Mind

"Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind" - Jeffrey Eugenides

  • 6th May
    2011
  • 06

How to Become a Neuroscientist

I have gotten so many questions about people who are interested in neuroscience as a career that I have created this post so I can reference back to it in the future.

Note: This is a guide directed towards people that want RESEARCH careers. My graduate program’s approach towards neuroscience  integrated knowledge from many areas like electrophysiology, cellular and molecular biology, and computational neurobiology relying on mathematics/physics. Also, a number of you seem to be under the impression that I am studying neuropsych, which I am not. Neuropsych is traditionally a more clinically-oriented branch within neuroscience. 

First of all, if you want to become a neuroscientist, you will most likely have to complete formal graduate training in a related branch or field. You have to be ready for this, because it is something that will take a long time. Not to worry though, time flies and if you like what you’re doing you won’t mind…

In college, the most common options are majoring in either biology or psychology. Some schools have a neuroscience or biopsychology major that may be in the biological sciences department or the psych department or even a combination of both. For example, you could major in biology and minor in psych or vice versa… Because neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field, I would recommend taking courses outside your major (especially if you’re in a psych dept). Helpful and attractive courses include: physics, calculus, organic chemistry, biochem, genetics, cell and molecular biology, bioethics, and neuropsych or psych courses. Importantly, some people come from other backgrounds like electrical/computer engineering that are also helpful in areas like electrophysiology, computational neurobiology and neuronal modeling. Thus, a major in biology or psychology is not a MUST but it definitely gives you an advantage. 

While in college, it is also important to gain research experience (try volunteering in labs just to learn or for course credit) while maintaining a decent GPA. And by decent I mean higher than 3.5 on a 4.0 scale. Of course, not all is lost if your GPA is below a 3.5. It will just be harder and you might not be regarded as competitive as other students. Mind you, if you have a 4.0 but all your classes are in the soft sciences and you didn’t take challenging courses, you’re in trouble as well… Third year of college (assuming you will graduate in 4 years) is crucial. This is the time to beef up your CV/resume, take the GRE, talk to people who will be your references, and complete your application to graduate schools. Graduate schools have a wide variety of programs (i.e. neurobiology, neuroscience, neuropsych) with different kinds of focus. Look at the curriculum for each program and find one that is well-suited for your interests and career aspirations. Remember to apply early and to ask for fee waivers, if available (I applied to 8 schools and got fee waivers for all but one of them!). Your personal statement is essential. And by that I mean it absolutely has to be good if not great. Different schools have different criteria for this essay and you should remember to pay attention to these criteria and follow instructions. You should also have several people proofread it before you send it. After you submit your application, send an e-mail to make sure everything is complete. If you get an interview, ask who your interviewers will be and familiarize yourself with their research and areas of expertise. Be nice, enthusiastic and ask smart questions. Also, during your interview, highlight why you want to be part of the training environment at that particular university or location and why you’d be a good match for the program and the department. Remember to send thank you e-mail to the faculty that met with you and anybody else you deem appropriate to thank. 

Graduate school: Do your best to learn and understand the material presented in your intro classes, as it will be the foundation that most of the other classes will be built upon. You don’t need stellar grades in graduate school, but you do need to pass, which for most universities is a solid B. While you are during your first year, you will most probably rotate through different labs in which you will be able to get to know the lab, learn the techniques and figure out if it’s a good fit for you. After you finish classes, you will be working on your thesis. Most likely, you will need to propose your thesis, select a review committee (composed of experts in fields relating to your research), work in lab and collect data to support your thesis, and defend it. After you defend your thesis, your committee decides your fate. This is the meat of grad school. Work, work, work. Get that thesis out and publishing well. Bonus if you learn how to write grants. 

Post-graduate school: Postdoctoral fellowships are a common way of learning additional techniques or addressing a different but related question. Or you could also go into something you don’t know much about. I keep hearing that a postdoc is supposed to add versatility, diversity and publications to your CV. This is also the time period in which you learn how to run a lab, work on your own independent projects, write grants, and decide where you want your career to go (i.e. industry, academia, clinical). Think about it as an extension of your training in which you get more freedom and flexibility.

Alternatively, some people enroll in medical school to pursue an MD degree in addition to the Ph.D. one while others go back to school for other degrees (ex. PsyD, law, etc…). Others find industry jobs or go into public policy. 

Hope this helps. If you want to know about something more specific not listed here, contact me. 

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