How To Become a Neuroscientist

students learning about cognitive neuroscience in a lecture

If you have a passion for science and an analytical mind, you might consider a career in neuroscience. From discovering proteins that are essential for athletic performance to implanting tiny brain chips into the brains of paralyzed people to allow them to use computers, neuroscientists are making great strides forward every year for the betterment of humanity. Wondering how to become a neuroscientist? Explore this career guide to learn more.

What is a Neuroscientist?

Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, which includes the brain. Neuroscientists explore the biological and chemical processes that occur in the brain. These professionals are usually medical scientists who may study everything from brain development to the treatment of brain tumors to the diagnosis of dementia. Some neuroscientists are also medical doctors who work directly with patients.

Psychology is the study of human thoughts and behaviors. Psychology professionals study topics such as the development of language and the treatment of depression, and overlap between Psychology and Neuroscience can be extensive. Either path can be a route to a neuroscience career. 

What Do Neuroscientists Do?

A neuroscientist is a lifelong learner who continually strives to increase the body of knowledge in the field. These professionals typically work in academia, such as within research facilities and teaching hospitals, but they may also work in the for-profit, nonprofit, and governmental sectors. Some neuroscientists spend much of their time in the lab or the office, while others work in clinics to provide direct patient care.

The daily tasks of a neuroscientist heavily depend on the work setting and employer. In general, however, these scientists may do any of the following in their quest to learn more about the nervous system:

  • Design scientific experiments and develop hypotheses
  • Prepare cell and tissue samples
  • Use advanced lab equipment to analyze samples and monitor brain activity
  • Use sophisticated computer software to create models and simulations of the nervous system

A neuroscientist may also spend much of their time finding funding opportunities and writing grant proposals to keep their lab funded. Neuroscientists stay on top of the latest developments and research in their field by reading academic journals and research papers. They also publish their own research in such journals.

What Is Cognitive Neuroscience?

Cognitive neuroscience is a specialty within the neuroscience field. This subfield focuses on the biological processes that support or facilitate cognition. In particular, cognitive neuroscientists study the relationships between the structures of the brain and their activity or cognitive functions.

Neuroscientists who choose to focus on this subfield have the most overlap with the psychology field. Some students might even choose to earn a dual degree in biology or neuroscience with psychology.

Are There Other Subfields of Neuroscience?

There are many subfields of neuroscience that students may wish to consider focusing on. In addition to cognitive neuroscience, the following are common specialties:

  • Developmental neuroscience – Focuses on how the brain forms, develops and changes 
  • Molecular and cellular neuroscience – Explores the molecules (proteins, genes, etc.) that dictate the function of neurons and other brain cells
  • Clinical neuroscience – Explores the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders and injuries (e.g. brain tumors)
  • Neurogenetics – Focuses on inherited diseases that affect neurons, such as Huntington’s disease
  • Neurophysiology – Studies the nervous system and its functions
  • Sensory neuroscience – Evaluates the body’s sensory systems, including how the nervous system processes sensory information

As you can see, there are many subfields in which to consider specializing when you choose a career in neuroscience. However, you don’t need to choose a subfield right away. You might not know exactly where your interests lie until you begin pursuing your graduate education.

How to Become a Neuroscientist: An Overview

The process of becoming a neuroscientist is quite lengthy and rigorous. It is a meaningful and rewarding line of work, yet you must be certain that you can commit to many long years of hard study and research. However, if you’re still in high school, you don’t need to decide right away.

You can begin taking high school courses that support a future career in neuroscience, such as Advanced Placement (AP) biology and chemistry, as well as advanced mathematics classes like pre-calculus. These courses will be useful to you even if you ultimately decide that your career lies in a different STEM field. Don’t neglect the humanities either, as scientists must be able to clearly communicate their research and analyses verbally and in writing.

Talk to your guidance counselor about your career ambitions. They may be able to connect you to internships and job shadowing opportunities that can help you decide if neuroscience is the right field for you.

Lastly, take advantage of any enrichment opportunities your high school offers. For example, you may wish to join a science club, enter the science fair or practice your leadership skills on the sports field.

The journey to become a neuroscientist will begin to pick up speed after high school. You’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree and/or a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). If you intend on working with patients, you will need to earn a degree from medical school and a physician’s license.

After earning your doctoral degree, you’ll complete one or more postdoctoral programs. These are research-intensive positions that sometimes also involve teaching. After your time as a postdoc, you’ll be able to compete for advanced positions in the field, such as the opportunity to direct your own laboratory.

Undergraduate Qualifications for a Career in Cognitive Neuroscience

After you’ve graduated from high school, the next step to become a neuroscientist is to earn your bachelor’s degree.

If you decide you’d like to work directly with patients, you should bear in mind that you’ll need to go to medical school. Because of this, it’s a good idea to choose a degree that has a pre-med specialization or concentration. You can also choose a pre-med concentration even if you’re not quite sure yet whether you want to go into clinical or cognitive neuroscience; there is no obligation to go to medical school simply because you chose a pre-med degree.

The types of classes you’ll take will depend on the specific degree you’ve chosen. In general, however, you can expect to study topics such as the following:

  • Biological concepts, structures and functions, including cell components and life cycles
  • Fundamentals of chemistry, including chemical bonding and chemical structures
  • Medical terminology to facilitate professional communication
  • Biochemical principles, such as chemical reactivity, kinetics, thermodynamics and membrane structure
  • Psychopharmacology, which explores the effects of drugs on a person’s behavior and mind 
  • Psychology, behavior and cognition

College is an exciting time, and you should spend your free time getting to know your peers and enjoying campus activities. However, a STEM degree requires a great deal of hard work and studying. If you have trouble keeping up with the curriculum you can consult your professors during office hours and talk to your student services department about tutoring options. 

Master’s Degrees for Future Neuroscientists

After graduating with your Bachelor of Science degree (BS), your next step is to earn a graduate degree — either a master’s degree, or jumping ahead directly to your PhD. Your graduate degree program should be more tightly focused on your intended career.

If you pursue a master's degree, look for one in neuroscience from an accredited university. It generally takes students two years of full-time study to complete a master’s degree in neuroscience. Expect a challenging curriculum that covers topics ranging from the effects of the aging process to cell signaling to the neuroplasticity of the brain. You’ll receive a combination of classroom instruction and lab work.

Your master’s degree program is likely to require the completion of a master’s thesis. This is a lengthy research project and paper. It’s best to choose a topic that pertains to the specific type of research you’d like to perform in your future career.

Earning Your PhD in Neuroscience

A PhD program in neuroscience will be a rigorous, in-depth exploration of advanced topics in the field, ranging from neurotoxicology to phase plane neural oscillator analysis. A typical PhD program begins with coursework followed by a major exam.

At some schools, this exam is known as the “qualifying exam” or “qual,” while at others, it’s called the “preliminary exam” or “prelim.” Expect to need at least a semester of intensive studying to prepare for this rigorous exam.

Completing your dissertation will involve designing and conducting your own original research. First, you’ll get your topic approved by your dissertation advisor and committee and you’ll write a research proposal that outlines how you intend to go about investigating your topic. Then, you’ll conduct the experiments, analyze your findings and write your dissertation.

Your PhD program will conclude with a dissertation defense. This is an oral defense of your research and analyses that you will present to your dissertation committee.

It usually takes between four and six years to complete a PhD program in neuroscience. You can expect to commit to your program on a full-time basis. In addition to working through your coursework, acquiring advanced lab skills, and writing your dissertation, you will likely assist in undergraduate neuroscience classes, write grant proposals for your lab, and publish your own research papers.

Completing One or More Postdoctoral Programs

Generally, neuroscientists complete one or more postdoctoral (postdoc or post-doc) programs following their doctoral graduation. A postdoc is like a bridge between the doctoral program and a full-time professional position.

Most often, postdoc programs take place at academic institutions and focus on research. However, there may also be postdoc opportunities within industry, government, and even various nonprofit organizations. As a postdoc, you’ll likely have a bit more freedom to choose your own research topics than you did as a PhD student.

You can use your postdoc program(s) to broaden your areas of expertise or deepen your knowledge in your specialty area. A postdoc appointment may last between one and three years. During this time, you’ll likely teach courses, secure grants, and publish your research.

When Do Future Neuroscientists Need to Go to Medical School?

You will need a medical doctor (MD) degree as if you intend on working with patients as a clinical neuroscientist. If you desire advanced research training alongside your medical education, you may opt for a combined degree program. Some schools offer joint MD/PhD programs.

In addition to your PhD coursework and dissertation, you will need to take medical school classes and complete clinical rotations at a teaching hospital. You can expect to spend about eight years in a joint MD/PhD program. You’ll also need to pass your physician licensing exams and complete a residency.

Are Neuroscientists in High Demand?

All types of medical professionals, including scientists like neuroscientists, are expected to be in high demand for the foreseeable future. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track anticipated job openings for neuroscientists specifically, but it does track hiring trends for all types of medical scientists in general.

As of September 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for medical scientists to increase by about 17% from 2020 to 2030, faster than average, accounting for an estimated increase of 22,600 jobs in the field.1

You can begin working toward a rewarding career in neuroscience when you enroll at Grand Canyon University. GCU offers a number of rigorous STEM degree programs, including the Bachelor of Science in Biology with an Emphasis in Pre-Medicine. This degree prepares graduates to pursue any type of neuroscience specialty. Click on “Request Info” above to get started.

 

1COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Medical Scientists.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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