Should I do neuroscience or psychology?
August 11, 2009 6:30 PM   Subscribe

I want to research somatic disorders (specifically factitious disorder) or, at the very least, work as a psychologist within a medical context, what undergraduate major should I get?

I am choosing between a neuroscience major and a regular psychology major. Unfortunately, the neuroscience major doesn't leave enough time for me to take all of the clinical courses that I want to take. However, I feel that it would prepare me much more to research and practice at the confluence of medicine and psychology.

To complicate matters, I have never taken any biological sciences or chemistry at a college level and it has been 7 years since I took them in high school. I don't want to do so poorly that I get kicked out of the major or hurt my chances of going to grad school in clinical psych.

This question is anonymous because my controlling parents follow me on mefi and they don't need to know I am considering graduate school.
posted by anonymous to Education (9 answers total)
I'd recommmed a basic Biology major- it's the most versatile and will give you a fundamental basic science background that will serve useful in either medicine, or neuroscience. If you really are interested in clinical pyschology and neuroscience talk to faculty in those areas about doing an undergrad research internship.
posted by emd3737 at 6:43 PM on August 11, 2009

I'm a neuroscience major. The reason I'm a neuroscience major is because I want to do research on the neurogenetics of certain aspects of cognition; specifically intelligence. I am headed for graduate school for neurobiology.

The precise topic that I want to do research in requires some knowledge of cognitive psychology with regard to intelligence; at the same time, it is biology-focused.

Neuroscience is big on the basic sciences. Biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics. I and most of my fellow neuroscience majors will go on to PhD programs in neurobiology to study things such as Alzheimer's syndrome, neural networks, neurochemistry, electrochemistry, sensory neuroscience, and neurogenetics, and a handful of my fellow neuroscience majors go to med school.

Clinical psychology and psychological research, on the other hand, focus less on the basic sciences and more on, well, psychology. The research I can find on factitious disorder (for those others who are reading, it contains disorders such as Munchausen's syndrome, which is essentially chronic factitious disorder, and Ganser syndrome, which is crosslisted with various dissociative disorders) indicates more psychosocial causes, even if they're in combination with some somatic issues.

Your information about yourself indicates that you should go for a psychology major, but consider taking biology and introductory neurobiology.

By the way, your parents can eat a bowl of dicks if they're that controlling.
posted by kldickson at 6:47 PM on August 11, 2009

And a lot of us do in fact do cognitive and social neuroscience too.

You, however, seem to indicate that you want to do something much more psychology-focused.
posted by kldickson at 6:49 PM on August 11, 2009

If you're looking to get into a psych grad program, go with the psych degree. Unless you are particularly interested in a grad program with a strong clinical neuropsychology focus (or a desire to have one), the neuroscience degree will not be a big advantage in the application process.

Clinical programs are ridiculously competitive, and you'll need more than a great transcript to get into a good program.

If you're thinking about eventually applying to a grad program that is research focused, you should get an RA position in a clinical research lab -- ideally one that is similar in topic to your interests (if you can get your name on a poster, presentation, or ideally a journal article, that will help a lot). If you're more interested in the therapy side, find a peer counseling program or similar program to become involved in.

You should do everything you can to develop VERY strong references for your application. If your school has a big name researcher in somatic disorders, take her classes, chat during office hours, volunteer as an RA, impress her. Ask her advice regarding strong programs, key papers to read, etc. Identifying target grad programs early will enable you to spend a lot of time learning about their faculty.

(To understand what you're up against, imagine literally hundreds of recent psych grads, each with great grades and a deep desire to help others. Some will have worked with at-risk youth, others will have volunteered in shelters for battered women, the Peace Corps, or the like, some will have served as teaching assistants for intro to clinical psych courses, and some will have some clinical research experience. They will be the majority of your competition. In addition, you'll have some people with post-collegiate work experience who have decided that their real calling is clinical psychology).

[My understanding is that factitious disorders are remarkably rare, and are a somewhat sexy research topic. You should consider developing a complementary, broader interest area to avoid looking like a one trick pony.]
posted by i love cheese at 7:37 PM on August 11, 2009

Ok, so I'm currently a neuroscience graduate student and I got a B.S. in psychology and a B.S. in physics for my undergraduate studies.

The only thing I know about facticious disorder I just got from the wikipedia article, but from what I read there your best bet is certainly the psychology major. If you have the option of getting a B.A. or a B.S., take the B.S. as that usually includes some advanced statistics which will serve you well in the future. Neuroscience may seem like an attractive major because all psychological disorders can be thought to come from problems in the brain, but the fact is that our imaging techniques are not nearly precise enough to come close to looking for a reason for the disorder you describe. That disorder sounds like a problem in prefrontal cortex and the function of that whole area is highly debated (the specifics anyway). This is not to say that we have no idea about the nature of disorders or how gross damage to different structures in the brain affect people. When people damage sensory or motor areas the behavioral effects are quite clear. But things like depression, bipolar, and other psychological disorders are less well understood. What people do know about those disorders, and changes in the brain required to develop those disorders (if any) is often discussed (or at least it was for me) in certain electives available in the psychology major.

So, to summarize, I would recommend taking a psychology major, but when you have the option of taking an elective, be sure to take a class on Neuroanatomy to get a feeling for how the brain is laid out so you'll know how damage to different areas should affect behavior and how those areas communicate. Also try to find (usually an elective) a class that links damage to the brain to psychological disorders. For me, that class was called Physiological Psychology but it could have just as easily been a neuroscience course. Most of the topics in neuroscience will be at a level far below where you have any interest (i.e. molecular biology) and you should probably avoid those. You will do great in psychology, and it will be much more pertinent to the career that you intend to follow. If you've got any other questions about neuroscience or psychology, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by scrutiny at 7:39 PM on August 11, 2009

I think the psych degrees are your best bet, based on the info you gave about yourself and what you'd like to do. The reasons others gave above are the same reasons I'm saying it (also because I have undergrad and grad degrees in psych, and my experience tells me that the types of things you're looking to work on will be well fulfilled in that path).

Also, here's to your parents learning to let you be the adult you are!
posted by so_gracefully at 9:45 PM on August 11, 2009

My psych bs required at least three terms of biology, which required chemistry, which required math and I still had time to take multiple terms of neuroscience.

The psychology major has a lot of room to tailor to your interests and will give you a lot of flexibility as you go through it. Don't be afraid of biology if you think neuroscience is interesting, I am sure you will do fine, and they usually have a chemisty for psych majors that is a little easier on you.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 2:12 AM on August 12, 2009

Psychology. But you'd prob want a graduate degree too.
(Although you could go all out and major in anything, go to med school, get into psychiatry residency, and just end up specializing in those specialties...)
posted by ruwan at 2:38 AM on August 12, 2009

I think it depends on the psych department (or perhaps just the BS/BA distinction). If your psych classes include neuropsych, cognitive psych, clinical psych, research methods, and biology, then a psych degree with serve you well. (I think it's clear that you know you can't do anything without a graduate degree in psych). A good basis in experimental/research psych will help you score high on the GRE Subject test which may be important for some admissions committees.

If your psych classes include only things like psych of gender and human relations, get a bio degree and take the basic psych and neuro courses on the side. Clinical psych programs will not be impressed with BA coursework and you won't be prepared for research.
posted by parkerjackson at 3:00 PM on August 12, 2009

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