College major question
September 21, 2012 2:28 PM   Subscribe

If I wanted to become an expert on Schizophrenia, and do field work on the subject, what would I need to major in?
posted by SarcasticSeraph to Education (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by rabbitbookworm at 2:31 PM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Clinical psychology or Biological Psychology, depending on your own interests.
posted by txmon at 2:32 PM on September 21, 2012

Which aspect of schizophrenia, specifically? If you want to study it medically, you'd want to enter your college's pre-med program and then go to medical school for psychiatry. If you wanted to be a therapist working with people with schizophrenia, you'd probably major in psychology and get a master's degree in one of the social work/therapy fields, and then either find work in a clinical setting or get a license to open your own therapy practice.

There's also the anthropological, sociological and historic perspectives, but I can't tell you much about studying schizophrenia academically.
posted by griphus at 2:33 PM on September 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

That depends on what kind of expert you want to be. Psychology is a good choice. If you're interested in studying/ doing work on integrating people with schizophrenia into communities, social work would be a good field.
posted by epj at 2:33 PM on September 21, 2012

NB: Some colleges don't have a specific pre-med program, so you'll want to speak with an advisor about whether there's a de facto pre-med major (in my college it was biochemistry) or if there's a specific track for eventually going on to psychiatry in medical school.
posted by griphus at 2:35 PM on September 21, 2012

For your undergrad, you can be pretty open to majors. What is more important is doing well and having some science classes.

Mental illness involves a lot of statistics and being able to figure out medication regimes. You could major in Anthropology or Sociology, because mental illnesses have huge social components

Psychology, for obvious reasons
Human Biology, focus on brains if you can
Environmental science can be a good fit, because how humans interact with their surrounds has something to do with mental illness
Math, for that concrete thinking
History, because being a true expert in schizophrenia would require being able to research back in time to find accounts of the disease in primary and secondary sources.

But whatever you do, be diligent and focused and really know that topic inside and out. This will provide great practice for becoming an expert in another topic.
posted by bilabial at 2:35 PM on September 21, 2012

This is unfortunately not a simple answer, because how schools name their departments around this stuff varies a lot. It could be Psychology, or Cognitive Science, or Neuroscience, or Cognitive Neuroscience, depending on exactly how you want to study, and the way individual schools break up their departments. For example at my school the Psychology department was focused almost solely on clinical training (i.e., becoming a practicing psychologist), whereas if you just wanted to do research on the subject you could have been in any of the other 3 (depending on the level of research you wanted to conduct). Different angles would yet have different fields that you could major in (on preview, I see there have already been several other suggestions).
posted by brainmouse at 2:35 PM on September 21, 2012

Used to work in a schizophrenia research lab. You can get a job as an RA with just about any undergraduate degree and learn a lot about the disease. The RAs would work directly with patients in a research setting. We also had clinician-PIs, who would oversee the research and also work with patients clinically. Most of them were psychiatry MDs, but we had a few clinical psychology Ph.D.s and one Ph.D. specializing in neuropsychology. The PIs didn't do the field work themselves.
posted by supercres at 2:36 PM on September 21, 2012

If you want to be a schizophrenia expert, you want to be a psychiatrist.

Since you will be going to medical school, you can pretty much have whatever undergraduate major you like. While not every school as a "pre-med" major, there is a general load of classes that is recommended for the MCAT and med school, such as chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and biology. You can major in any of these fields but at least when I was an undergraduate, the medical schools liked humanities majors.
posted by Tanizaki at 2:42 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Define "field work"?
posted by Mercaptan at 2:58 PM on September 21, 2012

You can get a job as an RA with just about any undergraduate degree and learn a lot about the disease. The RAs would work directly with patients in a research setting.

That's what I'd like to do! Looks like Psychology is my major. Clinical Psychology, specifically?

As a side note, I wonder how interested in this topic I would be if my sister were not schizophrenic. :/
posted by SarcasticSeraph at 3:09 PM on September 21, 2012

It really depends on what you mean by "expert."

If you wanted to study the disorder and its causes, symptoms, treatments, etc., you would probably want to choose your major with an eye to going to medical school or doing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology or some kind of neuroscience (the exact names of the programs will probably vary by school). Or both.

You can go to med school with any major, but you have to do the pre med sequence of courses- a certain sequence of chemistry and biology courses plus some physics and a few other requirements. You can google for this pretty easily and your school probably has either a pre-made major that gets you the required courses or an advisor who can help you work the courses you need in around another major. You would then need to get into med school. You can't go to med school for a particular speciality- it's four years of just plain med school for everyone, then you do a residency in your speciality for some number of years, depending on the specialty. Residencies are generally competitive, and I think I've heard that psychiatry is a tougher one to get into.

If you want to go the Ph.D. route, you could also major in anything, although psychology, biology or neuro would be the best bets. You would need to do coursework in those areas regardless. The other crucial thing would be getting involved in doing research however you can- with a prof at your school during the semesters, over the summers anywhere you can get a spot, as a research associate/assistant after graduation. Doing all of these wouldn't be a bad idea, because clinical psych Ph.D. programs are really competitive. You'd want to figure out where the exciting schizophrenia research is coming from, and apply to those schools. Big name schools aren't always better- if the big name in schizophrenia research is at Wherever State University, you want to go there and be a grad student in his or her lab. Your professors in undergrad are a good resource for guidance in this area.

Now, if you didn't want to focus on schizophrenia as a disorder, your options are a lot broader. You could do anthropology and study schizophrenia in different cultures, or how people with the disorder have been thought of and dealt with over time. Or you could become an expert in how people with schizophrenia are treated today- how do their lives play out? What kind of programs, supports, etc. are available to them? What are the barriers to treatment? Are there alternatives to treatments with medication and how do they work (or not work)? How can any of this be done better? If these are the kinds of questions you're interested in, psychology or social work would probably be the best choices for major and/or graduate school. Again, you'd want to find out where the interesting work is happening on these questions and figure out how to get there.

It really all depends on what you mean by expert. What questions do you want to answer? What brings you to the subject? What makes you angry or curious or passionate?
posted by MadamM at 3:11 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

nthing the idea that you could do this through a lot of majors. I think the only one I can think of that hasn't been mentioned yet is epidemiology. But, really, even seemingly unconnected majors like Computer Science could prepare you for certain types of research.

I guess a possible takeaway is that, if you're looking at work in the biological sciences, the disease specialty is not as important to consider as your amount of interest in the field of study.
posted by gurple at 3:15 PM on September 21, 2012

...if you're looking at work in the biological sciences, the disease specialty is not as important to consider as your amount of interest in the field of study.

As I said, my sister has schizophrenia, so I am very interested in the subject.
posted by SarcasticSeraph at 3:36 PM on September 21, 2012

I'm in a grad program for occupational therapy and I'm finding out that there's a lot of exciting work (moar jobz!) OTs are doing with patients with schizophrenia, and it's becoming much for common for OTs to work in mental health. In fact, I'll be required to do one of my 6-month clinical fieldwork rotations at a mental health facility all next summer and this fall I'm leading therapeutic group sessions at a homeless shelter for men who have all come from Bellevue! It's a crazy environment, but so fascinating. OT is great because you really see how all types of cognitive, perceptual, and physical disorders directly impair function--and then you get to help clients adapt and regain some of that lost function with a super hands-on approach. And we don't have to go home at the end of the day feeling like all we did was give someone a prescription. OT!!
posted by HotPatatta at 3:46 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

A general psychology undergraduate major should be fine. If you want to do research, you should start looking at PhD programs in psychology. What PhD program? Well, start looking for papers or academic publications that interest you and see who is doing the schizophrenia research that you find interesting. Then go on those schools' websites and look at their requirements for their programs. That should give you a general idea of what classes you need to take.

You can also get a guidebook to PhDs in psychology; there is a big book that lists every school's requirements. Go to a big bookstore and look around.

PhDs and psychiatrists are going to be doing the vast majority of research work into schizophrenia.

Medical school and clinical psychology PhD programs are among the most difficult graduate programs to be admitted to, so one of the most important things you can do is ensure that your grades are all top notch. Think 4.0 if you can do it. You should also start planning extracurricular activities that show your interest and commitment. At this point, you might consider volunteering somewhere with mentally ill patients or doing some other form of patient interaction work. Perhaps later you could try to get some research experience under your belt.

Good luck!
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:04 PM on September 21, 2012

As I said, my sister has schizophrenia, so I am very interested in the subject.

Oh, I get that -- sorry if I seemed to be belittling your interest or the reasons for it. What I mean is that the best approach to working on the disease and contributing to the alleviation of suffering from it will probably depend more on your skillset and academic interests than it depends on the fact that what you're interested in is schizophrenia and not, say, alzheimer's or colon cancer.
posted by gurple at 4:04 PM on September 21, 2012

Oh, sorry, I just saw your update. If you want to do direct work with schizophrenics you might look into social work. Social workers have a ton of interaction with the mentally ill in multiple settings, including research settings. It is also much, much easier to get into social work school (and less academically rigorous, if that bothers you).

However, if you want to lead research, you'd be much more likely to be able to do that with an MD or a PhD.

Try googling "Schizophrenia research center" for some examples of the kinds of places that are doing research. If there is one locally you might contact them and ask them if you could shadow one of their employees. It might be difficult due to patient confidentiality, so another alternative would be an informational interview.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:10 PM on September 21, 2012

To put it another way, let's say that you have aptitudes and academic interests that will allow you to become a genome sciences researcher at the 99th percentile of all genome sciences researcher. And you have the aptitude and interests to be an experimental psychologist at the 60th percentile of all experimental psychologists.

In that case, if your aim is to make progress on diminishing the suffering caused by the disease, your chances of doing so are much higher, IMHO, if you choose to be a genome sciences researcher who focuses on schizophrenia.
posted by gurple at 4:10 PM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

You're asking a question I don't think you know you're asking.

The question you've asked is "What should I major in to do real clinical work with schizophrenia?" That's an okay question and all, but it's the wrong one.

The real question is "How do I get in to medical school?" Because a lot of the people that do "real clinical work with schizophenia" are psychiatrists rather than psychologists. You can read up on the distinction here.

Basically, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. Psychologists are not medical doctors, i.e., they get a Ph.D., not an M.D., and their work, while frequently clinical, isn't precisely medical. Tons of psychologists do counseling, social work, industrial applications, etc. And psychological research frequently has more to do with things like cognition, perception, emotion, personality, and behavior rather than mental health disorders as such. But that's basically all psychiatrists do. Also, psychiatrists, as physicians, can prescribe medicines, while psychologists cannot. Psychologists definitely do research into schizophrenia, but it

Now there are people who are both psychologists and psychiatrists, but they have both a Ph.D. and an M.D.

Here's the thing: if you want to do psychiatric work with schizophrenics... it almost doesn't matter what you do for undergrad. As long as you've got a year of biology, two years of chemistry (general and orgo), calculus (statistics would be good), and maybe a physics or genetics class thrown in, you'll have what you need to sit for the MCAT, which is the standardized test you need to take to get in to medical school. These courses needn't be part of any particular major. A lot of people major in a hard science and then go on to medical school, but admissions committees look favorably on people with humanities degrees who nonetheless took the classes and had the grades to get into medical school.

And make no mistake: whether psychiatry or psychology, this is going to take a while. Becoming a physician means four years of medical school and then at least three of residency, and quite possibly a multi-year fellowship after that. So if you started college at 18 you'd be done with your training right around 29-30. But becoming a psychologist isn't all that much shorter. You'd start grad school at 22 or so, and getting a Ph.D. takes most people 5-7 years, so 27-29.
posted by valkyryn at 6:18 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

You do not have to get an MD to do schizophrenia research. There are psychology PHDs (and even PsyDs) who are professors in departments of psychiatry and they do significant research in the field. Example Example Example those are from a search in one psychiatry department.

It is misleading to say that only psychiatrists can do research relating to schizophrenia.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:40 PM on September 21, 2012

Consider how you would answer this question if it were not about schizophrenia but about, say, muscular dystrophy.

The place to start on an undergraduate level would be looking at the research and clinical laboratories of your local med school or your university's neuroscience department and see who is involved in schizophrenia research and see if you can get involved.

In general, if you want to do clinical research on a disease using actual human subjects, then getting an MD is your best path, though for mental health, medical psychology is another possibility.
posted by deanc at 9:07 PM on September 21, 2012

I know it's slightly odd to respond with a book reccomendation, but I'd say to read Crazy Like Us. It's interesting of itself, about the cultural issues around mental health, but the author talks to a lot of experts in the field - not just doctors, but people coming from sociology/psychology/anthropology backgrounds.

Using research to make a genuine difference to the lives of people with mental illness isn't just about neuroscience. I agree with gurple in this respect - if you'd love doing lab-based neuroscience, then go that route; but if you'd be a happier medical anthropologist then go for that.
posted by Coobeastie at 2:24 AM on September 22, 2012

It is misleading to say that only psychiatrists can do research relating to schizophrenia.

Indeed. I could introduce you to people from a broad range of backgrounds who are doing research on schizophrenia. Some of it is EEG studies to find precursors and early warnings. Some of it is various sorts of genetic analyses. Some of it is working with patients directly to improve therapies and outcomes and some of it is developing new drugs and other interventions.

The people I know are neurologists, biologists, engineers and mathematicians as well as psychologists and psychiatrists.

I have a degree in electrical engineering, and I work in lab that does neurological research. Some of our studies concern schizophrenia directly, although I work broadly with a number of research labs.

Now, this might be on the other end of the question you're asking - how to improve early detection and intervention for people likely to develop schizophrenia instead of how to directly help people who suffer from it - but I wanted to show that "researching schizophrenia" is a broad subject and draws on the expertise of many different fields.

Don't feel you have to pigeonhole yourself into a major (psychology) that is less interesting to you than another (say, chemistry). If you're a chemist and you have an interest in treatments for schizophrenia, there are many labs that would love, love, love to have you.

As I said, my sister has schizophrenia, so I am very interested in the subject.

There is a running joke that most research psychologists are doing Mesearch instead of research. :-) It is not uncommon at all for people to have some sort of vested interest in the research they do.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:29 AM on September 22, 2012

I see lots of people saying "you don't need to go to medical school/ be a psychiatrist." Well, of course you don't HAVE to, but why rule it out? It's a lot of work, and you have to be smart, but really . . . working hard is more important than being super smart. If the OP is as passionate about the subject as she seems, she could probably do it. She says she wants to be an expert- that would be a good way to do it, no?

Anyway, I also think schizophrenia is interesting. It's really complex and there's a lot of chemical stuff going on. If you're a psychiatrist, you prescribe drugs, which is a crucial part of managing this disease. It's not straightforward, either- there are a variety of different drugs available and they all have unique benefits and drawbacks, so prescribing them takes a lot of thought, and understanding of the neurochemistry, and your particular patient. So although you can work with schizophrenic patients in many different types of jobs, I'm going to suggest that psychiatry is the field where you may be able to have the most direct impact on their lives. And plus at some point you would likely be able to balance it however you like, in terms of actual patient care vs research- you can do both. Plus you have the opportunity to combine and specialize, say, in Neuro-Psych or Med-Psych which I think are both fascinating fields. Psychological illness is inextricably linked to physical illness in many cases, and I have always thought the doctors who bridge this gap must have a really interesting job.

So yes, you have options. But don't rule out medical school, if you're interested in it. And if you are:

You can major in any of these fields but at least when I was an undergraduate, the medical schools liked humanities majors.

This is still true, and becoming more true from what I've seen. Major in anything you like. As long as you take those handful of premed courses you're fine. The MCAT is scary but it sounds like it's about to be much different, so most advice you get regarding it isn't going to be true much longer.

Residencies are generally competitive, and I think I've heard that psychiatry is a tougher one to get into.

Not so true. I'm having a hard time finding exact stats but in general, for a U.S. medical graduate psych is not tough to match into compared to other specialties. I mean, unless she wants to do it at Harvard, maybe. But overall it's not a hard field to match in. If she does decide to do it, getting into med school is almost certainly going to be the hardest part. OP, I peeked at your profile and I see you live in Texas- this is an excellent state to live in if you want to go to medical school! Probably the best, honestly, due to the number of schools and the way the application is structured (TX residents have a separate application system from the rest of the U.S.)

I'd also like to suggest that you do well in college, but have fun too. Have a life and don't stress out too much. If you do decide to go the grad school or med school route you have a long road ahead of you, and there's no point in getting burned out at 20 or 21. I didn't do any research or extracurriculars in college, and I don't think it's been too detrimental to my career- I buckled down and got more serious in grad school and that was fine. (Of course, it's always good to do these things if you can. I'm just saying you're not fucked if you don't, despite what your fellow students may occasionally think.) Do what you like, do well, and it will all come together.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 11:59 AM on September 22, 2012

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