Should I pursue a future in brain science?
February 20, 2007 12:57 PM   Subscribe

How can I decide if I should pursue my layman's interest in brain science?

Last year I graduated with honors from a respected university with a degree in childhood education and special education, and a minor in Spanish. It wasn't a great experience and I no longer want to be a teacher for a bunch of my own reasons.

Since graduating, I have developed a layman's interest in brain science, consciousness, neuropsychology, cognitive functioning, pharmacology, etc, and I've been wondering if this is something that I could or should turn into a career.

I have basically no official science background, and I took only a few courses in developmental psychology as part of my childhood education program.

I know that in order to make a career of this I'll need at least a master's degree (probably a PhD), but I also know that it's foolish to apply to grad school without a passion for a particular subject and a clear vision of what I want to get out of it. At the moment the neuropsychology program at Queens College looks intriguing, but I wouldn't be applying anywhere until Fall 08 the earliest. So my question is this - how can I decide if a future of scientific research will be right for me, and how can I determine what area to specialize in?

I was thinking along the lines of taking (community college?) night classes in neuroscience and experimental psychology. Or would I need a second bachelor's? Do you have any recommendations for books, blogs, or web sites that can give me some direction and help me decide if this is really what I want to do, as well as how to figure out what area to specialize in?

By the way, I am in NYC. Thanks a bunch for any insight you all may have!
posted by infinityjinx to Education (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I suggest you take advantage of your location and try and sit in on some seminars or presentations at Columbia, NYU, and/or Rockefeller, all of which have excellent neuroscience programs. This will give you an idea of what its like as a research scientist.
posted by exogenous at 1:10 PM on February 20, 2007

Call around some neuro labs at local universities (university websites should have a list of all their research labs, many listings will also include short blurbs about those lab's research interests).

Tell them your situation and ask if they have the capacity (ie., grad students who wouldn't mind handholding showing a layman the ropes) to support a volunteer.

(Actually, most gradstudents won't mind letting someone ride shotgun - there are usually tedious things that a layperson can be trained to do and it's an additional line on their CV (supervision/mentoring/teaching).)
posted by porpoise at 1:15 PM on February 20, 2007

I have basically no official science background

This could take more time than you realize. I'm not trying to dissuade you, just letting you know up front. To get into a neuroscience or pharmacology program, for example, you'll need to have taken all the prerequisites: inorganic chem, organic chem, molecular biology, possibly zoology, and probably a couple of semesters of calculus. Basically, you need a BS in mol. bio/zoo/organic chem.

Follow the advice above, and see if you can't sit in on some lectures, and maybe tour a lab or two, to see if it's what you're looking for. If there's one thing academics love, it's talking about their research, so don't feel strange about asking them. That's how I found the lab I ended up doing my senior thesis research in. Most departments will have their own web site where you can find more info on the faculty and their research.

If you're really interested in that NeuroPsych program, you'll need to find out what the course prerequisites are, and start taking them (at an accredited school). Then you have to take the GRE before you can apply to the program. The whole process might take a couple of years.
posted by Gamblor at 2:06 PM on February 20, 2007

Ok, I'm looking at the admissions page for the program you cited as an example, and it says:

"Most applicants are undergraduate majors in psychology although students with other majors an professional backgrounds are encouraged to apply. It is generally expected that applicants will have completed a minimum of 15 undergraduate credits in psychology, including a laboratory course in Experimental Psychology and a Statistics course."

So for that program you need more psych and stats than chem and calc, but you get the idea.
posted by Gamblor at 2:10 PM on February 20, 2007

So for that program you need more psych and stats than chem and calc, but you get the idea.

A lot of phd programs (maybe less in the hard sciences) will accept good looking applicants that do not actually have a huge amount of specialization. For instance, the linguistics program I'm in routinely accepts math majors that have had just a little bit of linguistics. But, the first year is often very hard for these students, and sometimes the department will have them overload on undergrad classes that year to catch up.

I think the most difficult part of applying successfully to such a program will actually be the recommendations. Ideally you want at least one recommender who knows you somewhat well, is known to the people reading your application (at least by reputation), and can speak as to why you would be a good fit in that program (or at least the field). This is what might be hard to get with as little background as you have. Getting into an MA program might be easier without this kind of recommendation. So doing a MA before a PhD would help you decide if it's what you want to do, as well as give you some background and put you in contact with people who can write your recommendations for a PhD program.
posted by advil at 2:51 PM on February 20, 2007

Infinityjinx, you are in luck! The annual meeting for the Cognitive Neuroscience Society is in New York this year. I would HIGHLY recommend going to it. You can get in for 65$, (according to their rules, anyone without a PhD is a "student") and you will have a chance to hobnob with many of the leading minds in the field.

The event consists mostly of poster sessions where researchers informally present their work to whoever happens to walk by their posters, and symposia, where the research is presented lecture-style to maybe 2-300 people at a time as part of a themed program. The poster sessions are great if you do not have a lot of background-- if you walk by a poster that does not have a lot of people clustered around it, chances are that the person presenting it will be happy to lead you through their research by the hand.

As far as career development goes, I would not recommend a Master's degree-- unless you can land a fellowship that pays for your tuition. An alternative would be to spend two years working for pay in a research lab. If you spent time working for a well-known scientist, you will be in a great position to land a nice PhD fellowship that will cover tuition in full and give you a living stipend to boot.

Concerning what others have said, I completely agree with advil about the importance of recommendations. Also, Gamblor's list of prerequisites is a good one for someone interested in "wet-lab" neuroscience, but for cognitive neuroscience, you can dispense with much of that-- Id say at a minimum, you would be well-advised to have some statistics, an intro computer science course (ie. programming 101), and one solid course on the anatomy and physiology of the brain.

Now, prereqs are important for admission to grad school. But, if the essence of your question is, "what do I need to start a career studying the brain?", I'd suggest that you capitalize on your skills, and apply right now for a job working in a developmental cognitive neuroscience lab. Working well with children is a valuable skill, and consequently will make you immediately valuable to a research lab that works on infant cognition. Most research labs are very intimate environments, and I would say that if you are curious and a quick study, you will be learning constantly, and rapidly moved into positions of greater importance as you build your skillset.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 4:32 PM on February 20, 2007

Note from someone who is in the process of retooling a humanities, law, and social science background into a life science background-- it does, indeed, take a #$@ of a long time, especially if you're working, and it's expensive (since, as the holder of a B.A., the good fairies of undergraduate student aid will have ceased to favor you). It's expensive even if you do your backfill classes online, or through a community college.

Which is to say, if you do decide this is what you want, start now. I dithered for years, and as a result my (supportive but long-suffering) spouse and I probably won't be able to buy a house until we're in our early forties, or older.

Seconding all the excellent advice above. And if you decide you want to take a small taste of the backfill classes and (for whatever reason) can't enroll in something that you actually have to show up for, the UC Berkely Extension is a good resource for online learning.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 5:27 PM on February 20, 2007

Gamblor is somewhat wrongish on prerequisites. I got into a neuroscience Ph.D. program a few years ago with nothing more than a computer science B.S. and some modest experience doing neural network computer simulation research after my undergrad. My program was able to catch me up on all the biology/chemistry stuff I needed. I'm doing "wet-lab" stuff now, including electrophysiology and immunocytochemistry.

Neuroscience is a giant field, encompassing everything from molecular biology to psychology. There is room for people with all sorts of backgrounds; it really depends on the program in question and how fast you can learn.

Also, I agree that a Master's is a bad idea - go straight for the Ph.D; it can take up to seven years.
posted by ripple at 6:32 PM on February 20, 2007

As someone with a Ph.D. running a neurosci-related lab, I can tell you that you should be damn sure it's what you want to do. More people fall off the path than stay on - and it's a long path. You've got at least 5 and more likely 6+ years for your Ph.D. and (at least nowadays) another 4-5ish years of being a postdoc (a masters won't get you much - you'll be a technician). It ain't easy, and you've got to find luck along the way, too. In your case, you'd need another bachelor's degree in prereqs. So, as noted earlier, perhaps cognitive neurosci would be OK but the wet sciences would be a tough road.

Volunteering is always the way to go in my opinion. You'll get some insight into the field, you'll learn something on a professional level (hopefully), and you'll be able to use it as work-related experience when you apply to schools. Furthermore, you will hopefully be able to get a letter of recommendation out of the experience which is invaluable for getting into a grad program. You might also discover that it isn't for you, and it's much better to find out here rather than at the end of a 7 year Ph.D.

Finally, I wouldn't bother going to professional meetings (at least in the wet sciences). You'll be lost and scared. Most Ph.D.s are somewhat lost in many of the talks - without any background or context, it'll likely freak you out unnecessarily. The New York Academy of Sciences has talks that are targeted to the general public sometimes. This could be worth your while. Good luck!
posted by SciGuy at 6:32 PM on February 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's worth mentioning somewhere in here that "neuropsychology" is not, in the main, an academic research discipline; that PhD program at CUNY, for instance, is a professional degree, a prerequisite for licensure for clinical practice. If you're interested in research only, it's not the right thing for you.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:39 PM on February 20, 2007

I believe academic science is a pyramid scheme. The system churns out far more PhDs than can be employed in tenure-track positions, or in industry. Yes, they will pay you a living wage and waive tuition while you earn a PhD, but then what? My colleagues from grad school have for the most part either switched professions, taken teaching jobs, or are still doing post-doc work after many many years. Tread carefully.
posted by exogenous at 7:30 PM on February 20, 2007

...will pay you a living wage...


I concur with ripple - I know a couple incoming PhD students without hard science backgrounds in neurosci. It's a damned rough first year or so, though. One's getting by on native intelligence and really hard work. The other... they'll probably wash out or, at best, manage to squeak out with a MSc.

A MSc won't get very far - technician, associate, maybe lab manager but that's about it. You'll likely be very limited in the amount of input you'll have the opportunity to contribute.
posted by porpoise at 10:21 AM on February 21, 2007

Queens college has an undergrad major in Neuroscience that might be of some interest to you, if only to maybe talk to someone who runs it. It does seem like more of a wet-science degree though, with cell biology and full years of chemistry and biology as pre-requisites.
posted by dantekgeek at 6:39 PM on February 21, 2007

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