How To Become a Neuroscientist

Updated March 10, 2023

The human brain and nervous system are very complex and vital to how people function and behave. Neuroscientists study the brain and nervous system to learn more about how it works and create ways to improve these functions. In this article, we discuss what a neuroscientist is and the steps to become a neuroscientist.

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What is a neuroscientist?

Neuroscientists are medical research scientists who study the nervous system. The nervous system comprises the brain, spinal cord and nerve cells in the body. Neuroscience is a complex field of science that includes the study of molecular and developmental biology, physiology, anatomy and other subjects. Neuroscientists use their knowledge of these areas to study the nervous system and discover ways to improve brain functions and effectiveness. A biostatistician may conduct clinical trials that test new drugs to treat neurological disorders in patients.

Because neuroscience is such a large and diverse field of study, neuroscientists typically specialize in a certain area. Neuroscientists can focus their research on areas that interest them. For example, a neurologist can treat patients with medical conditions like strokes, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.

Related: Becoming a Neurologist: How To and Skills Required

How to become a neuroscientist

Education is the primary path to a career in neuroscience. Follow these steps to complete the education requirements to become a neuroscientist:

1. Earn a bachelor's degree

The first step to becoming a neuroscientist is to earn a bachelor's degree in a relevant subject. Common subjects for neuroscientists to major in are neuroscience or biology. Some schools offer undergraduate degrees in neuroscience, which focus on the anatomy and functions of the nervous system. This degree program also teaches you mathematical skills and allows you to take part in undergraduate research.

If your school does not have this degree option or you want to major in something more general, biology can also be a great undergraduate major for a neuroscientist. Neuroscience is a branch of biology, so you will learn about the nervous system in this program besides learning about different disciplines of biology. Depending on your school, you may also have the option to major in biology with a concentration in neurobiology, which allows you to study the cells in the nervous system.

2. Earn a master's degree

After completing your undergraduate studies, you can consider earning a master's degree in neuroscience. Most graduate schools allow neuroscience majors to specialize in an area like cognitive neuroscience, developmental neuroscience and more. This is an opportunity to consider what type of neuroscientist you want to become. Graduate-level neuroscience programs include courses about data analysis, mathematical models and brain and nervous system disorders.

It is also important to decide what specialty or area you want to work in because this can determine whether you need to earn a doctoral degree as well. If you want to become a clinical neuroscientist or an advanced research neuroscientist, you will need to achieve a doctorate after completing your master's degree.

3. Earn a Ph.D. and M.D.

To work as a clinical neuroscientist, you will need to achieve a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree. Besides this degree, clinical neuroscientists must complete a medical residency and pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) in order to diagnose and treat patients. Neuroscientists pursuing an M.D. may work in research before then, and they may gain experience through supervised clinical work.

Neuroscientists who wish to do advanced research or work in certain specialties may pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience. This program usually takes between five and six years to complete and comprises mostly independent research and lab work. Neuroscientists can complete their Ph.D. while working as a neuroscientist, and this option is typically used to advance their careers.

Many neuroscientists choose to complete a combined Ph.D. and M.D. program in neuroscience, which opens up the opportunity to work with patients in a clinical setting and allows them to develop their research. Getting a joint degree can lead to more career options in both the medical and research fields of neuroscience. This program involves clinical rotations, medical courses and neuroscience courses. The joint Ph.D. and M.D. in neuroscience degree typically takes eight years to complete, and students finish their studies by writing a thesis on a topic within neuroscience.

Related: Applying To Medical School: Tips and Requirements

Salary and job outlook for neuroscientists

There is no national average salary information available for neuroscientist, however, you can explore salary data for these similar occupations:

  • National average salary for a scientist: $92,326 per year

  • National average salary for a biostatistician: $142,964
    National average salary for a neurologist: $205,906 per year

For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the salary links provided.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for all medical scientists will grow 6% by 2029. The BLS attributes the growth to a need for medical scientists' ongoing contributions to the development of treatments and medicines that improve human health.

What do neuroscientists do?

Neuroscientists may have different responsibilities depending on what area they specialize in and where they work. Some neuroscientists work in a hospital or clinical setting to treat patients, but others work in laboratories or offices conducting research. A neuroscientist's responsibilities can include:

  • Preparing tissue and cell samples

  • Monitoring brain and nerve activity

  • Researching brain and nervous system functions

  • Diagnosing and treating patients

  • Conducting experiments and clinical trials

  • Publishing research papers

  • Creating diagrams or models of the brain

Related: 12 Popular Careers in Neuroscience

Areas of applied specialty for neuroscientists

There are many fields that neuroscientists can specialize in, including:

  • Developmental neuroscience: This is the study of how the brain forms, grows and changes throughout the stages of life.

  • Cognitive neuroscience: This is the study of how the brain creates, uses and stores language, problem-solving and memory.

  • Molecular and cellular neuroscience: This is the study of the specific molecules and cells that determine how neurons function.

  • Neurogenetics: This is the study of how inherited changes to neurons affect the brain and body.

  • Behavioral neuroscience: This is the study of how the areas of the brain and their processes may affect the behaviors of humans and animals.

  • Clinical neuroscience: This field includes the medical diagnoses, treatment and management of brain and nervous system disorders.

  • Neurophysiology: This is the study of the nervous system and how it functions.

  • Sensory neuroscience: This is the study of how the nervous system processes sensory information in the body.

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Jobs for neuroscientists

If you're interested in finding a job as a neuroscientist or other profession in a related field, there are several options you can consider. Here's a list of 10 jobs for neuroscientists:

1. Neuropsychologist

2. Clinical psychologist

3. Audiologist

4. Research scientist

5. Physical therapist

6. Neuroimaging technician

7. Occupational therapist

8. Speech-language pathologist

9. Genetic counselor

10. Pharmacist"

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