When Ohio State University neuroscience professor Sara Gombash Lampe gets new students, they’re typically driven into the field by persistent questions about the brain.
Whether about a neurological disease affecting a loved one or brain function, a student’s inquiries can flower into a career in neuroscience.
“They already have questions,” says Lampe, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience. “It just wasn’t labeled neuroscience. But I’m like, ‘That’s exactly what neuroscience is. That’s what we do.'”
What Is Neuroscience?
Neuroscience explores how the nervous system is structured and functions, including the brain, spinal cord and related nerves.
Neuroscientists take a highly interdisciplinary approach to understanding how the nervous system generates control of thoughts and bodily functions. Using disciplines such as biology, chemistry and psychology, neuroscientists seek to take on ailments such as depression, Parkinson’s disease, sleep disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.
But the brain is as complex as it is powerful, leaving questions to answer, research to conduct and scholars to educate.
There were fewer than 100 neuroscience graduates at any educational level in 1980, according research published in 2017 in the Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education. By 2015, that number had grown to more than 5,000 at the bachelor’s level, more than 200 at the master’s level and more than 700 doctoral degree-holders, according to the study.
There are now more than 200 undergraduate neuroscience programs, plus scores of graduate programs, in the U.S., according to the Washington, D.C-based Society for Neuroscience. Graduates pursue careers in medicine, marketing and research, and researchers say the open-ended nature of the field attracts students.
What Does a Neuroscience Degree Entail?
There are many approaches to studying neuroscience. For example, molecular neuroscience looks at how molecules can affect the nervous system. Researchers say that often means looking at how neurons fire together, data analysis and psychological considerations.
Computational neuroscience works to understand the brain’s function by using mathematics, computers and theories, while behavioral neuroscience focuses on the biology of behavior, including learning and emotions.
Beyond curiosity and the desire to answer pressing questions, getting a degree in neuroscience involves an appreciation of life science, researchers say.
Ashley Juavinett, an associate teaching professor at the University of California, San Diego’s Department of Neurobiology in the School of Biological Sciences, recommends that interested students dive into popular science books about neuroscience or “take a few classes in neuroscience and see if it’s interesting to you, and maybe down the line even get into research.”
Courses such as neurobiology, neurological disease and neurophysiology are often part of the training. Undergraduate students who major in the field can often take courses in writing, public speaking, anthropology, psychology, experimental design and other areas.
At Binghamton University—SUNY in New York, undergraduates can take a broad swath of classes but will come out with a complete understanding of the scientific process, according to Christopher Bishop, a professor and director of the undergraduate integrative neuroscience program.
“They may take courses in psychology, if they’re interested in brain and behavior,” he says. “They may take courses in anthropology if they’d like to take a step back and look at cultural influences. If they want to delve a little bit more deeply than that, they can take courses in biology or chemistry” that give them more of a molecular look, he says.
What Can You Do With a Neuroscience Degree?
There are many career opportunities in neuroscience. Becoming a high school science teacher, conducting research and practicing patent law are three of the various career paths for graduates with a degree in neuroscience.
With just an undergraduate degree, career opportunities include research, pharmaceutical sales, public policy, health care and neuromarketing, which refers to measuring neural and other physiological signs to get insight into what motivates customers.
A Ph.D. in neuroscience typically opens more opportunities, including an academic career, leading a research team and being involved in science policy in the workplace.
Students who earn a degree in neuroscience may also go to medical school or obtain a law degree or MBA, allowing them to work in areas such as medicine patents.
The average annual pay for a neuroscientist is nearly $82,000, according to PayScale data. That can vary widely depending on the career chosen by someone with a neuroscience degree, as well as other educational credentials.
Lampe says neuroscience is everywhere because it relates to how the brain functions and humans behave. People are more receptive to that now, she says, leading to more varied opportunities for those with neuroscience backgrounds.