The work of a neuroscientist in academia is defined by the setting. The expectations for a scientist in an undergraduate institution are vastly different than for those in large research institutions and medical schools. The following descriptions explain these career paths by setting.
Academic Research in a Small, Liberal Arts College
A typical day in this position involves far more teaching than research. Young professors new to the field will be asked to teach introductory courses in a range of topics, such as biology or genetics. As professors gain experience, they will progress to teaching neuroscience courses at higher levels, as well as supervising senior research projects.
The essence of working in a small, liberal arts college is interaction with the students. For this reason, neuroscientists who choose this career path must enjoy young people in this age group and be committed to helping them mature academically, socially, and emotionally. "This is a great time of life," notes one undergraduate professor. "Students are learning and have many 'Gee whiz' moments." Another professor observes that by having to simplify the material for students, the teacher also learns the material more deeply.
The reality of working in a small undergraduate institution, however, is that research has to be scaled to fit. Most research assistance comes from undergraduates or research technicians. High-end equipment is probably not available, and animal models have to be chosen carefully. Yet even with these caveats, many undergraduate professors report that their research program is robust. "Pick a niche and work at a modest pace," advises one professor. "It is possible to do significant research in these kinds of institutions."
Academic Research in a Comprehensive Research Institution
At this type of institution, neuroscientists are expected to perform higher-level research than their colleagues at small colleges. As scientists gain seniority, their teaching responsibilities often decrease, taken over by junior faculty, as well as graduate students and postdocs. As a result, more time can be spent writing grants to keep their lab going, mentoring graduate students and postdocs, and managing the research process. Professors also are expected to serve on internal committees and stay engaged in the university community.
Universities tend to develop their own policies about research. At many institutions, the research must comply with overall objectives and fit in with the work of one or more departments or an interdisciplinary group. In some instances, the institution may be focused on building a particular niche, such as sensory neuroscience, and will recruit faculty in that area and seek grants to cover research on this topic. Usually, an office designated to monitor research will manage such grants, some of which may fund graduate students, postdocs, and salary increases for faculty.
Another way that institutions can increase their external funding base is by applying for grants by cluster or as a group of departments. This approach allows them to be competitive for larger grants, potentially bringing in more revenue to the institution (e.g. http://grants.nih.gov/grants/funding/funding_program.htm ).
Academic Research in a Medical School
Neuroscientists working in medical schools are mostly responsible for setting up a robust research program. At some medical schools, faculty are also expected to collaborate actively with others with an aim toward larger-scale research (e.g., center, program project) or training grants. Helping to build translational research bridges between basic and clinical neuroscience is often part of the mix. As a result, medical school researchers will spend about 70%-90% of the time in the lab.
Winning a competitive, federally funded grant, often from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), or the Department of Defense (DoD), means that a scientist on this career path can set up a state-of-the-art lab and hire the necessary staff to move the research forward. With fluctuations in government funding, researchers also need to be on the lookout for other funding opportunities. Potential funders may be found through professional organizations such as the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), pharmaceutical companies, and foundations. These kinds of options need to be explored on a regular basis.
Neuroscientists with a PhD spend about 10%-30% of their time teaching graduate and medical students, serving as mentors for graduate students and postdoctoral trainees, and participating in service initiatives that benefit the school. These efforts may include serving on institutional committees. In addition, many academic researchers participate in activities outside the institution, including serving on grant review panels, engaging in manuscript review, and participating in professional organizations and societies. MD/PhD researchers also teach, along with spending about 20% of their time seeing patients in the clinic. This percentage can vary depending on the institution and needs of the clinical department.