Message from the President: What's Ahead in Careers in Neuroscience
It is truly the golden age of neuroscience. Advances in technology are ushering in opportunities beyond our wildest dreams, enabling us to trace the connections between brain regions, probe brain function with light, and connect genes with cell- and systems-wide neural processes. Progress is being made at a dazzling speed, and neuroscience is in the limelight thanks to the BRAIN Initiative, the Human Brain Project, and other research ventures around the world.
As a co-director of Columbia University’s neurobiology graduate program, I and my colleagues at other institutions have witnessed a sea change in the career paths of trainees in recent years. For graduate students and postdocs now — those who haven’t started to think about careers and those who have done all that’s recommended but are frustrated by their efforts — the thrill of continuing in neuroscience is offset by worry about the future. Can I succeed in a ramped-up competition for funding and publishing that shows little sign of abating? Will I find a position in the same city as my mate? Is it possible to be a scientist in such a harsh environment and still have a life? Will I be able to land an academic position or NIH grant? And if I choose to go off the academic track, intentionally or reluctantly, what career choices are out there?
These daunting, middle-of-the-night anxious questions crop up even in scientists who already hold positions in academia! So, my advice to students and postdocs is this: If you find science rewarding, or if you enjoy simply thinking about science apart from lab work, there is a place for you. And SfN can help.
Preparing for a Career in Neuroscience
The breadth of current activities in neuroscience provides avenues for scientists to carve out their own success stories. Doing so takes time, effort, and personal reflection. The following guidelines may help in developing your own path.
Look to yourself: Determine what you like doing. What are your passions? Do you prefer writing over bench work? Are you more comfortable within a research group or do you want to run the show? Once you figure out what you want, articulate your vision to potential employers, mentors, and friends.
Learn to love your PhD: The skills you’ve learned in your PhD program or during your postdoc — how to think critically, take ownership of projects, collaborate with others, write and speak in scientific and lay terms, and solve ethical issues — are extremely valuable in a variety of jobs. Reflect on those skills and experiences to help identify a career path.
Seek mentoring and find advice: Mentors play a key role in helping plan and advise your career. A mentor should be someone you trust and with whom you can share confidences and get candid feedback. Work with your mentor on an individual development plan (IDP) to identify your strengths and weaknesses, and to guide you in leveraging your talents into a satisfying career. It is wise to initiate this process a year or more before the end of your graduate or postdoc training.
Present yourself in writing: Publishing a paper on your work demonstrates your ability to complete a project and present it well, irrespective of your next career step. Learn to write about science in lay language by working with a writing group or center at your university.
Speak for yourself: Like those in the business world, these days scientists should learn to network and advocate for themselves. Attend career events and engage in conversation with others in the field. Practice an “elevator speech” — a one-minute description of who you are, what you have done, and what you would like to do. Potential employers look at your ability to communicate and how collegial you might be. And, as you interview, consider whether you would mesh with the group and its environment.
Resources to Help Navigate a Career Path
Recognizing that funding and employment challenges have changed the outlook for careers in neuroscience, SfN has developed support and training resources for scientists at every career stage. The SfN.org “Careers & Training” section features not only job notifications, but testimonials and advice on career options beyond the bench and professional development opportunities.
I urge you to view the new SfN Joys of Science video series in the NeuroJobs Career Center. Established neuroscientists speak to the value of being engaged in their field, the failures they have faced, and the unmitigated joy they meet in discovery. Meet the Experts podcasts showcase scientists talking about how they pursue their specific research areas and career paths. Tips and advice for postdocs are also available online, including information on publishing, networking, and training programs.
The best opportunities to learn about career options come from attending the annual meeting and through SfN’s members-only online community, Neuronline. The career advice forum on Neuronline features more than 600 members sharing professional development experiences, hurdles, and advice.
What Jobs are Available?
An independent academic position certainly has great benefits: You can establish your own scientific vision, recruit a talented team, and produce a stream of papers on new findings. And despite its demands, the academic arena can bring more flexibility in the workplace than corporate, nonacademic positions.
Many view tenure-track faculty positions at a research university or medical school as the ultimate prize, but the PhD you have earned need not be deployed only in such settings. Students, postdocs, and trainees should be prepared to explore alternative career paths that draw on scientific training and can be just as rewarding. I encourage you to explore teaching at a small college or a high school, both still “academic.” Your PhD training and participation in outreach activities provide you with experiences and tools for teaching beyond conventional teacher training.
As a neuroscientist, you can find career opportunities in government, publishing, private corporations, consulting groups, and advocacy and nonprofit organizations. Disease foundations, where you can lead outreach and fundraising activities, are expanding venues dependent on broad training in neuroscience. We need trained scientists to become science journalists, to interpret the latest results for the public. You might even contemplate becoming an entrepreneur by starting a business based on what you researched.
It is a myth that nonacademic jobs are less prestigious than academic ones. Graduate programs and postdoc offices are increasingly mounting programs in professional skills training and offering career advice. If your institution does not offer such programs, you should ask for them.
Your Love of Science
Many challenges indeed face young scientists after their training. Ambitious, qualified trainees may have already soul-searched and know the reasons why they love science, but they face real difficulties in securing that career through no fault of their own. Remember that you are not alone. We realize we can no longer simply train students in our own image. We are striving to enable you to use your talents to good ends, and SfN is assisting in guiding your professional development and career pursuits so that the field can continue to flourish.
Most of all, I encourage you to remember your initial attraction to science. Try not to let failed experiments or mentor troubles sway you from staying in it; let your love of science be your guide as you navigate a career path. Pursue your goals, show passion for them, and do everything in your power to attain your dreams.