Neuroscientists combine skills in science and research to explore the intricate and enigmatic world of the most complex organ in the body -the brain, spinal cord and nervous system

As a neuroscientist you'll work to understand and develop treatments for a range of neurological issues. These include the brain's function in mental health challenges such as depression or schizophrenia, the impact of trauma on the brain such as stroke and head injury, or the diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as epilepsy, motor neurone disease or Alzheimer's disease.

Most neuroscientists are involved in research, working in a range of settings such as universities, pharmaceutical companies or government agencies.

Neuroscientists differ from neurologists and neurosurgeons, who are medically qualified doctors. They're also different from neuropsychologists, who are clinical psychologists with further training in neuropsychology.

Types of neuroscientist

Neuroscience is a fast-moving, multidisciplinary subject that has advanced rapidly over recent years. It has developed a collaborative approach that combines aspects from a range of disciplines including computer science, chemistry, medicine, engineering, linguistics and mathematics.

Consequently, there are neuroscientists working in:

  • academia (research and teaching)
  • clinical sciences
  • biotechnology and contract research
  • pharmaceutical/drug development
  • neuropsychology
  • neuroimaging or brain-imaging
  • regulatory affairs, policy and research administration
  • science communication and public engagement.

Within these areas, there is a wide range of neuroscientist specialisms. For example, you could focus on cognitive neuroscience, working to understand how the brain creates and controls thought, memory, language and behaviour. Alternatively, you may look into the effect of drugs on behaviour or treat disorders of the brain and nervous system as a clinical neuroscientist.

For more information on the different areas of neuroscience, see BrainFacts.

Responsibilities

Your responsibilities will depend on the type of neuroscientist you are and the kind of organisation you work for.

Depending on your area of specialism, you may need to:

  • design and carry out experiments to understand more about the brain and nervous system
  • study and test samples of brain tissue
  • use techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) to watch the brain 'at work'
  • research and develop new treatments for neurological disorders
  • hold meetings with scientific colleagues to discuss your findings and ideas for potential research projects
  • research and develop the techniques and equipment used by medical staff in clinical trials
  • work with doctors and other health specialists to trial new drugs with patients
  • use theoretical, statistical and computer-based models to analyse data
  • use computer programming within your research
  • carry out regular literature reviews of neuroscience research
  • share your research in peer-reviewed journals
  • attend and present at national or international conferences.

Salary

  • Research assistants in neuroscience can earn between £25,000 and £35,000.
  • Starting salaries for postdoctoral researchers are between £32,000 and £45,000.
  • Experienced and senior neuroscientists earn salaries of £50,000 to £60,000 or more.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours tend to be standard office hours, from 9am to 5pm. You may need to be flexible to suit the availability of participants in research projects, or when attending conferences. Paid overtime is rare, but you may be offered time off to compensate for extra hours you have worked.

Many research projects run for a specified period, often one to three years. This means that contracts are usually fixed term to suit the project. Roles within industry, such as in the pharmaceutical sector, are more likely to be permanent.

What to expect

  • Much of the work is lab based, but you'll also spend time completing administrative tasks in an office setting.
  • The route to becoming a neuroscientist can feel very long, and even after a PhD you may have to take several temporary research contracts to gain enough experience to move into a permanent position.
  • Although neuroscience is a growing field, jobs are not available in high numbers. This means you'll usually need to be flexible and willing to relocate in order to find work. 
  • Neuroscience is an exciting field, with many discoveries yet to be made. It's possible that your research could have a direct impact on people's lives, such as contributing to a cure for Parkinson's disease.
  • Neuroscience is a global industry and you can find work around the world. There are also opportunities to travel to conferences and form research collaborations in many different countries.

Qualifications

Most neuroscientists complete a science-based undergraduate degree followed by a PhD. Some will also complete a Masters degree.

There are a number of neuroscience undergraduate degrees available, as well as combined degrees such as neuroscience with psychology. For a list of neuroscience undergraduate and postgraduate courses, see British Neuroscience Association (BNA) - Neuroscience courses in the UK.

As neuroscience combines many scientific disciplines, there are a range of physical and life sciences degrees that can form a starting point to your career. These include:

  • biochemistry
  • biology
  • biomedical sciences
  • pharmacology
  • psychology.

It's also possible to enter neuroscience with a degree in computer science, chemistry, engineering or physics.

Although it’s possible to start working as a research assistant in neuroscience without a PhD or a Masters, these roles are competitive and you’re likely to be at an advantage if you have a postgraduate qualification. Postgraduate qualifications can fine-tune your research skills, which are essential for a neuroscientist.

After completing a PhD you'll usually move into a postdoctoral research position in order to get more laboratory experience. It's also possible, however, to move straight into an industry position.

Some organisations offer free MOOCs and online courses relating to neurosciences, which provide a good starting point for developing your skills and understanding in the area. For a list of courses, see the BNA website.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • a keen interest in how all aspects of the nervous system work and what goes wrong in disease states, for example in neuropsychiatric diseases
  • strong research skills in design, implementation and analysis, including lab work
  • the ability to think critically
  • strong communication skills to interact with research subjects and their families, or with clients in industry
  • scientific writing skills to contribute to journals, magazines or manuals
  • a willingness to develop your computer and programming skills and to embrace statistical methods and mathematical analysis to work with data
  • patience, as research progresses slowly
  • the ability to work independently, as well as within project teams and across disciplines
  • excellent organisational and time-management skills
  • the motivation to read scientific research to keep your knowledge up to date and inform your own work.

Work experience

Neuroscience can be a challenging area to find work experience in and it's important to focus on improving your research skills. Some universities offer opportunities for you to help academics or postgraduate students with their research during term time or over the summer. The British Neuroscience Association (BNA) provides a list of organisations that offer funding for 6-8 week undergraduate summer research placements. You need to approach labs or researchers to ask about participating in research before applying for funding.

You may also be able to participate in research experiments that other students are conducting as part of their programmes. Many universities will pay you a small amount of money to encourage participation, but the real benefit is that you experience many different forms of research, which will increase your effectiveness at designing your own experiments.

Many large pharmaceutical companies offer summer internships, which also provide the opportunity to develop your research skills.

There are also a range of voluntary opportunities available with charities that support people who are struggling with neurological issues such as Parkinson's, dementia or brain injuries. This type of experience provides an insight into the lived experience of neurological disorders or degeneration and the types of people who may be involved in your research. Most charities advertise volunteering opportunities on their websites. If you prefer paid work, there are care-based roles, which are often part time and flexible, within the NHS or private residential settings.

Employers

Neuroscientists are employed across the public and private sector, often working in laboratory-based environments within:

  • universities
  • government departments
  • contract research organisations
  • the NHS
  • the pharmaceutical industry
  • food industries.

Research goes through cycles, with different types of employers often focusing on a similar problem, such as dementia. This means that it's possible to move from one type of employer to another, as the experience and skills you develop are transferable. Even where research topics vary, many neuroscientists transition from one sector to another. 

Neuroscientists may also be employed within medical or scientific publishing, and science journalism.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

The kind of training and opportunities for professional development available will depend to a certain extent on the sector you work in, for example academia or industry. Wherever you work, however, you'll need to keep your skills and knowledge up to date throughout your career.

In academia, for example, the focus of training may be on critical aspects of your work, such as getting your work published in academic journals and writing bids to win funding for your research. In industry you may spend time learning about the legal aspects of clinical trials or the drug development process.

In either area, you'll attend conferences and collaborate with other neuroscientists around the world to help understand what your peers are researching. You may also present your own research.

You will also undertake specialist training in emerging experimental methodologies, techniques and technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound or statistical modelling software.

Membership of the BNA provides access to a range or resources, training and events, as well as opportunities to network with other neuroscientists.

Career prospects

There is a range of factors currently driving growth in the number of neuroscientists around the world. For example, as people continue to live longer, there is an increase in funding to tackle problems with age-related neurological decline such as dementia. Also, as artificial intelligence continues to evolve, there is demand for neuroscientists to create smarter interfaces between humans and machines. The rapid evolution of brain imaging techniques means that neuroscientists are in a unique position to share insights into human behaviour.

These developments mean that there are good opportunities to progress your career in a wide range of industries, including government policy, education and business. It can take time to get established, however, and develop your career in your chosen area. Flexibility in terms of relocation to find work is helpful.

Career progression depends on the sector you work in. Neuroscientists working in universities, for example, may pursue an academic pathway or teach alongside their research. Academic careers are highly competitive, and you'll often have to undertake a number of short, fixed-term contracts before securing a permanent role.

If you're working in industry, you'll typically progress into a senior scientist role or become the lead for a specific research area, sometimes known as a research development manager. This may involve managing other neuroscientists and having overall responsibility for a piece of research.

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