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Is Neuroscience research a worthwhile career?


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Hi All, I am considering a career change from a chemistry background into neuroscience. I am passionate about mental health and want to study the molecular and cellular mechanisms of psychiatric diseases. My question for this group is: will it be worth the opportunity cost to gain research experience, take biology classes, get into grad school and graduate to work in this field? Ultimately I want to run a research group / do research in a well funded lab but I see most academics come from very prestigious backgrounds. How likely is one to succeed in this field without grinding through years of endless postdoc appointments?

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I've graduated and have been working in industry for about 3 years. I have had research experience just not in a wet lab. So basically, if I could get experience in a biological lab and take a couple courses, then I could probably get into grad school. Just wondering if it's worth the opportunity cost to leave a stable work environment to pursue something more fulfilling.

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Well... I'm biased because I am a neuroscientist so for me it is worth it. But it also doesn't sound like you're interested in doing long postdocs. Neuroscience is becoming increasingly competitive and it is also more common to do multiple postdocs and for postdocs to take a long time. Also, getting a neuroscience PI position is incredibly difficult. I think everyone wants to work in a well funded/prestigious lab but there are only so many of those positions. Maybe make a pro and con list?  My guess is that it would take 2 years for real wet lab experience/ classes, then 6 for a PhD, then at least 5 for a postdoc.

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Thanks for sharing your perspective. I’m not against post docs, I understand they’re a necessary part of the process and they help you establish a track record. But they do have a rather low salary which I don’t understand but I guess that’s just the way it is. I’m not primarily motivated by money but I can’t say that I’m not considering it. What scares me is going down this path and then not obtaining a position as a PI, and be left wondering what else I could’ve been doing with the time. If I felt I had good odds of becoming a PI I think the decision would be a lot easier. You mentioned how competitive it is, can you elaborate from your experience in the field?

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Yeah no problem! So it's always variable (blah blah-- you know the qualifying drill) but from what I've heard, becoming a PI at a University is something like a 1:4 chance. But, if you're trying to become an intramural PI at the NIH (the best funded) depending on the institute it can be as low as a 1:20 chance. I don't know about other private institutions but I'm sure they're very competitive as they are usually very results focused. You also don't HAVE to become a PI, you could aim to become a staff scientist (though I wouldn't write that in an admissions essay). If you're a PI and not at the NIH you aren't really doing the science anymore, you're applying for grants and giving talks. At the NIH it's a little different because you don't necessarily compete for your funding so the PIs can afford to spend some more time in lab. I guess it all depends on your research goals, do you like being at the bench doing the work or would you rather be more focused on a career outside the lab. Both are valid and just things to consider. 

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Okay, that honestly makes me feel a lot better. I thought in academia it was PI or bust, unless you went to industry which isn't my goal. (Shows how much I know) I like that there are staff scientist and research associate positions to fall back on. I really just want to do research (autonomy would be sweet) but if I can at least help advance the field I would consider that a worthwhile endeavor. Can i ask what your career goals are and some career moves that have helped you get to the position/direction you're in today?

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I think for a long time PI was the only goal of academia, but the times they are a changing! And of course! So, I'm at the opposite end of the neuroscience career path, I fell in love with it early and my entire undergraduate career was centered on it. Currently, I'm doing a joint masters with the NIH and a university in the DC area. I applied this application cycle and I'm deciding between a few different places. My career goals are to continue doing as much hands on research for as long as I can and to do policy and advocacy work (another unique advantage that comes with living in DC). I don't plan to stay in academia forever-- but maybe I will, who's to say lol. If you want good research experience I hear nothing but good things about the NIH postbac program. They aren't shy about taking people from different backgrounds and there are free classes that anyone can take, you don't have to be enrolled in a degree seeking program.  

Edited by twirl
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