What is Cognitive Neuroscience?

Undergraduate students are often interested in pursuing a graduate degree in cognitive neuroscience, psychobiology, neuroscience/behavioral neuroscience, or clinical neuropsychology. These are related but slightly different fields of study. Knowing the differences can help students identify the most appropriate degree program for their interests. Below I will answer some common questions about these different areas of study using examples from our own Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Florida International University, Miami, FL.

What is the difference between cognitive neuroscience, psychobiology, behavioral neuroscience, and clinical neuropsychology?

These are highly overlapping fields of study, but there are subtle differences in focus, and in some cases different training is required. Thus, the distinctions are worth noting.

Stated simply, cognitive neuroscientists study the neurobiological basis of perceptual, motor, and cognitive/affective functioning. They often use a variety of behavioral and neuroimaging methods (such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), electroencephalography (EEG), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), magnetoencephalography (MEG), or functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). Many of the faculty at FIU use these cognitive neuroscience methods, including Dr. Anthony Dick (development of language and executive function using MRI; http://dcn.fiu.edu); Dr. Angela Laird (neuroinformatics and MRI analysis; http://neurolab.fiu.edu/); Dr. Aaron Mattfeld (memory and development using MRI; http://madlab.fiu.edu/); Dr. Bethany Reeb-Sutherland (social, emotional, and spatial development using EEG, tDCS, and eyeblink conditioning; http://bbdl.fiu.edu/); Dr. Bennett Schwartz (memory and consciousness; http://www.bennettschwartz.com/); Dr. Fabián Soto (computational neuroscience of learning and categorization using computational modeling and MRI; http://ccnlab.fiu.edu/); Dr. Matthew Sutherland (impact of substance use on brain function using MRI and EEG; http://neurolab.fiu.edu/).

Behavioral neuroscientists and psychobiologists are also interested in similar questions, but will often use methods to study neural function at more fine-grained levels, often in animal models (such as in mice, birds, rats, rabbits, cats, dogs, monkeys, and even pigs!). Thus, they are experts in observing and manipulating animal behavior, at electrode stimulation or recording of individual neurons or groups of neurons, at manipulating individual neurons to respond to light (optogenetics) or to specific compounds (DREADDs), and at performing histologic analysis on brain tissue. Dr. Tim Allen (http://allenlab.fiu.edu/), who studies memory in rodent and pig models, is an example of someone who works with a lot of these behavioral neuroscience methods. Dr. Robert Lickliter (http://myweb.fiu.edu/licklite/) studies the prenatal origins of perceptual, cognitive, and social behavior using an avian model, the Bobwhite Quail. Dr. Eliza Nelson (http://hands.fiu.edu/) uses non-invasive behavioral methods to study social and cognitive functioning in non-human primates.

Clinical neuropsychologists are clinical psychologists by training, who also complete a specific specialization in neuropsychology, often as part of their internship year in graduate school. Neuropsychologists are often interested in translational neuroscience, or in research questions that have direct effect on the treatment of psychiatric disorders. At FIU, Dr. Raul Gonzalez (substance use and HIV; http://suhn.fiu.edu/) and Dr. Dana McMakin (motivational and emotional development, sleep; http://www.remedyresearchgroup.com/) are clinical scientists who use MRI methods, and as clinical scientists they also have expertise in psychological and neuropsychogical assessment. As clinicians, they are licensed as psychologists, following training in a clinical psychology program, and appropriate testing and training to achieve licensure in the state in which they practice (see this link for more information). Neuropsychology training requires training in a clinical psychology program with a specific neuropsychology specialization. FIU does not offer this, but this link provides resources for students interested in this career path.

FIU does offer a double major in clinical science and cognitive neuroscience. More information about this can be found here. Students can take advantage of this opportunity to get a head start in the emerging field of translational neuroscience. Scientist-clinicians working in this field direct their research programs to try to make meaningful progress on adapting the findings from neuroscience to clinical practice. These researchers may be less interested in more traditional neuropsychological assessment, and more interested in how their research in neuroscience can directly inform clinical treatment of various mental disorders.

Why would I want to get a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience?

This is a great question to ask, because a PhD in any field is a significant commitment, and students should think long and hard about whether a career in neuroscience is right for them. Most PhD programs take at least 5-years to complete, and require dedicated study during that time frame. This means students initially work for lower wages than they could obtain in other careers like finance, and they also go to school full time (in return for tuition remission, and a stipend; at FIU the stipend is around $20,000 per year, and includes health insurance. FIU does not offer a Masters Degree in Cognitive Neuroscience).

Many students stay on what is called an “academic track”, which means they work in higher education. The higher education track can be further divided into two major tracks: a “teaching-intensive” track, and a “research-intensive” track. Students on a teaching intensive track will, after getting their PhD, often obtain jobs at smaller liberal arts or state colleges (for example, Barnard College, Colgate College, Fayette State University, Smith College, and Sarah Lawrence), where the emphasis is on teaching over research (and often these schools do not have PhD programs). Research intensive institutions (like FIU, Yale University and many of the Ivy League Schools; the Ohio State University and many schools in the Big Ten, or University of California at San Diego and many of the schools in the University of California system) focus on research and teaching. Faculty there have active research programs to support PhD students, write up their research results for publication in professional journals or books, and compete for research funding by writing grants. Faculty at teaching intensive institutions also often conduct research, but their focus is mostly on teaching. For a research intensive career, before obtaining a faculty job almost all students complete a post-doctoral research fellowship following their PhD. These typically last between two and four years, or sometimes longer. Institutions of higher education in the United States are classified by the Carnegie Foundation to calibrate the level of research and teaching emphasis (http://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/). For example, FIU is classified at the highest-level of research productivity (Doctoral University, Highest Research Activity).

On the academic career path, the goal is to obtain a permanent job in higher education, and this most often means starting as Assistant Professor on the “tenure track”.  The first hurdle on the tenure track is to be awarded tenure and promotion to Associate Professor. This often occurs after a six-year period in which the faculty member develops a portfolio for review by their faculty peers, and by various administrative committees and professionals. Tenure is desirable because it awards a high degree of job security. However, it is difficult to obtain tenure, and failure to do so means that the academic must look for another position (often outside of the university). After tenure, faculty can often achieve a final level of promotion to Full Professor. In some cases, faculty continue on to work in higher education administration (e.g., as a Dean or Provost).

There are also many jobs in the non-academic track. For example, cognitive neuroscientists, behavioral neuroscientists and psychobiologists, and neuropsychologists may work for federal (National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH)) and state agencies, for pharmaceutical companies, in hospital settings, or as clinicians in private practice (if they are licensed). PhDs can also work in many other settings, often way outside their field of study. For example, they may sing and play lead guitar in a rock band or become president of the United States.

What do academic cognitive neuroscientists do all day?

To undergraduate students, it often looks as if academics teach during the year, take summers off, and avoid answering email and being in their office. This is just not true. The academic career path is a challenging career path, and academics are busy. A productive academic will often spend 60-80 hours a week working.

Academics certainly spend a lot of time preparing for courses, teaching those courses, and grading for those courses. They also advise graduate and undergraduate students working in their laboratories. They design and conduct research studies. They serve on committees to develop academic curriculum, to review applications, to review research ethics, to develop rules and regulations, and to conduct the general business of the department and the university. They review books and journal articles, and serve as editors of books and journals. They attend conferences and serve on the steering committees of academic societies.

However, the thing academics do most is write–writing is the currency of the academy. Thus, academics write research papers, books, and grant applications. This is very time consuming, and requires large chunks of time without interruption. To find this time, academics will often write in the early mornings or at night, on weekends, and when they are hiding in their offices pretending to not be there. And they do a lot of this during the summer. Because writing can be done almost anywhere with a laptop, the job affords a lot of flexibility, but also consistent demands on time.

What do non-academic cognitive neuroscientists do all day?

As noted above, there are many jobs outside the academic track. PhDs will often work for the federal government as science advisors, directors, and researchers–for example, at the NSF, at the NIH, or the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Working in the pharmeceutical industry requires special skills often acquired in a behavioral neuroscience lab (e.g., histology, surgical procedures; working with animals). Neuropsychological assessment (at a private practice, in a hospital setting, or at the Veterans Administration) requires licensure obtained through a clinical neuropsychology program of study. Alternative career paths for PhDs are too numerous to list exhaustively, but it is important to know that there are alternatives to the academic career path for cognitive neuroscientists.

What do I have to do to get into graduate school in Cognitive Neuroscience?

At FIU, we review applications looking for the following credentials:

  1. Research experience: One of the most important pieces of a good graduate application is evidence of substantial research experience. A couple of years of work in a research laboratory is desirable (so start early)! Evidence of productivity, in the form of authorship on a paper, or on poster presentations at conferences, is desirable. The more the better.
  2. Good recommendations: FIU requires three good recommendations, preferably from faculty with whom the student has conducted research. Recommendations from a boss at a job is not necessarily desirable (unless they can speak to your work ethic or some other relevant quality). Recommendations from faculty with whom the student took one class are not great either, unless the faculty member knows the student well. Recommendations from graduate students, or from faculty in online classes, are not a huge benefit to a student’s application.
  3. Good GPA: GPA above a 3.5 is usually desirable, especially if the transcript shows evidence of work in the “hard” sciences (chemistry, physics) and mathematics. A masters degree can sometimes help, but is not required.
  4. Good GRE scores (FIU does not require a subject GRE): High verbal and quantitative scores are desirable, as well as a good score in the written portion.
  5. Evidence of writing competence: Since a lot of the job is writing, students should show excellent competence with the written word.

Students should consider applying to graduate school in the same way they would apply for a job. They should try to understand the job requirements, and work to obtain experience in those areas.