From The Science Student Council

Brain-centric: A role for neuroscience in psychology

Training as a psychological brain scientist can prepare you for the research demands of the future

By Natale Sciolino

The brain has received a massive amount of attention in modern science. In fact, the 1990s was declared the “Decade of the Brain” by the Library of Congress and National Institute of Mental Health. In recognizing the functional output of this organ, the 2000s was then declared the “Decade of Behavior” by the American Psychological Association and other scientific societies. Such support demonstrates the important role of psychological inquiry in key research questions of the past. But exactly how does psychological science fit in the study of brain and behavior in this decade?

From a glance at the recent annual Society for Neuroscience meeting, attended by over 30,000 people from around the world, it is quite apparent that the field of neuroscience is as rich and diverse as the people who attend. This burgeoning, vibrant meeting is heavily attended by psychological scientists who are performing important preclinical and clinical research. While attending this meeting, I had the unique opportunity to brainstorm with top scientists on how psychology will play a role in interdisciplinary neuroscience research and training of the future.  Here are some of the conclusions I drew from these discussions that may be useful for those seeking training in psychology and neuroscience.

How do I search for educational options in psychology and neuroscience? 

The brain is an increasingly popular topic of study that spans many disciplines in science. For example, if one were to pick up a copy of a course catalog or academic posting from decades past, one would find listings in programs such as psychobiology, psychoneurobiology, and behavioral neuroscience. Regardless of the terminology, many if not most were in a department of psychology and emphasized the “psych” nature of the discipline. However, if one were to download a copy of such listings today, one would find options in interdisciplinary neuroscience programs or neuroscience departments per se in addition to those found in programs of psychology departments, which ever increasingly are named to emphasize the “neuro” aspects of the discipline. The name and location (e.g., department) of a given program of interest will reflect the specific type of training you will receive and can be informative in directing your search according to your educational goals.

What are the differences among graduate programs in neuroscience?

Successful behavioral neuroscience programs within psychology departments often have a concentration of faculty working in related areas — they can pool resources, collaborate on grants and papers, and have a legacy of generating a line of psychological scientists. On the other hand, a key strength of interdisciplinary neuroscience departments is that they support collaborations among scientists with diverse scientific backgrounds including, but not limited to, psychological science. Neuroscience departments often have more of a molecular emphasis as well. That being said, an accomplished psychological scientist can be produced from either type of training environment. 

Graduate students frequently have the option of obtaining a PhD in psychology or neuroscience, where the difference translates to a few courses. Some graduate programs even offer dual PhD’s in psychology and neuroscience. The boundary between a degree in psychology with a biopsychology (or behavioral neuroscience) emphasis and a degree in neuroscience is, in general, quite blurred. Indeed, graduate and postdoctoral trainees regularly compete for the same jobs and resources.

When I graduate with training in psychology and neuroscience, what types of opportunities are available to me?

A PhD in psychology and neuroscience can take you many places. Just be aware that after earning a PhD, many people perform 2-3 years of post-doctoral training at a different institution to gain supplementary experience. Faculty or research positions are available for those with a PhD in psychology and neuroscience in various academic departments or medical colleges. Research and administrative career opportunities can also be found in public agencies (e.g., National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and private companies (e.g., pharmaceutical, biotechnology). Numerous other nonresearch options are also available, including teaching, scientific writing and public policy.

My experiences at the Society for Neuroscience meeting indicate that combined training in psychological science and neuroscience is valued and sought. Although the current market for jobs and funding is challenging, there is a demand for scientists who can perform or communicate interdisciplinary and translational research in neuroscience, which greatly benefits from the unique perspective offered by those with psychological training. 

Natale Sciolino is the behavioral neuroscience representative on the APA Science Student Council. She is a doctoral student in the interdisciplinary neuroscience program at the University of Georgia. Her interests include the neurobiological basis of stress and emotion. In particular, she performs research on the roles of norepineprhine and galanin systems in understanding the links between exercise and emotion.