Becoming a Neuroscientist: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of a career as a neuroscientist? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a neuroscientist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career as a Neuroscientist

A neuroscientist is a medical scientist who investigates the nature of neurological, or brain, diseases and disabilities. The information below will help you determine if the socially valuable and intellectually stimulating nature of the work will outweigh the costs of professional entry and the hazards of the workplace.

Pros of a Career as a Neuroscientist
Intellectually engaging work (the work of neuroscientists requires a very wide range of mental faculties)*
Socially valuable work (neuroscientists spend their days investigating and trying to resolve health problems that affect millions of people)*
Growing field (Employment growth projected at 13% between 2012 and 2022)*
Opportunities for high salary (Scientists who worked at pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing companies earned a median wage of about $93,000 in May 2012)*
Job stability (a neuroscientist with tenure at universities essentially has a job for life barring extreme circumstances, such as criminal conduct)**

Cons of a Career as a Neuroscientist
High barriers to entry (the work of neuroscientists typically requires them to have attained at least a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.), in addition to relevant licensure)*
Neuroscientists are often required to work with potentially dangerous biological samples*
Neuroscientists often must compete with other scientists and researchers for funding that, depending on the economy and government budget situations, is sometimes scarce**
Neuroscientists without tenure must depend on grants for job security**

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics*, University of Washington**

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

As a neuroscientist, you'll have a tremendous degree of freedom and independence in conducting experiments and research, but this doesn't necessarily mean you'll be working alone. You'll often be required to lead teams of technicians, students and assistants. You may also be required to work with patients during clinical trials. If you work at a university, some of your time may go to writing grants and research proposals, which are necessary to acquire funding.

Some specific tasks related to your research may include developing instruments and processes for the analysis of data, creating standards for manufactured drugs and analyzing tissue samples. Regardless of the work environment, most neuroscientists must coordinate their work with various other healthcare professionals, such as physicians, pharmaceutical executives and health department officials.

Job Prospects and Salary Info

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), national employment of all medical scientists is projected to grow by 13% through 2022. This increase is, in part, due to an increased number of individuals who rely on pharmaceutical drugs.

In 2014, the mean annual wage of medical scientists working at pharmaceutical and other medicine manufacturing companies was around $109,000. The comparable figure for medical scientists employed by colleges and universities was about $66,000, according to the BLS.

Career Paths and Specializations

As with other medical scientists, neuroscientists may choose to work for the federal government, colleges and universities or corporations. Their essential responsibilities may vary depending on the employer. For instance, neuroscientists who work at universities may also be required to devote some time to teaching.

As a neuroscientist, you'll have the opportunity to gain expertise in a variety of research topics. Some of these areas may include the normal memory and learning functioning, animal pharmacology, molecular substrates, microarray analysis, proteomics and automated DNA sequencing.

Career Skills and Requirements

Neuroscientists are required to hold a Ph.D. in fields such as neurobiology, molecular biology or physiology. You can also earn an M.D., and in some cases, you might need to have both, the BLS reports. Students who complete these degree programs are prepared to apply the principles of a variety of disciplines, such as cognitive neuroscience, psychology and pathology, to their scientific work.

In addition to these degree requirements, neuroscientists also typically complete postdoctoral research with universities and government agencies before going on to more permanent employment opportunities. Neuroscientists who administer clinical trials, in which human patients are given drugs and therapies, are required to acquire a license. Requirements for licensure include medical school, an exam and additional graduate-level medical training, according to the BLS.

Useful Skills

You'll need to rely on a number of hard and soft skills to successfully complete your professional tasks. These may include:

  • The ability to think critically
  • The ability to make informed decisions
  • The ability to communicate complex information clearly and concisely
  • The ability to recognize patterns among concepts, ideas and mathematical arrangements
  • The ability to bring deductive and inductive reasoning skills to complex problems

Job Postings from Real Employers

An April 2012 job search turned up several posts advertising positions available for neuroscientists. Nearly all of the positions discovered required applicants to hold a Ph.D., while the level of experience varied depending on the employer. The following is a list of some actual postings found during that job search:

  • A college in Philadelphia advertised for a cognitive neuroscientist who'd be hired as an assistant professor to teach undergraduate psychology and neuroscience courses. The successful applicant would hold at least a Ph.D.
  • A Maryland technology company advertised for a neuroscientist with a Ph.D. and at least 3 years of experience in neuroscience research to conduct research into brain body interactions. The successful applicant would also have particular experience in brain imaging techniques and software, technical writing and digital signaling, among other areas.
  • An Iowa university advertised for a cognitive neuroscientist who could fill a tenure-track position. The applicant needed a Ph.D., an M.D. or both. The university sought a published professional who had experience in clinical and experimental neuropsychology.

How to Stand Out

An effective way to distinguish yourself as a neuroscientist is by becoming an expert in grant-writing. This is particularly important if you plan on conducting research in the public sector or at research universities where you'll be expected to spend some of your time seeking grants from health and science organizations, according to BLS data. In addition, you may also consider staying abreast of the latest technology in your field. You can find professional associations, such as the Society for Neuroscience, that offer workshops, seminars, conferences and other resources for you to maintain a competitive edge in critical professional areas.

Other Careers to Consider

If you're reconsidering becoming a neurosurgeon, there are other careers with similar professional functions that you may think about.


Do you think you'd rather use your medical degree to work directly with patients? You might consider becoming a physician. Rather than conducting research, you can determine the causes of patient illnesses and create treatment plans or counsel patients on preventative health care options. This is also a field that is growing faster than average, with 24% growth expected between 2010 and 2020, according to the BLS. In addition, you can expect a high salary; the BLS reported a median salary of around $202,000 for primary care physicians in May 2010. Be aware though, you'll have to work long hours and may be on call or have to travel.


If you'd rather not take the time to earn a Ph.D. or an M.D., you could look into becoming an epidemiologist. The BLS reports that you'll need a master's degree to work in this field. Epidemiologists are also medical scientists responsible for researching and investigating the causes of prominent diseases. Unlike neuroscientists, their work emphasizes a broader array of illnesses, such as viruses, that present threats to public health. However, you can expect a lower salary if you choose this route; the BLS reported that epidemiologists made a median annual wage of around $63,000 in May 2010.

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