Behavioral neuroscience – degrees and careers
The mind is incredibly complex and our understanding of how it works barely scratches the surface. That is good news, as it means there are still plenty of neuroscientific discoveries to be made. Over the past 15 years, significant advances have occurred in neurogenetics, cognitive-behavioral therapies, and neural implants.
In 2018, the rosehip neuron was discovered. Having been found in human but not rodent brains, it has been theorized that this cell may explain the different responses to neurological treatments in humans compared to trials on mice. Another recent focus in neuroscience has been the link between the gut and the brain and its correlation to mood and behavior as well as conditions like Parkinson’s disease.
These and other topics are just some of the research opportunities in a behavioral neuroscience degree.
Neuroscience vs psychology
Perhaps you are deciding between a major in psychology or neuroscience. Psychology studies behavior and mental processes, including thoughts and feelings. Neuroscience also studies these but with a greater focus on biological factors and neurophysiology.
Neuroscience vs neuropsychology
Behavioral neuroscience is a branch of both psychology and neuroscience. Neuropsychology is the broader neuroscientific field encompassing behavioral neuroscience.
What is behavioral neuroscience?
Behavioral neuroscience is a subspeciality of psychology. It is the study of human development and behavior through the lens of biological factors such as brain circuitry and nerve density. It is an interdisciplinary field, combining insights from neuroscience and psychology.
Behavioral neuroscience vs biological psychology
Biological psychology is an older term for behavioral neuroscience. The field is sometimes also referred to as biopsychology or psychobiology.
What do behavioral neuroscientist study?
Behavioral neuroscientists combine insights from neurobiology and behavior analysis to achieve a clearer picture of the relationship between behavioral treatments and neural dysfunction.
Using animal experimentation, they study brain function and behavior and attempt to illustrate the relationship between animal and human behavior. Findings made in animal studies are often extrapolated to human processes.
Behavioral neuroscientists may consider the effects of some of the following when conducting experiments:
- genetic factors
- environmental factors
- developmental processes
- electrical stimulation
- chemical elements
How to become a behavioral neuroscientist
Becoming a behavioral neuroscientist in most cases requires earning a doctorate in the field. However, your journey begins at the bachelor’s level. A psychology undergraduate degree is not mandatory, but electives in math, science, or programming can increase your chances of getting accepted into a master’s or Ph.D. program.
1. Earn a bachelor’s degree
If your eventual goal is to pursue a career as a behavioral neuroscientist, you can begin to specialize at the undergraduate level.
Your options include a bachelor of science (B.S.) in behavioral neuroscience or cognitive and behavioral neuroscience. A general psychology major or a degree in a related subspeciality are other possibilities, as is a bachelor’s degree in any field with a minor in behavioral neuroscience.
As a behavioral neuroscience major, your focus is on the biological bases of behavior and how our physiological systems respond to external stimuli.
Topics covered include human development, mental health disorders, neuroplasticity, data analysis, and research methodologies.
Specific courses may include:
- molecular biology
- organic chemistry
- clinical neuroscience
- language and the brain
- developmental biology
- clinical neuroanatomy
- behavioral endocrinology
What jobs can you get with a behavioral neuroscience bachelor’s degree?
A bachelor’s degree can lead to entry-level positions in the field of psychology. Higher-level roles in most cases require advanced credentials.
Psychiatric technicianMedian salary: 38K US$
Considered an entry-level mental health job, psychiatric technicians provide frontline care to individuals with developmental or mental health issues in group or long-term care homes, hospitals, or at-home settings.
A specific license or training with the target group are usually offered as on-the-job training. Psychology students may choose this type of employment on a part-time basis while in school.See more
Laboratory technicianMedian salary: 44K US$
A lot of work in this field is connected to medical and pharmaceutical research. With a bachelor’s in behavioral neuroscience, you may find employment as a lab technician, performing lab work used in research studies. Tasks can include carrying out immunoassays, blood tests, and cultures, as well as quality control checks on tests.
Research assistantMedian salary: 40K US$
Working under the supervision of a lead researcher, research assistants help gather and enter data to analyze, perform tests, help with record-keeping, create and manage spreadsheets. They assist as part of a bigger team, trying to prove a hypothesis or conduct a specific study. Research assistantships may be part of a bachelor’s in behavioral neuroscience.See more
2. Earn a master’s in behavioral neuroscience
Once you have earned a bachelor’s in behavioral neuroscience, psychology, or a related field, the next step is to earn a master’s degree. If your bachelor’s is not in behavioral neuroscience, it is recommended to specialize at this stage. Specializing can improve your chances of acceptance into a doctoral program.
Keep in mind you may not get accepted into a master’s program without college-level coursework in psychology, math, cell biology, and chemistry.
This discipline may be offered as either an master of science (M.S.) or a master of arts (M.A.). Generally, M.S. programs focus more on lab work and analysis, whereas M.A. programs include more discussion and essays. Some schools offer a master’s in psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience.
Most students complete this degree in 2 years.
Common courses include:
- cognitive neuroscience
- emotions and the brain
- molecular and behavioral neuroscience
Thesis and research
Most programs include a master’s thesis and lab or research requirements. Students work directly with faculty on research topics like neurodevelopmental disorders, neuropathology, neuropsychiatry, and clinical neurology.
A focus on research methodology is also essential. Common methodology courses include:
- advanced statistics
- research methods in behavioral neuroscience
- advanced topics in mathematics for brain science
- computational brain modeling
Data science models are increasingly popular among neuroscientists as tools for modeling neural networks and the brain. Network science contributes to working models that scientists can use to represent neural processes.
What jobs can you get with a behavioral neuroscience master’s degree?
Most senior careers in behavioral neuroscience require a doctorate. Upon completing a master’s, you can move a step closer to these careers by taking on assistant or technical roles in the field.
Clinical research associateMedian salary: 69K US$
Research in behavioral neuroscience is usually carried out at universities or in private labs, often funded by pharmaceutical companies investigating new medical treatments.
Research associates assist in carrying out clinical trials, including the development of trial protocols, identifying trial sites, coordinating the approval process, and overseeing technical staff.See more
Neuroimaging technicianMedian slaary: 73K US$
Diagnosis and treatment of and research into brain and mental health are highly dependent on neuroimaging techniques such as PET and CAT scans and MRI. Neuroimaging technicians operate the machines that produce these highly detailed soft tissue images.
3. Earn a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience
Becoming a fully-fledged behavioral neuroscientists in most cases requires a doctorate. Students may pair a behavioral neuroscience doctorate with a degree in psychology, resulting in something like a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience and comparative psychology (BNCP). Others may choose a doctorate in psychology (Psy.D.) with an emphasis on behavioral neuroscience.
Doctoral students commonly conduct advanced research in highly specialized areas such as:
- hormone modulation
- learning and memory
- neurodegenerative diseases
- mathematical modeling of behavior
- behavioral and neurobiological consequences of stress and drug abuse
Doctoral program can take 5-7 years to complete. Students are typically required to prepare a dissertation and pass a final oral examination or thesis defense. Psy.D. programs focus more on clinical practice, while Ph.D. programs emphasize research. Choosing the right doctoral program for you ultimately depends on your career goals.
What can you do with a behavioral neuroscience doctorate degree?
Behavioral neuroscience jobs can be broadly divided into clinical and research positions. Research positions are usually in the fields of psychology or medicine, focused on treatment and medication for various physical and mental illnesses. Medical positions involve helping individuals overcome or manage brain-based illness, impairment, or disability.
Behavioral neuroscientistMedian salary: 80K US$
Behavioral neuroscientists are in most cases researchers rather than practitioners. Employed at government, university, or private labs, they study human and animal brain physiology, genetics, development, and their relationship to mental processes and behaviors.
Clinical neuropsychologistMedian salary: 95K US$
Clinical neuropsychologists are assess, diagnose, and treat psychiatric and neurodevelopmental conditions, as well as learning and cognitive disorders.
4. Get licensed
The specific license you pursue depends on your career and the state you wish to practice in. As a researcher, you may not need a license. For careers that involve providing psychological services to the public, psychological licensure is required.
Most states require the following for licensure:
- Ph.D. in psychology or Psy.D.
- state-approved internship and/or supervised work experience
- passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP)
- professional standards or ethics examination (some states)
At each stage of studying behavioral neuroscience, electives in related fields can further your understanding. These courses may include:
- Brain development – a course that looks at neuroplasticity, including how experience shapes brain activity and how changes in the brain impact behavior
- Sensory perception – this course explores how the brain focuses on different senses to understand situations, including the processing of information and the study of the specific brain circuits involved
- Hormones and behavior – a study of the endocrine system and how hormones influence behavior and vice versa
- Memory and learning – a course about how the brain processes and stores new information and then modifies, retrieves, or forgets it later
Federal student aid is available for graduates embarking on a degree in behavioral neuroscience. Begin your application by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Some universities offer full or partial funding to doctoral students in exchange for teaching or research assistantships. Tuition waivers are possible under the student-practitioner model, in which doctoral candidates contribute to research and care in the community while studying.
Addition sources of financial aid to consider include:
- The American Psychological Foundation and the American Psychological Association, which offer scholarship and grant opportunities for psychology students.
- The National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) supports students earning research-based graduate or doctoral degrees.
- Psi Chi, the international honorary society of psychology, offers numerous grants and awards to undergraduate students.
It is important to ensure that your program is accredited. Accreditation informs future employers and licensing boards that your qualifications have met the highest standards.
Accredited schools update their programs to stay current on new developments in the discipline. At the undergraduate level, behavioral neuroscience programs are accredited by state boards. The American Psychological Association’s Commission on Accreditation (APA–CoA) may accredit master’s and doctoral programs.
FAQs about behavioral neuroscience
What is the difference between neuroscience vs neuropsychology?
Neuropsychology is a subfield of neuroscience. Behavioral neuroscience is a type of neuropsychology, using insights from both neuroscience and psychology.
What is the difference between neurology vs neuroscience?
Neurology is a medical field specializing in diagnosing and treating conditions that affect the central nervous system, including epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. Neuroscientists study the central nervous system to understand its structure and function. They may develop drugs or treatments neurologists prescribe.
APA Division 6: Society for Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology
The American Psychological Associations’ Division 6 offers education, training, funding, and professional networking for students and practitioners of behavioral neuroscience and comparative psychology.
International Behavioral Neuroscience Society (IBNS)
The IBNS is a professional society for behavioral neuroscience practitioners and scientists. Founded in 1992, it has members across 34 countries. IBNS organizes an annual conference for professionals studying the connections between the brain and behavior.
APA Guide to Neuropsychology Specialization
This APA guide offers an overview of the field of clinical neuropsychology, one of the fields open to graduates with a doctorate in behavioral neuroscience.