Behavioral neuroscience – degrees, programs and careers
Introduction to behavioral neuroscience
Behavioral neuroscience is no less than the monumental task of studying the infinite and minute structures that make up the brain, and discovering how this brain function influences human – and individual – behavior patterns. Despite significant advances, there is still much to learn about how our minds function.
The subject of neuroscience is split into several branches, all of which look at how our brain influences aspects of human life, such as culture or behavior. Neuroscientists study cognitive function and how the mind and body work. Behavioral neuroscience looks at human development and behavior through the lens of biological factors, such as brain circuitry. As a discipline, it works closely with other areas like computer science, medicine, and psychology.
You might be deciding between a major in psychology or behavioral neuroscience. It’s essential to understand the differences and similarities. Psychology involves the study of behavior and mental processes, including thoughts and feelings. Behavioral neuroscience also looks at these but focuses more on how the mind works from a functional nuts-and-bolts perspective. It examines the chemical and biological aspects of brain and nervous system function and the effect these things have on influencing behavior.
The mind is incredibly complex and our understanding of how it works barely scratches the surface. That’s good news, as there are still plenty of neuroscience discoveries and advances to be made. In the last 15 years, significant advances have occurred in neurogenetics, cognitive-behavioral therapies, and neural implants. More recently, the rosehip neuron was discovered, which has been found in human brains but not in rodents. It could explain the different responses to neurological treatments in humans when compared to trials on mice. Additionally, neuroscientists established links between the gut and the brain. This finding has been pivotal for studying behavior and conditions like Parkinson’s. These and other topics are just some of the research opportunities within behavioral neuroscience, and give insight into how important the field is when it comes to making discoveries that impact the quality of life or help stave off diseases.
Behavioral neuroscience (BN) is a subspecialty of psychology. Studying this subject could help you understand what makes humans tick. However, you’ll spend less time with patients and more time focusing on patterns and data. The applications of the knowledge gained from a behavioral neuroscience degree are wide-ranging. You could use it in sectors like health, research, business, or education.
Those interested in an undergraduate degree could pursue a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in behavioral neuroscience. These programs aim to explain the basic principles, focusing on the biological bases of behavior and how our physiological systems respond to external stimuli. That includes a foundation in clinical and medical aspects. Universities typically teach the course from the department of psychology.
The program could comprise topics like human development, mental health disorders, neuroplasticity, data analysis, and research methodology. You’ll likely study clinical aspects and foundational science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses.
Core courses could include:
- Critical thinking
- Molecular biology
- Organic chemistry
- Clinical neuroscience
- Language and the brain
- Developmental biology
- Clinical neuroanatomy
- Behavioral endocrinology
Most bachelor’s degrees in BN take 4 years to complete. You could find a cooperative education program that takes 5 years. Semester hours can vary from 120 to over 130.
If you already have a degree in a relevant field, you might be interested in a Master of Arts (M.A.) in behavioral neuroscience. You don’t necessarily need to have earned a B.S. in neuroscience to progress to this level. It could be your next step after completing psychology, neurobiology, or statistics programs.
It’s possible to find both an M.A. and a Master of Science (M.S.) in behavioral neuroscience. Generally, science programs focus more on lab work and analysis, whereas arts programs can include more discussion and essays. However, psychology departments use both options for degrees that cover similar topics.
As a graduate student, you could enhance your understanding of the core principles of BN. Classes could include systems, molecular, and cognitive neuroscience. They aim to prepare you to communicate the principles of neuroscience to others. Some degrees also deal with professional conduct.
You could study foundational courses in:
- Cognitive neuroscience
- Emotions and the brain
- Molecular and behavioral neuroscience
Master’s degree programs in BN typically take 2 years to complete. It’s unusual to find accelerated programs, as at least 1 year is dedicated to research. You might then progress to a thesis or capstone project. Usually, you’ll work in a laboratory and present your findings to a panel.
The third level of education is a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in behavioral neuroscience. Programs in BN could also be doctorates in psychology (Psy.D.) with an emphasis on neuroscience. You can choose your Ph.D. based on your intended specialization. These programs are usually centered around science and research, preparing you for a career in academia. On the other hand, a Psy.D. will generally focus more on the clinical side to prepare you for practice.
Depending on the program, you could choose to specialize in one of several areas. These include neuropsychology, biochemistry, the biology of stress and trauma, or cognitive psychology. You will typically study neuroanatomy, learning, motivation, and memory. The benefits of a doctorate are that you could gain a position in an academic or clinical role. Many students progress to work as a researcher or a professor in the field.
A doctorate in BN might take you 5 to 6 years to complete, and some programs act as a bridge from B.S. to Ph.D. In the first 2 years, you could expect to increase your knowledge of:
- Research methodology
- Cognitive psychology
- Neuropsychological assessment
At the end of year 3, you’ll most likely take an exam. A large part of the program consists of thesis research. You might also complete an apprenticeship with a faculty member. Ph.D. students may also be expected to take on assistant teaching roles.
Possible elective courses
At each stage of studying BN, you’ll have the opportunity to expand your knowledge of the core principles of the subject. At the same time, elective courses in closely linked fields can further your understanding of BN. These courses may include:
A course that looks at neuroplasticity, including how experience shapes brain activity and how changes in the brain impact behavior.
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, which is bidirectional, allowing the study of 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.
Several programs at undergraduate and graduate levels focus on animal and human behavior. Much of the early research is directed toward the former, which can later be applied to people. Courses on quantitative research are generally included in BN programs. Master’s degrees might allow you to combine neuroscience with other subjects. They include economics, law, or education.
At the postgraduate level, you might find a significant focus on research. BN is a field that is well-positioned to incorporate advances in other areas of science and technology to progress. It means that master’s and Ph.D. students could have an excellent opportunity to contribute to the discipline. That could be through enhancing the understanding of the subject or breakthroughs in specific areas. You could also further the useful applications of behavioral neuroscience in everyday life.
Online vs. on offline
As the majority of BN degrees require laboratory work for the biology and chemistry aspects, this practical work means it’s rare to find a wholly digital course. Some are offered as a hybrid program, which means you can attend some lectures online but will need to travel to campus for certain elements. Interaction with faculty members is a vital part of understanding behavioral neuroscience. For this reason, hybrid or campus-based programs are often preferred.
Generally, applicants for bachelor’s degrees complete an application form and may also need to supply high school transcripts or general equivalency diploma (GED) scores, typically 165 points or higher. In addition to standardized test scores and a recommendation from a teacher, you may need to take an introductory psychology course.
Master’s degree programs often require bachelor’s transcripts and a grade point average (GPA) of 3.0 or higher. Some universities might require a minimum of 15 credit hours in neuroscience or psychology. You may need to submit 2 or 3 letters of recommendation. Other requirements include a personal statement and your graduate record examination (GRE) scores. Typically, you’ll need at least 150 in your verbal and quantitative scores, and 4.0 for writing.
Prospective Ph.D. candidates might also need to supply letters of recommendation and test scores. You’ll likely need to submit all your school transcripts and a statement of purpose. This short essay sets out your goals for studying. Most schools look at your work experience and academic record in psychology and related sciences when considering your application.
There isn’t a particular accreditation body to oversee schools delivering this program. That’s because behavioral neuroscience is a specific discipline within the department of psychology. However, there are other relevant forms of certification.
Some universities will possess accreditation from the American Psychological Association Commission on Accreditation (APA-CoA). The commission evaluates schools and their programs to ensure they meet national standards. The process includes peer review and looks at course content and student services.
The choice to adhere to certain standards is a sign of quality. That can be beneficial to you as you continue your education or career. Prospective employers will likely view accredited schools more positively than their non-accredited counterparts, and it may prove impossible to progress in your education if your degree isn’t from an accredited program.
Universities usually display the name and logo of any certifying bodies on their homepage or about us pages. You might also see more specific accreditation logos on faculty websites. In this case, the psychology department or course page is the best place to look.
Cost of the degrees
It’s common for BN programs of all levels to have an application fee. The other costs will depend on the type of program you are studying. For B.S. programs, tuition can range from $11,000 to $28,000 per semester. These figures are closely aligned to the average cost of tuition overall, which for in-state students sits at $10,560, and at $27,020 for those from out of state.
Master’s programs in BN vary in cost. Many universities charge higher fees to non-residents. Annual costs can range from $12,000 to $40,000. Ph.D. courses in behavioral neuroscience might cost $1,800 per credit or have a yearly fee of around $57,000
Prospective undergraduates might qualify for scholarships from the institution where they are studying. They might also be eligible to apply for a local grant. Another option is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Students receive over $120 billion in student aid from the U.S. Department of Education each year.
BN graduate students may qualify for adjunct teaching positions at their universities. First, you may need to complete an apprenticeship program. This course prepares you to perform undergraduate psychology lectures. The role can help you cover the costs of your graduate program.
You can also find scholarships offered by private companies, clubs, or institutions for graduate-level programs. Research companies offer grants for specific areas of study. For example, Thermo Fisher Scientific has a program for undergraduates and graduates for a $10,000 or $5,000 award. Studies need to be enrolled at accredited schools and pursuing a science major.
Your career in behavioral neuroscience could depend on your level of education. The more advanced your qualifications, the more opportunities you could discover. You may also find that you have more options if you’ve taken interdisciplinary electives in your program, such as law or business.
BN graduates who have earned a B.S. could consider roles such as a psychiatric technician, a specialist in social services, or a research assistant.
Advanced degrees could lead to roles in a clinical, research, or education setting:
Other possible roles include neuro-economist, neuroimaging technician, speech therapist, public health neuroscientist, marketing consultant, science journalist, researcher, or congressional advisor.
From the postgraduate stage onward, most advanced education involving neuroscience contains an element of research. After you have earned a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience, there are options to continue your education. This would most likely include a post-doctoral position at an academic institution.