PhD in behavioral neuroscience guide

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An exciting journey into behavioral neuroscience

The field of neuroscience is as vast as the number of neurons in the brain. Every function and synapse has a specialty scientist behind it. Since the creation of behavioral neuroscience as a field of study in the 1970s, experts in the field have come a long way. With over 50 years of history in the field, information on the subject and understanding of the brain has grown exponentially, but there is still much to learn. 

Behavioral neuroscience, also known as behavioral neurobiology, is the study of how the brain affects behavior. Professionals and students alike work in this field to unravel the mysteries of why living creatures behave as they do. The field of neuroscience includes several branches, including developmental, sensory, cognitive, behavioral, clinical, molecular and cellular neuroscience. Neurogenetics and neurophysiology are also tied to the broader field.

Behavioral neuroscience integrates several disciplines to better understand the interplay between the brain and behavior, including mathematics, linguistics, engineering, biology, psychology, chemistry, and medicine. Using detailed research, laboratory experiments, theory, and observation, findings help advance treatment and medical procedures for those suffering from a range of conditions like Down syndrome, epilepsy, ADHD, and brain tumors. 

Due to the field’s interdisciplinary nature, doctorate degree programs in behavioral neuroscience attract students from almost every academic background. Though neuroscience can be offered as a bachelor’s degree without specialization, behavioral neuroscience is usually only offered at the master’s and doctorate levels. If you love the brain and are ready to make a difference in the world of neuroscience, then a doctoral degree in behavioral neuroscience is a perfect fit.

About the degree 

puzzleCommon requirements

  • competitive GPA (3.5+)
  • letters of recommendation, academic and professional
  • research experience
  • GRE scores
  • master’s degree (preferred)

The field of neuroscience brings together researchers from an array of diverse backgrounds. Though prior degrees in psychology, biology, and mathematics are common, you do not need a related degree to apply to a behavioral neuroscience Ph.D. program. A master’s degree is also preferred but not required by most institutions. Programs place the most emphasis on prior research, experience in the field, and a competitive GPA.

Transferring programs partway through your doctoral degree is exceptionally challenging and rarely done. Credits earned in the early stages of this degree can be transferred into other neuroscience or neurobiology fields, like cognitive neuroscience. Some core psychology classes can also be transferred into a general psychology Ph.D., but moving to another program or institution becomes more difficult after beginning specified coursework.

Degree flexibility

A doctoral degree in behavioral neuroscience is traditionally a 5 to 6 year program, ranging between 90 and 130 credit hours. Students spend the majority of their time in labs. Between this and hands-on research opportunities, online doctoral classes are rare. Some colleges offer a few hybrid or online courses, but the program is traditionally taught in person, on campus.

Some programs do offer a part-time format, though most institutions recommend full-time study. There are many paid work opportunities for doctoral degree students. Teacher assistantships, paid internships, and research assistant positions are standard requirements in the field. These positions serve to both further your education and offset tuition costs. Most students have at least part, and often most, of their degree costs paid through these positions.

Possible coursework

Each university program offers different courses for doctoral students in behavioral neuroscience, but some of the most common classes include the following:

Clinical neuropsychology

This class is based on specific case studies involving real-world scenarios. Students learn about the interplay between nervous system function, emotion, cognition, and behavior and then apply this knowledge to design individualized interventions. This interdisciplinary course applies elements of psychology as students consider the psychosocial elements of patients’ experience living with their condition.  

Hemispheric asymmetry and cognition

Though similar in appearance, the left and right sides of the brain differ in how they process information. Functions like speech and language occur primarily in the left hemisphere, while spatial processing is found in the right hemisphere. This class observes the physical differences between the halves through images and lab work. Students often study and dissect animal brains and models in this course.

Neurobiology of stress

Atypical brain function is not only caused by neurological or physical illness but by emotional stress as well. This course teaches students the impact that stress has on brain growth and health and how specific benchmarks of brain growth can be delayed due to psychological distress. Students study the role of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in the stress response and its effects on neuroplasticity, learning, and mental health. There is a further emphasis on the practical application of this knowledge, specifically regarding how to build resilience to stress. 

Dissertation

A dissertation is the final project of your doctoral degree, serving as the culmination of all academic knowledge gained in the field thus far. Students choose a topic to research in an area they are passionate about and wish to study further. This project requires intensive study, completed slowly through your time in the program. You gather and analyze data, collected both from fieldwork and prior studies. Common areas of research include the study of incurable illnesses like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and spinal muscular atrophy. Research usually includes long-term case studies of afflicted patients, diagnostic testing via CT or MRI scans, and experimentation. After completing your dissertation, you defend it in front of a panel of professors and academic peers.

Specializations

A doctoral degree in behavioral neuroscience is a specialized degree within the field of cognitive neuroscience. Cognitive neuroscience is the comprehensive study of cognition and mental processes in the brain. It draws from fields like linguistics and psychology to study why the brain performs and responds to stimuli as it does. Behavioral neuroscience focuses explicitly on how the biology of physiology, development, and genetics affect human behavior.

Behavioral neuroscience can branch off even further into sub-specializations like psychopharmacology and physiological psychology. Sub-specialization types differ depending on what the doctoral program offers. Check with your institution ahead of time if you plan on studying a sub-specialization for your degree. Listed below are the most common sub-specializations.

Physiological psychology

In this sub-specialization, researchers use controlled experiments to manipulate the brain  surgically, electrically, or chemically. Their goal is to observe the neural response, most commonly in animals. Physiological psychology focuses on research with a goal of forming theoretical frameworks rather than discovering new applications from the research. Professionals in this sub-specialization are found in the lab or hospital environments and may require an additional license to practice. They usually find careers as researchers or clinical psychologists.

Psychopharmacology

Psychopharmacology is similar to physiological psychology, but with a greater focus on how medications interact with neural pathways. Experiments and tests are most commonly done on animals, but human volunteers can be accepted with strict safety procedures and protocols. Psychopharmacology research is either pure or applied research. Pure research is a direct test of substances with the intent of creating a theoretical model. Applied research is when a drug is being developed for therapeutic and clinical use. Professionals in this field usually work as psychiatrists, physician’s assistant, and mental health counselors.

Comparative psychology

Comparative psychology is an evolutionary-based study of behavior, tied closely to psychobiology and ethological studies. Famous comparative psychology studies include the Jane Goodall chimpanzee studies and Harlow’s study on rhesus monkey attachments. These psychologists can work in a micro, macro, and holistic sense according to the focus of a given study. This sub-specialization focuses primarily on the animal kingdom as research and test subjects, making jobs as ethologists and animal behavior specialists ideal careers.

Accreditation

Accreditation verifies that a program meets certain academic standards and reassures students that their degree is legitimate in the eyes of future employers. As a sub-field of psychology, behavioral neuroscience is sponsored and accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA). Be sure to check your institution for APA accreditation before applying.

Career paths

A professional career in behavioral neuroscience requires a love of research and a lot of patience to examine and retest data. Typical work environments include clinics, hospitals, and universities. While it is possible to work in this field with a master’s degree, a doctoral degree makes you eligible for higher-paying leadership positions. Most jobs in this field do not require additional certificates or licenses. Some employers may ask for background checks and a portfolio of prior research. Below are a few of the most popular careers in behavioral neuroscience.

Found in academic, scientific, and medical fields, a research scientist uses the scientific method to observe, experiment, and detail their findings. Research scientists work in a broad range of topics from medical research to computer information. Graduates with a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience usually apply for medical research positions based in labs or clinics to study patients directly. Research scientists in this area cover a wide variety of topics from studying autism in children to researching Alzheimer’s in adults. Published research opportunities can provide workers with tenured university professor positions, which offer both job security and a robust salary.

Paid through stipends and grants, the average salary for a research scientist is $81,500 per year.

Neuroscientists are interested in the way the brain impacts behavior and cognition, hence they study primarily the brain and spinal cord. Those entering the field usually have an area of specialization, meaning behavioral neuroscientists work with illnesses like schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder. Neuroscientists can work in teams, collaborating to develop solutions and further research projects. This job primarily requires a Ph.D., but M.D. students and other medical doctorate degrees are also welcome. Depending on the nature of your doctorate, your place of work can be anywhere from a clinic to a teaching hospital or local university.

The average salary for this position is $81,000.

Continuing education

A doctoral degree in behavioral neuroscience is a terminal degree. Students can consider dual degree options combining this degree with fields like child development or social psychology for further specialization. No license is required to practice in this field. However, students can use this degree to pursue a license to work as a clinical psychologist.

Society for Neuroscience

The society for neuroscience manages significant publications and conferences in the field and welcome all areas of specialization. They offer professional and vocational training as well as academic resources to members.

National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR)

NABR is a public, non-profit society that focuses on the ethical research of animals and humans. Safe and ethical animal testing is vital in the research community, and the NABR works with legislative and local policies to assure safety in laboratory research and experiments.

National Institutes of Health

Acting as a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH is a central medical research hub. They offer grants and funding for researchers, training, and an extensive library of resources.