Are you intrigued by the brain and how it works? Have you always wondered how it influences people’s behavior? If you are driven to understand the biological basis for behavior and human psychology, then the field of behavioral neuroscience (BN) could be for you.
Often leading to a career in the hard sciences, a behavioral neuroscience master’s degree can open the door to various future opportunities. You may find yourself recording brain activity and mapping brainwaves, or researching the molecular chemistry of the mind.
Conversely, a job in a clinical setting evaluating, diagnosing, and treating patients may be a better fit. For medical scientists who take on this work, career prospects are promising.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment of medical scientists will grow 6% from 2019 to 2029, a faster rate than the average for all occupations. In May 2019, the median annual wage for medical scientists was $88,790. A behavioral neuroscience degree could be a path to one of the more lucrative careers in psychology.
What is behavioral neuroscience?
Also known as biological psychology or biopsychology, behavioral neuroscience originates from the early field of physiological psychology. Today, using brain circuitry, nerve density, and other biological factors, it is mainly concerned with the interaction between the brain, nervous system, and behavior.
BN is sometimes confused with cognitive neuroscience (CN). While research in both areas shares many principles, they differ in their application. Simply put, BN is the study of how neural stimuli affect the brain, and subsequently, behavior. CN is the study of the brain’s response to neural stimuli in terms of the effects on human thought.
BN is one of many areas of study in the discipline of neuroscience. It combines the independent sciences of neurobiology and behavior analysis to achieve a clearer picture of the relationship between behavioral treatments and neural dysfunction.
Behavioral neuroscientists often conduct animal experimentation to reveal the brain’s function in determining behavior. And ongoing research attempts to illustrate the relationship between animal and human behavior. Findings made in animal studies are often extrapolated to similar human processes. Behavioral neuroscientists may consider the effects of some of the following when conducting experiments:
- Genetic factors
- Environmental factors
- Developmental processes
- Electrical stimulation and lesions
- Neurotransmitters and chemical elements
Earning a master’s in behavioral neuroscience
The field of BN is competitive and requires strong foundational knowledge in many areas.
As BN is a multidisciplinary field, BN practitioners usually hold a degree in related hard sciences or STEM-related fields. Some BN professionals will achieve a medical degree instead of, or in addition to, a Ph.D.
To prepare for an undergraduate education, high school students interested in this field may wish to consider taking advanced-placement courses. Subjects might include biology, psychology, chemistry, math, and computer programming.
Program entrance requirements
Completing a bachelor’s degree program in a related field can help put you on the right path to obtaining a graduate degree in BN. Undergraduate degrees in fields like psychology, biology, or neuroscience are often prerequisites. In addition, some graduate programs require a minimum number of credits in psychology.
Courses in math, physics, and life sciences can also be beneficial. Students may need to write grant applications and publish research findings, so classes that develop writing and communication skills can boost application prospects.
Many BN graduate programs require prospective candidates to have a minimum overall undergraduate GPA of 3.0 and a 3.5 or higher in psychology courses. Recommendation letters from previous professors are usually required, as well as a personal statement. Acceptable GRE scores are often needed as well.
Undergraduate research experience is often a prerequisite for admission to graduate programs. Students are encouraged to have an understanding of computer models or computer science and strong quantitative skills.
Most graduate programs include a master’s thesis and a lab/research requirement. Students will often work directly with university faculty on a research project of their choice. Students can find research topics in areas like neurodevelopmental disorders, neuropathology, neuropsychiatry, and clinical neurology.
Depending on the educational institution, faculty specialities can vary greatly and may encompass a wide range of skills and disciplines. Most students complete their degree in 2 years or less, although some 1-year programs are available. Courses typically include neurobiology, cognitive and integrative neuroscience, and biophysics of nerves and synapses.
Fully online BN programs are rare, but some universities may offer hybrid options. These can provide flexibility to those with busy schedules. Because of the field’s research-intensive nature, on-campus work is usually necessary to complete a BN master’s degree program.
Graduate programs in BN generally include courses that study the aspects of brain functions as they relate to various behavioral and cognitive processes. Specific examples include sensory perception, animal behavior, and human development. Advanced seminars in psychology and the current developments in the field are also typical. Students may undertake classes in some of the following areas:
A focus on methodology and research is also essential to a BN degree. Graduates could focus on topics such as motivation and drug addiction, the role of fear in learning and memory, or the role of sound in sensory processing. Methodology/research courses may include:
- Advanced statistics
- Research methods in BN
- Psychological measurement
- 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.
Careers in behavioral neuroscience
Potential careers stemming from behavioral neuroscience degrees can include:
One of the largest employers of behavioral neuroscientists is the healthcare industry. Pharmaceutical companies whose focus is prescription drug development rely heavily on the research and findings provided by behavioral neuroscientists.
After completing a Ph.D., candidates could pursue research-oriented careers in academia or industry. Leadership positions in psychology or related brain science departments might also present themselves. Graduates may find employment in the fields of education, science writing, science advocacy, government, advertising, and the pharmaceutical industry.
Graduate students who wish to pursue further education usually complete a Ph.D. program. Often, students will pair a BN doctorate with a degree in psychology, resulting in something like Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology (BNCP).
Participants in Ph.D. programs typically 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
A Ph.D. program can take up to 5 years to complete. Students are typically required to prepare a dissertation or written thesis, successfully pass a final oral examination or thesis defense, and receive formal acceptance of their thesis by the doctoral committee.
Most careers in BN don’t require a license. However, certain career paths in healthcare settings will require certification before you can practice. One of those is nursing, either as a behavioral health or psychiatric nurse. You’ll need to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) and meet the requirements in the state where you will practice.
Another career path for behavioural neuroscientists that requires a license, is practicing as a psychologist. This role needs a doctoral degree and completion of the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) through your state board, and a minimum number of supervised practice hours.
Financial cost and aid
Annual costs for graduate degrees in BN can run anywhere from $14,000 to $19,700 for in-state residents to $34,00 to $60,000 for out-of-state students.
There are various federal and state grants, loans, and scholarships available. From the Department of Education, a free application for federal student aid is available on October 1st at the Federal Student Aid website. This site provides information on the types of aid available, eligibility, and loan repayment options.
To receive the most financial aid possible, prospective students should check school and state grant deadlines and apply as early as possible. Grants, scholarships, and loans are often available from colleges who offer their own source of financial aid. Additional information, including deadlines, is generally available on a particular school’s website.
To gain accreditation, schools must be certified by an independent accrediting agency. The process ensures that a degree program, college, or university meets an agreed-upon standard for quality.
Certification gives an institution and its graduates credibility with other institutions and employers. Accreditation is a voluntary process.
Studying at a regionally or nationally accredited university can keep the door open for future studies and employment. If you need to transfer schools or decide to advance your degree, there’s less of a chance that you’ll have to start over. Financial aid may also be easier to qualify for. All educational institutions are overseen by the same governing organizations.