Why I Became a Neuroscientist

By Neuroskeptic | April 29, 2018 8:23 am

I’ve been thinking lately about the question of what leads scientists to choose a discipline. Why does someone end up as a chemist rather than a biologist? A geneticist as opposed to a cognitive neuroscientist?

We might hope that people choose their discipline based on an understanding of what doing research in each discipline involves, but I don’t think this often happens. I know it didn’t happen in my case. Here, then, is how I became a neuroscientist.

neuroskepticAs far back as I can remember, I had always wanted to be a scientist. As a young child there was no doubt in my mind about that. But back then I didn’t know what kind of science I was most interested in. I didn’t even know that I would eventually have to pick one.

When I got to high school, I did well in both chemistry and biology, and I enjoyed studying both. (The less said about physics the better). But it was biology that really held my attention. Chemistry, it seemed to me, was pretty much finished. The big discoveries had all been made already. Only biology was still a work in progress. I realize now that this was a superficial view, but that was how I saw it at 17.

So biology it was. But which kind of biology? Here, I didn’t really have a clue. When I arrived at university, I thought vaguely that my future lay in some kind of molecular biology. I dreamed of curing cancer or malaria one day. But this dream did not survive my first year classes in biochemistry and cell biology, which I found dry and, like chemistry, just too well understood. However many lives might be saved by finding out which gene codes for which protein, I couldn’t see myself being interested in this, so I callously abandoned my plan to save the world.

The time came for me to choose my modules for the second year. What to pick, if not the molecular stuff I had taken last time? I was fumbling in the dark. Zoology? Ecology? Physiology?

Eventually, I made my decision: I would take Neuroscience – in order to get to know a certain girl who was also taking that subject.

In retrospect, I don’t think my choice of neuroscience was entirely driven by a crush. I had long been interested in the brain and the mind, although more from a philosophical than a scientific point of view; I had read Daniel Dennett and other philosophers. As a teenager I was also an avid reader of Erowid, so I knew some neuropharmacology. Still, while my decision to take neuroscience had in one sense been years in the making, the precipitating factor had nothing to do with science.

Still, once the decision had been taken, I never looked back. I found a passion for the brain that I’d never known with other topics and, when I had to choose my final year specialization, there were only two contenders: neuroscience, or psychology. I eventually chose the latter. My master plan to get with the girl from 2nd year neuroscience might have come to naught, but I had found a career.

Even as a final year student, however, I had only a very vague sense of what it was like to carry out academic research in psychology or neuroscience. I was lucky enough to find a great PhD course, but it really was a matter of luck, because I went with the first course that would take me.

My PhD research started out as psychology but morphed into cognitive neuroscience as my supervisor (rightly) thought it would be good for me to gain experience of fMRI. It was while reflecting on my own fMRI study that I decided to start a blog to air some of my thoughts about how the method was (ab)used, and the rest is history.

So overall, I found myself in cognitive neuroscience (and writing this blog) largely though luck, and I suspect this is true of many. I don’t know if other jobs are the same, but in science it seems to be especially true that people’s whole career paths can be determined by choices they make while they are still very young and without any real understanding of what they’re getting themselves in for.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: blogging, fMRI, science, select, Top Posts, you
  • Trut Tella

    You would be right in intuiting that this is the usual way to ‘decide’ what career path one would take.

    It seems a little mad, of course, taking the advice of a career counsellor would be much worse.

  • jrkrideau

    Well, one gets into careers in the weirdest ways. Field Marshall Sam Manikshaw of the Indian Army has said that he started his military career because his father said he was too young to go to the UK to become a doctor–he wanted to be be a gynaecologist. In a snit, he entered the Indian Military Academy.

  • Mavis

    Unfortunately a lot of people got into this field for the money. We are not hearing much from the Neuroscience Community about the peddling of Pseudo Science by certain people in Neuroscience or how that is negatively impacting the public understanding of Science. Many people do not understand how misleading the public can be very profitable. perhaps Neuroscientists should start reading the same media outlets the general public is exposed to.

  • https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=UUwbGJwCdp96FKSLuWpMybxQ Lee Rudolph

    I think a better (and perhaps more usefully provocative) title for this post would be “How I became a neuroscientist”. Certainly the “how” of anyone’s actions is more observable (both publicly and privately) than their “why”, if the latter (at an individual, vice societal, level) can even be said to exist as a proper subject of (would-be scientific) inquiry.

    So overall, I found myself in cognitive neuroscience (and writing this
    blog) largely though luck, and I suspect this is true of many.

    I share that suspicion, and not limited to “jobs” (certainly not only to “science jobs”): my impression is that people in general rarely appreciate how contingent their life courses (and others’!) have been.

  • Kamran Rowshandel

    You should write something about dominance hierarchies in primates.

    Experiments have “paradoxically” shown that in lesser primates, methamphetamine caused a hundredfold increase in submissive behavior. Isn’t it true that the landowners whose genealogies are referred to as saintly have inherited their dominance over me? If meth caused submissive behavior in monkeys, I absolutely would say the things that people have been caught doing while on meth are absolutely submissive to the same landowners who own my labor hours through their rent/mortgage/interest charges. If a nondominant macaque slaps another nondominant macaque for no reason, it’s submissive behavior and doesn’t make him dominant and probably only ever happened because the dominant macaque made a certain sneer 18 minutes before THAT one went around slapping the other. When a person does it, it’s no different. We never directly challenge the powerful. And I’m sure all gorillas would say “Me? Personally? I don’t worry about who’s the silverback. It’s rather excruciatingly political and the system is so convoluted that each thought after successive thought when you’re trying to trudge through rationalizing how you would make the decisions it’s HIS job to make is absolutely tiresome to bother yourself with. Stop instigating political conversations with me I just want to live my life; can’t you understand I have WORK in the morning?”

    Only monkeys that have been imprisoned submit to currency. And people are of the same fallibility. Except heredity of assets makes our situation worse than that of a monkey.

    Write something about it please



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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