Almost a year after the "Decade of the Brain," neuroscience remains one of the fastest growing disciplines in all biology, researchwise and jobwise. The health of this job market relates to the overall expansion that continues in the neurosciences, says Richard Nakamura, acting deputy director at the National Institute of Mental Health. He notes that some especially promising areas include human genomes and genomics, and particularly, understanding the behavioral consequences and epidemiology of mental illness.
"For mental health, we are going after diseases with a high inherited component such as schizophrenia or autism," Nakamura reports. "These are all not Mendelian inherited, so finding out how genes interact to produce these diseases is a really critical issue and will require a lot of resources." Other disease targets include depression; bipolar diseases, such as manic depression; Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and other dementia disorders; anxiety disorders; and loss of cognition disorders.
Some of the emerging fields in applied neuroscience, observes Andrea Baruchin, associate director of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute at Vanderbilt University, are in drug development as it relates to neurotransmitter systems in the brain. "This involves making drugs that are better targeted at particular receptors and brain systems involved in a number of psychiatric disorders and addictions," she says. Akin to this new area is the interdisciplinary study of the neurotransmitter systems' molecular biology and genetics, which tailors drug treatments based on an individual's unique neurotransmitter uptake and transmission routes, ultimately based on that person's genetics. "The understanding of the molecular biology, the pharmacology, and the genetics combined is a place that is moving forward fairly quickly in neuroscience," concludes Baruchin.
There's also a great demand for behavioral neuroscientists, says Nakamura. These are researchers who can interpret particular behavioral changes resulting from the numerous mouse knockouts that investigators have been using over the last several years to study how the brain works. "Relatively speaking, it is easy to make changes in the brains of animals, but much harder to decide what has changed functionally for these animals," he explains.
Ken Lloyd, chief scientific officer at Nereus Pharmaceuticals Inc., a San Diego biotech company, says that scientists also are needed who can approach the behavioral problem from the opposite direction: "those who are good at first observing a condition in humans involving a neural pathway or neurochemical messenger, for example, then can knock out or overexpress that key molecule in mice and observe the behavioral changes, and finally see if that effect is reminiscent of what we see in the human condition."
Employers in all sectors are probably looking for people with these particular experiences, say researchers. For example, pharmaceutical firms want to know the functional outcome of homing in on a certain type of receptor modification. "So they're snapping up good behavioral scientists for doing those analyses," says Nakamura.
Jilly Evans, director of pharmacology at Merck & Co. in West Point, Pa. refers to these behavioral neuroscientists as "hardcore pharmacologists." These are the researchers who study animal metabolism and behaviors to interpret the mice knockouts for drug target purposes. Understanding mouse behavior (e.g., hyperactivity, learning mazes) is a whole specialized expertise by itself, she notes.
Behavioral neuroscientists need dual training in the basic CNS cell and molecular biology, as well as psychology. These positions require an understanding of the neurocircuits that underlie behaviors in animals, such as circuits governing motor skills, feeding, reaction to stress, and learning.
Growth will be slower in the traditional academic job settings for neuroscientists, predicts Nakamura, and probably won't keep up with the number of Ph.D.s and M.D.s coming out in the field. "That is a source of concern," he says, "but so far the job market is good because industry needs a fair number of people." Despite this, researchers still counsel students to get a well-rounded education. "Steve Hyman, the director of NIMH, has been making the point that we have, to some extent, distorted the job market by encouraging scientists to use grad students instead of highly trained technicians, for instance, because [grad students] are so inexpensive," says Nakamura. "We probably should be making an effort to pay grad students more and make more respectable use of well-trained technicians."
The vast majority of neuroscientists are employed at the graduate and medical school level and at pharmaceutical firms, says Julio Ramirez, the R. Stuart Dickson professor of psychology at Davidson College and founder of the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience. "Over the past 25 years there's been a huge growth in undergraduate institutions interested in having neuroscience as part of their curricula, so this is a viable place for work within academia." But for this career track, advises Ramirez, "it has to be a decision that involves a passion for teaching."
Successful candidates have strong research backgrounds and postdoctoral experience, as well as demonstrated teaching abilities such as time in the classroom as a teaching assistant and teaching at small colleges as an adjunct professor or sabbatical replacement. Ramirez adds that neuroscientists who opt to teach at undergrad schools do so because they love teaching, not as a secondary career choice.
Taking on the Challenge
Lloyd says that many companies are interested in tackling CNS disorders, but that the long turnaround time in terms of drug discovery for brain disorders can be an impediment for some investors. The endpoints for interpreting the effectiveness of brain drugs are less direct than in other applications, such as cardiovascular disease. When using animal models, researchers can never be certain whether they're getting an effect that's applicable to humans, given mice cannot answer questions such as: "Do you feel less depressed after taking drug K?" or "Do you feel less anxious after taking drug Q?"
Despite these challenges, opportunities for neuroscientists in biotech have "never been better," declares Lloyd. How much better depends to some degree on one's discipline. "There are a fair number of molecular biologists out there, and their skills translate well to different systems outside the CNS, but it's still hard to find enough good behavioral neuroscientists," he says, echoing others.
American Academy of Neurology
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Institute of Mental Health
Society for Neuroscience
As far as locating jobs in neuroscience, Lloyd suggests the tried and true methods--personal contacts and job fairs at annual meetings (most of the neuroscience-related companies have booths at the Society for Neuroscience's annual job fair)--as well as looking at the individual Web sites of companies or institutions to see if they concentrate on neuroscience.
Karen Young Kreeger (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contributing editor for The Scientist.