↑ comment by Cog ·
2012-02-28T21:00:04.176Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I am currently in my second year as a grad student, focusing in theoretical/computational neuroscience. Here are my observations on the matter:
1) Neuroscience is a hard science, but as in many things, there’s a continuum. The computational folk are at the hardest part, while the fMRI researchers are considered the softest. In general, the larger the structure you study, the softer it is. Exceptions exist, and within the field there are controversies as to how solid some of the theoretical frameworks are for even the most rigorous parts of the profession.
2) My own observations on average time spent on the job is about 50 hours a week, with some fairly extreme flexibility. Almost all my work is reading and programming, so most days I don’t have to I don’t even have to come in (I do, but that’s because I’m more productive in an office). People on the biology side of things do not have quite that flexibility. If you take human subjects, particularly hospital patients instead of college students, then your life will revolve around them.
3) My program has no requirement to TA, which is a huge time suck. I’m unsure how prevalent TAing is in neuroscience. My general impression is that the better your program, the less likely you are to have to do it. Similarly, if you go to a primarily graduate university, you will spend less time teaching. If you can find a program that lets you avoid that, then do so. Being a TA seems to be the leading cause of misery in grad school.
4) Currently, my pay is $29K/year as a grad student, and post doc pay tends to be in the $40Ks. Full professorship pay (at least in computational) is >80K. As to how likely a full professorship is, see my comments on job prospects. Obviously, location is going to make a difference. My stipend means I live very well in Houston. If I studied at NYU, which has a comparable stipend, I would effectively be much poorer.
5) If all you want is $40K/year, then you’ll be fine. You can be an eternal post-doc and manage that. That being said, I suspect you will revise your estimates up. It can be really hard to see your friends getting other professional degrees with the same or less work and raking in substantially more than you. It’s also hard knowing that you can quit at any time and make substantially more money within a year or two of education. As much as it sucks, knowing about opportunity costs can really dampen your enjoyment of life. You have to resist that, but it takes effort. To keep up with the engineering/M.D./business Joneses, you have to advance in the ranks.
6) High level job prospects in academia: Yeah, you know this isn’t great. Neuroscience fairs better than most sciences because there is so much low hanging fruit, but still, you’re facing an uphill battle. You have to be fully willing to move around until your 40s, possibly to other countries. Many signs point to a decrease in governmental funding and an increase in competition. Business is not picking up the slack. Tenure is going away. I’m aiming for this, and my heavy computational focus has better odds than most, but I have backup plans.
7) High level job prospects outside academia: Better than academia, but depends a lot on how fast the field progresses. You’ll reach your prime around 15 years from now. Neural prosthetics might (that’s a big might) come online by that time and be a big industry. Some types of neural enhancements will hit the market within 30 years, so it could be very profitable if you position yourself right. Integrated computer chips based on neural architectures are beginning to be mass-produced now, so knowledge of existing and highly functional architectures (brains) might make you very valuable. You will become very knowledgeable about people, decision making, and modeling if you do the theoretical branch, so I don’t see much difficulty spinning that into business and stock consulting, especially if grab an MBA. Medical equipment design is always lucrative. Medical consulting is a possibility. Also, the better the industry outside of academia, the easier academia gets (more funding/ less competition)
8) Neuroscience is cool. Don’t underestimate how nice it is to have people want to talk to you about your subject of study. Being an engineer, mathematician, physicist, etc. can really suck sometimes. Subjects like that are really difficult if not impossible to get people interested in. I mention neuroscience in passing, and a huge number of people are interested in what I do. You do have to put up with stupid comments (“What if like your brain is a particle and a wave and collapses the universe, man?”), but I’ve done physics. Socially, dealing with stupidity is easier than obscurity. Economics might be similar, but because of its relationship to politics, it breaches the mindkiller zone and I suspect it would be much less fun to talk about.
I'll answer any other specific questions you might have too.
[Edited for clarity]