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Why Do Students Pursue a Ph.D. in Neuroscience?

An illustration of a brain emitting lines of binary code in an artificial intelligence concept.

As a fourth-year neuroscience Ph.D. student, I appreciate the variety of topics that lie within the umbrella of the nervous system. Nowhere is this more evident than in the diverse backgrounds and passions of my fellow students. To provide a glimpse into the vibrant world of neuroscience research, and to provide insight to others considering completing a Ph.D. of their own, I decided to talk to other students in my program about why they decided to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Their answers reveal that there are many reasons why people decide to study the brain.

First off, why did I decide to do my Ph.D.? I’ve always been interested in the processes of science and engineering — that is, discovering new properties of the world around us and devising solutions to problems we face. It was important for me, though, to have a specific question or problem to keep me invested in the work. The first topic that piqued my interest was the depletion of nonrenewable energy sources like oil and coal and the pollution associated with their use, so I thought I might want to work on clean energy. In college, however, I soon realized that the available research opportunities in environmental engineering were not particularly interesting to me.

Around that time, I took an introductory psychology course, during which I first learned about the field of neuroscience. That was the first time I realized that the everyday interactions we have and the choices we make — the essence of who we are — could be studied in a scientific manner and could even be linked to biological causes in the brain. I started taking neuroscience courses and seeking out research opportunities, which confirmed my interest in studying how the brain mediates our interactions with the world around us.

I’ve found that the kinds of neuroscience questions that most excite me are those surrounding how we make choices about the rewards we consume, like highly palatable foods. During my Ph.D., I have characterized brain signals related to food preference. This topic ties into my original interests in renewable energy because the foods we eat vary in how sustainably they’re grown and how much energy they require. I hope that my research on the neuroscience of feeding can one day inform governmental policies on food with a lasting impact on the health of society and the environment.

How about my classmates in the neuroscience program? The first person I talked to was second-year student Gabrielle Ewall. She developed a fascination for neuroscience when she learned about the brain’s impressive ability to compensate for its deficits. For example, a person with impairments in visual processing can still learn to read, but they do it differently from other people. “I always thought that when two people saw a page of words, they were seeing the same thing,” Gabrielle told me. “We think of sensory processing as one of the most basic things our brains do. But actually, different brains can perform the same tasks wildly differently, and our brains still function fine.”

This interest in the flexibility of brain function led Gabrielle to the topic of her Ph.D.: “Now I study cross modal plasticity, which is about how sensory deficits can be compensated for by other sensory systems.”

First-year student Isis Wyche came to neuroscience through an interest in brain-machine interfaces that she developed during her undergraduate years. “I was introduced to this field freshman year of college by a professor who showed us the potential to integrate microsensors and microstimulators with the nervous system to imitate natural sensory and motor function.” In order to experience the field firsthand, she joined a lab that was working toward that goal.

In the biomedical field, there are opportunities to work both in academic settings and at medical device companies to develop new technologies. To get a sense of both approaches, Isis did an internship in heart valve quality engineering the summer after her sophomore year of college. “I knew going into it that industry versus academic research was one of the most important choices I was weighing; so, I used my time there to draw comparisons between them and found I could be fully satisfied by both, which helped relieve the sense of urgency I’d had about choosing between them.”

To help with her decision, Isis spoke to colleagues at her company for their thoughts on the usefulness of a biomedical Ph.D. in an engineering career. “The advice I was given was mainly that pursuing a Ph.D. was a good decision if I either had a specific purpose for doing so or intended to stay in academia. I did have a specific purpose: to provide a basic science foundation for the development of better neural prostheses, a field with few entry-level professional positions for someone with only a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering but with many advanced research opportunities.” This interest in the research aspects of biomedical engineering is ultimately what led Isis to a Ph.D.

A perspective I heard a couple times was that students’ interest in neuroscience stemmed from wanting to answer big philosophical questions like the nature of consciousness. Fourth-year Cooper Grossman explains, “For me, I was interested in the way the mind works, and that was through philosophy.” So Cooper majored in philosophy in undergrad. “Then I realized I wanted to have more empirical answers to how the mind and brain work than what you can get from philosophy.” Transitioning to a career in neuroscience, Cooper looked forward to the more straightforward process of research. “Little did I know how much uncertainty there is in the world of science. It’s true, you can point to facts and data, but there’s still so much that’s unknown.”

First-year Elissa Sutlief also had an interest in philosophy but had a very practical reason for choosing a career in neuroscience. “A neuroscience Ph.D. is the closest I could get to thinking about philosophy while still having job prospects I was interested in after graduating.”

Several students had stories similar to mine: an interest in science that narrowed in on the field of neuroscience because it was the kind of research most fascinating to them. Second-year Lionel Rodriguez told me, “After college, I wasn’t ready for a real-world job, but I really liked doing science. Neuroscience is the only scientific discipline combining my interests in biology, chemistry, and psychology, so pursuing neuroscience made sense for me.” He points out that it’s an exciting time to be in the field. “Neuroscience is one of the final frontiers of science; even advances in other disciplines affect the progress of neuroscience.” First-year Alan Wei agreed: “I think neuroscience has the most interesting unanswered biological questions.” Alan is also motivated by the advanced teaching opportunities afforded by earning a Ph.D.

As with any field, many people end up pursuing a neuroscience Ph.D. because it was simply the best opportunity at the time. Sixth-year, and soon-to-graduate, Eric Finkel was already doing neuroscience research as an undergrad and then as a research technician. “I did what everyone says not to do: go into a Ph.D. because you’re not 100% sure what your career goal is, and it’s just the thing that everyone around you is doing.” But for Eric, it was the most straightforward choice. “It was thing I was best prepared to do, the path of least resistance.”

Ultimately, there is no right or wrong reason to do a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Many programs offer competitive stipends and benefits, like health insurance, and there is a lot of flexibility in terms of research path as well as hours. And one of the greatest components of the Ph.D. is getting to meet people like those I talked to for this article, who have a wide variety of passions within the field of neuroscience and beyond. If you think you might be interested in a neuroscience Ph.D. or want to hear more about the life of a neuroscientist, get in touch! Almost all of us love talking about our research and our lives as students.

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