You need to see the drawbacks and frustrations, the so-called ‘failures,’ as a way to learn about the brain and to improve science

12 pieces of career advice from leading neuroscientists

9 February 2022

By April Cashin-Garbutt

Interested in pursuing a career in neuroscience? Here are some key pieces of advice from leading neuroscientists who have given seminars at SWC over the past year. 

1. Learn to code as soon as you can

“My advice is to learn to code and learn linear algebra and dynamical systems as soon as you can. No matter what you’re doing you are going to need to analyse your data at some point. It really holds you back if you need to rely on someone else to do the analysis for you.” Dr Ann Kennedy, Assistant Professor, Northwestern University

2. Follow what excites you

“I have a very simple piece of advice: try not to identify what you think other people want you (and your peers) to do, and instead do something that you find exciting. If you have the good fortune to find a problem that you fall in love with, you’ll probably do something interesting; and even if you don’t, you’ll have fun doing it.” Dr Carl Schoonover, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Axel Lab at Columbia University

3. Keep your mind open

“The advice I would give depends on the stage of the process. If we’re talking to someone in high school or college level, I’d say to take all the courses you can, try to get involved in research as soon as you can, volunteer in a laboratory, try different things – because in my experience it’s not so much knowing what you want to do but knowing what you don’t want to do that matters. 

What I’ve been wanting to do has been changing almost annually, but I know the things that I don’t want to do and am never going to try those. Maybe five years from now I might want to do something else. So I think it’s really important to figure out what you don’t want to do first before worrying about doing x, y, z. Keep your mind open!” Dr Michele A Basso, Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and Neurobiology, UCLA

4. Attend lots of talks rather than just reading papers

“I’d advise attending lots of talks and conferences as you learn so much more from seeing people present their work than from trying to learn everything on your own by reading papers. Neuroscience is a small enough field that making connections with people and talking one on one about their work really matters. You shouldn’t avoid that because you feel like you don’t know enough. You should be willing to put yourself out there and interact with people without having the answers to everything.” Dr Ann Kennedy, Assistant Professor, Northwestern University

5. Set realistic goals and find good mentors

“I’ve noticed how important it is for people to conserve their energy to avoid burnout. As a young trainee people are often very ambitious, which is great but is also a trap for burnout. I think it is important to set realistic goals and find good mentors that really care about you as a scientist, not just your project.” Dr Cindy Poo, Postdoctoral Researcher, Champalimaud Research

6. Spend time looking at raw data

“When I mentored graduate students, my number one lesson was to spend as much time as possible looking at the raw data and to make a decision about what the data mean only after they really grappled with it and had an intuition about it.” Dr Ben Hayden, Professor of Neuroscience at University of Minnesota

7. Talk to lots of neuroscientists

“I would encourage anybody who is interested in this career to talk to anyone who is willing to talk to them, 15-20 people if they can. Find graduate students, postdocs, faculty, people who were in neuroscience but left and are disgruntled. Talk to them and get their information. Find people who left for industry and talk to them – get as many perspectives as possible and then you will find they disagree with each other. You will have to resolve those conflicts and make the best decision. In the same vein as previously, get the raw data, grapple with it, then make your decision. I interview a lot of graduate students who have one experience in one lab, then overgeneralise from that.” Dr Ben Hayden, Professor of Neuroscience at University of Minnesota

8. Move outside your comfort zone

“Read and learn as much as you can. Don’t focus too much on one topic and let yourself be curious to discover things outside your main interest. Move outside your comfort zone!” Dr Katharina Schmack, Group Leader at Francis Crick Institute and University College London

9. Be passionate about neuroscience!

“There are certain skills that are very important to develop if you want a career in neuroscience such as having sound quantitative skills, being able to program and analyse data. But it is also important to be passionate about neuroscience! In general, science is a career that fundamentally involves a lot of uncertainty and you need to really enjoy the feeling of not understanding something and working to try and resolve that lack of understanding.” Dr Joe Paton, Principal Investigator, Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown

10. Love the process, not the outcome

“One of the pieces of advice I give to people who are interested in neuroscience is that you have to love the process, not the outcome. If your day-to-day existence – solving problems, working with your hands, working with animals or people, thinking about designing new experiments – gives you satisfaction and motivation, then neuroscience could be a good fit for you. But you’re going to be frustrated if you are only going to be happy if you explain the brain!” Dr Xaq Pitkow, Principal Investigator, Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University

11. See ‘failures’ as a way to learn

“Neuroscience is a great career if you are passionate about it. Because of the complexity of the system, you can have a lot of failures when you do neuroscience research, which can be extremely frustrating if you are not approaching it with the right mindset. The passion for research and the goal you want to achieve help to stay persistent. You need to see the drawbacks and frustrations, the so-called ‘failures,’ as a way to learn about the brain and to improve science by learning what does not work the way we assumed it would.” Dr Sarah Melzer, Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard University

12. Remember curiosity is a journey

“I do think that you have to have a huge tolerance for frustration, because nature plays nature. You have an experiment and nature will tell you the answer – it may actually not go your way and you have to accept that. If an experiment doesn’t work, you learn something. If it actually works, you learn little. There may be a thousand reasons why it may have worked, but if it doesn’t, it pushes you to think. We’re wired to celebrate successes, but we learn through failures and not success. If you want to have a career in academia, I tell my students to roll up their sleeves because they’ll fight with nature. Curiosity is a journey, but it’s easy to lose sight of that.” Dr Lucia Melloni, Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt am Main, Germany

More advice

If these tips have left you wanting more advice on pursuing a career in neuroscience, then check out the Neuropeople video below.

You can also read more about what it’s like to embark on a PhD in neuroscience in our blog featuring PhD students Shanice Bailey, Nicole Vissers, Clementine Domine and Steve Lenzi