Neuroscience as a Career

Neuroscience PhD at Wake Forest University at Wake Forest University

Wake Forest University Graduate School » Neuroscience PhD at Wake Forest University

A message from one of our faculty members

I am passionate about science and enjoy my career as a neuroscientist. Thus, I can only recommend the Neuroscience Track most enthusiastically. Years ago, however, when I applied to graduate school, I wasn’t sure what to expect. So, here are some thoughts that may be helpful if you are still wondering what graduate school is about.

A scientist often faces a challenge similar to that of a novelist staring at a blank page in his or her typewriter. You have to come up with a good story — an important question or problem, that is — and then methodically develop it. This involves lots of trial and error; for the writer it means experimenting with different characters, voices, scenes, styles, twists in the plot, and so on; for the scientist it means testing many possible hypotheses and ideas, and performing innumerable experiments.

I would say that the formula for success in both cases requires a delicate mixture of somewhat contradictory ingredients: you need to be creative to come up with new possibilities and hypotheses, but disciplined to carry out tedious work that may involve lots of repetition and revision; you cannot just fall in love with a particular draft or preliminary result; you must be adventurous in order to try new possibilities that may seem wild at first; you need to be bold to challenge an established view, but humble to listen objectively to criticisms of your own work. In graduate school, these tugs of war are barely noticeable at first, but slowly become more intense.

If you are thinking about entering graduate school, you must have had many years of experience in dealing with school life — exams, homework, quizzes, projects, essays, etc. may all come as second-nature to you — but graduate school is unlike any other educational experience.

First of all, although you are required to do well in the courses, in the end they play a minor role; the most important factor is your own motivation to do the work. Successful graduate students work hard, but nobody pushes them. It is their curiosity and genuine interest that drive them.

Second, most of the work that students end up doing starts as a question and a general direction in which to search for the answer, but the road to get there is typically full of surprises. In fact, success often comes when a new, unforeseen question is formulated. Ideas need to be continuously revised; new experiments or analyses that you had not realized were necessary keep cropping up; and things often do not turn out as you expected. Even worse, sometimes the experiments you attempt simply do not work. Admittedly, this uncertainty is at times overwhelming.

So, why put up with the frustration? Well, when things do work, when you confirm a hypothesis that runs counter to conventional wisdom, or obtain an unexpected, exciting result, the feeling of accomplishment is exhilarating. Nothing beats it. Such craving for discovery is what brings many of us into the lab every day. That, and the hope that the results will eventually change things for the better.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has an interesting collection of opinions by leading investigators on what it means to become a scientist.

Emilio Salinas
Department of Neurobiology & Anatomy