Cognitive neuroscience is an academic field concerned with the scientific study of biological substrates underlying cognition, with a specific focus on the neural substrates of mental processes. It addresses the questions of how psychological/cognitive functions are produced by neural circuits in the brain. Cognitive neuroscience is a branch of both psychology and neuroscience, overlapping with disciplines such as physiological psychology, cognitive psychology, and neuropsychology. Therefore, cognitive neuroscientists specialize in cognition and mental functions. In other words, they’re experts in human cognitive development and the many psychological and physiologically factors related to it.
Neuroscientists are primarily concerned with the following concepts:
- Brain composition and normal function
- Nervous system maintenance, maturation, and development
- The causes of psychiatric and neurologic disorders
- Developing and implementing the most effective therapies for people struggling with psychiatric and neurologic disorders
The student’s college or university path in cognitive neuroscience begins with a Bachelor of Science, such as the one offered at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. Their Cognitive Science Program consists of a five course requirement in:
- Philosophical Foundations
- Mathematics and Logic
- Experiments and Models in Cognition
The balance of the curriculum comprises three courses in one of the following:
- Cognition- ex. Perception/Action
- Computation- ex. Programming Languages
- Informatics- ex. Human Computer Interaction
- Logic- ex. Symbolic Logic
- Neuroscience- ex. Development of Brain and Behavior
- Language- ex. Syntax/Semantics
Continuing on the educational path, the next step is to proceed to graduate school which typically takes four years to complete. Students will engage in academic and laboratory research. Topics of study usually include:
- Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience
- Statistical Analysis
- Human Neuroanatomy
- Research Methods
- Cognitive Psychology
For those interested in pursuing their doctorate, there are many colleges and universities to consider. One is the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) whose Life Sciences/Psychology department offers a Ph.D. in the areas of Behavioral Neuroscience, Clinical, Cognitive, Developmental, Health Psychology, Learning and Behavior, Quantitative, and Social Psychology. UCLA does not offer a separate Masters program in this field.
Duke University in Durham, North Carolina also offers a doctorate program in Cognitive Neuroscience. The aim of the program is to train students in innovative, interdisciplinary approaches to research on complex brain functions, including, but not limited to, perception, attention, memory, language, emotion, motor control, executive functions, decision making, social cognition, consciousness and the evolution of mental processes. Students who enter Duke through this admitting program engage in cognitive neuroscience research in an interdisciplinary environment through the completion of coursework and research rotations in their first year of study. Students then affiliate with a permanent department and mentor during their second year and receive their Ph.D. from that department.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has the occupation category of “medical scientist” which would encompass the profession of cognitive neuroscientist. The median salary for this group was $76,980 in 2012 with a projected growth/change rate of 13% or 13,700 jobs through 2022. This salary was based upon an education level of doctoral or professional degree. Salaries can be potentially higher at pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing facilities.
Teaching is a career option for those educated in cognitive neuroscience. Although a doctorate is typical for teachers in a university setting, teachers in community colleges often need only a master’s degree. Community colleges are also a good setting for those who prefer to teach rather than to spend most of their time conducting research. In the university setting, it is more common for professors to conduct research and supervise graduate teaching assistants who perform most of the actual teaching. A teacher with a degree in cognitive neuroscience might teach classes in computation, data analysis or one of the other specialty areas in her field, in addition to cognitive neuroscience.