I’ve been thinking lately about the question of what leads scientists to choose a discipline. Why does someone end up as a chemist rather than a biologist? A geneticist as opposed to a cognitive neuroscientist?
We might hope that people choose their discipline based on an understanding of what doing research in each discipline involves, but I don’t think this often happens. I know it didn’t happen in my case. Here, then, is how I became a neuroscientist.
As far back as I can remember, I had always wanted to be a scientist. As a young child there was no doubt in my mind about that. But back then I didn’t know what kind of science I was most interested in. I didn’t even know that I would eventually have to pick one.
When I got to high school, I did well in both chemistry and biology, and I enjoyed studying both. (The less said about physics the better). But it was biology that really held my attention. Chemistry, it seemed to me, was pretty much finished. The big discoveries had all been made already. Only biology was still a work in progress. I realize now that this was a superficial view, but that was how I saw it at 17.
So biology it was. But which kind of biology? Here, I didn’t really have a clue. When I arrived at university, I thought vaguely that my future lay in some kind of molecular biology. I dreamed of curing cancer or malaria one day. But this dream did not survive my first year classes in biochemistry and cell biology, which I found dry and, like chemistry, just too well understood. However many lives might be saved by finding out which gene codes for which protein, I couldn’t see myself being interested in this, so I callously abandoned my plan to save the world.
The time came for me to choose my modules for the second year. What to pick, if not the molecular stuff I had taken last time? I was fumbling in the dark. Zoology? Ecology? Physiology?
Eventually, I made my decision: I would take Neuroscience – in order to get to know a certain girl who was also taking that subject.
In retrospect, I don’t think my choice of neuroscience was entirely driven by a crush. I had long been interested in the brain and the mind, although more from a philosophical than a scientific point of view; I had read Daniel Dennett and other philosophers. As a teenager I was also an avid reader of Erowid, so I knew some neuropharmacology. Still, while my decision to take neuroscience had in one sense been years in the making, the precipitating factor had nothing to do with science.
Still, once the decision had been taken, I never looked back. I found a passion for the brain that I’d never known with other topics and, when I had to choose my final year specialization, there were only two contenders: neuroscience, or psychology. I eventually chose the latter. My master plan to get with the girl from 2nd year neuroscience might have come to naught, but I had found a career.
Even as a final year student, however, I had only a very vague sense of what it was like to carry out academic research in psychology or neuroscience. I was lucky enough to find a great PhD course, but it really was a matter of luck, because I went with the first course that would take me.
My PhD research started out as psychology but morphed into cognitive neuroscience as my supervisor (rightly) thought it would be good for me to gain experience of fMRI. It was while reflecting on my own fMRI study that I decided to start a blog to air some of my thoughts about how the method was (ab)used, and the rest is history.
So overall, I found myself in cognitive neuroscience (and writing this blog) largely though luck, and I suspect this is true of many. I don’t know if other jobs are the same, but in science it seems to be especially true that people’s whole career paths can be determined by choices they make while they are still very young and without any real understanding of what they’re getting themselves in for.