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Caveat lector: This blog is where I try out new ideas. I will often be wrong, but that's the point.

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16.8.11

Career... advice?

Back in June, someone over on Quora specifically asked a question of me: "What advice would Bradley Voytek give to undergraduates on studying and researching neuroscience?"

It took me a while to respond for several reasons, not the least of which is that I'm super busy. And also because it felt kind of weird to answer. I mean, I didn't study neuroscience as an undergrad. And I didn't do well as an undergrad. So I certainly shouldn't be doling out advice!

But the beauty of hindsight is that its glasses are often rose-tinted. So I sat down an answered as best I could while trying to avoid platitudes and cliches. My full response is below.

This is a really tough question, because it's so broad. I'm not really sure how to answer it. Because I'm more of a cognitive/systems/computational neuroscientist, I'll approach my answer from that direction.

My wife and I were talking about this recently after watching Freakonomics. She was asking me what classes I was good at in high school. I was a great high school student without really trying to be, but I quickly became a bad college student, mostly because I started learning how to socialize.

What happened to me, I think, was that once I started doing poorly in college while my friends continued to succeed, I started to think I wasn't cut out for college. I started to think I was a hack.

Only much later would I learn of something called "impostor syndrome".

Anecdotally, this appears to be fairly rampant among academics and other "smart" people. At some point during your career, possibly more than once, you will look at your peers and think to yourself, "I'm not as good as they are; I am not cut out for this."

So my first few pieces of advice will be academically related, but not neuroscience specific.

First: listen to that voice. Understand where it's coming from. But be aware that you're failing to recognize your own accomplishments; you're overemphasizing the accomplishments of others and you're vastly underestimating the failures other successful people experience on their way to success.

It's for that last reason that I've been including an entire section in my CV (PDF) called "Failures and Rejections" that includes rejected grant applications, rejected publications, rejected grad school applications, etc.

It's important to me that other people know how hard this life, science, and career stuff really is. People should know that often, success doesn't come easy.

The second piece of non-specific advice: learn to network. Talk to other researchers. Email people about their work when you have questions. Don't be shy. Or rather, go ahead and be shy but recognize that lots of people are shy and the only way to learn from them is to overcome your mutual shyness. Plus, researchers love to know that someone read their work and are interested.

This advice isn't meant as a machiavellian ploy or anything. Networking lets you meet smart people, which gives you new ideas and new collaborations. This, in turn, lets you do science faster and better.

Networking is sharing, not manipulating.

Third: learn how to do your own data analysis. Know statistics well. Know at least some basic programming/scripting in Python, R, Matlab, etc. This will be of immense value in helping you get your research done efficiently and correctly, without needing to rely on other people's code (and time and commitment). This will become more important as our field becomes more data driven.

Ok, now the neuroscience specific advice.

Most importantly, I'd have to say not to buy into the false belief that many neuroscientists seem to carry that somehow we actually know what the brain is doing.

Understand that most neuroscientific "facts" are inherently making statistical, not factual, statements. Broca's area is probably involved in language production, insomuch as there is a brain region that can be clearly identified as "Broca's area" in any one given person. There's a reason why neurosurgeons do electrical stimulation mapping prior to tissue resection. (See Are all the wrinkles on a brain's cortex the same across people?)

Think critically about any statements you encounter in the neuroscientific literature and in your own thinking; e.g.:
  • What does it *mean* for a brain region to be "involved in a task"?
  • Can you have neural correlates of a behavior without needing that neural region?
  • How are the researchers operationalizing "attention", "memory", "emotion", etc.? Are they measuring what they say they're measuring?
  • What does a neuron do? Seriously. Think about this one hard.
  • Look to the literature *before* you start your research. A lot of cool single-unit work was done in the 1960s and 70s that's been forgotten.
  • But don't mistake old research as Truth, either.

I could do this all day, but hopefully this will give you a feel for what I think is important in terms of how I approach my research.

I've written a few pieces of neuroscience skepticism before as well, if you want to delve deeper. For example: "How to be a neuroscientist".

Feel free to email me if you want to know anything more specific. I'm always happy to chat.

Final piece of advice:

Everything I've said is anecdotal experience about my own life and my own path, and thus should be treated with as much skepticism as anything else.