Alternatives to academia for cognitive neuroscientists: Where are they?

As a grad student with his ear close to the ground about job opportunities after graduate school, I'm always hearing stuff like people should train current grads for industry jobs and cog neuros need to be more prepared for work and less for grant writing. Both statements make sense, right? The odds are against millennial grads for landing coveted TT positions. Adjunct-ing is somewhat of a way to still be in academia without much of any of the institutional resources or benefits. Even if you land yourself in a TT position, start up funds and internal grants last only so long before you have to keep your lab going on grant funding (which you probably won't land, since it's practically impossible to land NIH money and NSF is rumored to make another funding cut in the very soon future). The land of academia sounds pretty horrible, currently.

So, what are the alternatives people talk about? Industry cognitive neuroscience? Company-driven brain and behavior research? Where? Who? And at what rate?

I interviewed (or tried to interview) a handful of different companies ranging from industry research companies to tech companies. This is what I've been told.

Cognitive neuroscience does have a role to play in human neuroscience for larger companies, like Pfizer and Merck. A lot of the jobs require a heavy dose of experimental biology training and there aren't many strictly human neuroscience jobs available for either company (many of the industrial neuroscience jobs I've found are more on the cellular/pharmacological level). However, the requirements are similar to the requirements for those looks for TT positions: Ph.D in neuroscience or related field, 1-2 year post-doc training preferred. And some of these open positions are 2 months old since the original posting date. If you've ever been on the receiving end of TT application intake (and this is just guess-work from things I've heard from faculty around my campus), they practically fill the amount of interview invites within a week -- two at most.

However, many cognitive neuroscientists won't have heavy cellular/pharmacological training. The more computational cognitive neuroscientists will have decent shots at tech jobs as either data analysts, project leads or consultants. Intel is a company who regularly hires and/or collaborates with neuroscientists. Most open job posting for research scientists require heavy knowledge in different programming languages, but generally have a twist towards one of Intel Lab's many different interests.

Some tech companies were a lot less open or understanding as to what cognitive neuroscientists bring to the table. Microsoft, for example, sent me three different responses when I asked about neuroscientists in their workforce. One was Call corporate during business hours (real helpful, homie). Another was I'll forward you off to someone and the subsequent email was I don't know. The third email was There are no specific programs for neuroscientists at Microsoft. However, we do promotions and programs for youth who are interested in technology. Clearly, no one has an idea at Microsoft. At least, no one who talked at me.

Apple was a little more blunt. After a handful of emails trying to reach someone, a representative asked me what cognitive neuroscientists would bring to Apple? I responded by saying they have a large range of skills and Apple surely has some sort of integration of cognitive science or psychology or even human neuroscience at Apple. Someone told me If we have neuroscientists, they are now engineers. Emails ended there.

I reached out to Google to see if they have incorporated anyone into their workforce. No one emailed me back.

I also reached out to Electronic Arts. No reply.

Tesla Motors, a fairly cutting-edge company, was also emailed. Their site says they will get back to you within 2 days. At this point in time, it's been three weeks. I didn't imagine Tesla to really have neuroscientists on their team, but I don't think I would be too surprised if they did.

For cognitive neuroscientists, going into industrial/organizational psychology is definitely a path that can be related to the psychology aspect of a cognitive neuroscience degree. I am not too familiar with the specifics of what I/O psych is all about, but I know cognitive neuroscience is being incorporated into workforces. However, it was hard to really connect with any companies.

I contacted American Institutes for Research, one of the most popular I/O psychology firms, and they were unable to connect me with anyone in their workforce who has cognitive neuroscience background or even uses cognitive neuroscience.

I also contacted Development Dimensions International, another popular I/O psychology firm. No one responded to my inquiry about cognitive neuroscientists.

Do either of these companies employ cognitive neuroscientists? Hard to say. I know there wasn't a response confirming they use cognitive neuroscience methods in their practice, leading me to believe that if a cog neuro would be working there... they wouldn't be using their skill set they acquired at a PhD. Nonetheless, there were no clear signs pointing to anyone with a cognitive neuroscience background in general. Maybe I/O psych doesn't want cognitive neuroscientists?

I ended up blending the mix of cognitive psychology, industry, and technology and emailed Lumosity about how they attract cognitive neuroscientists to work for their company. No reply. But they are definitely hiring for a handful of different projects.

What does it all mean? Simply put: it's really hard to find information about how cognitive neuroscientists can integrate into somewhat related industrial fields. Not many companies wanted to even deal with me (as their non-replies showed). A handful entertained me until they couldn't find my answers or stopped answering my emails. Needless to say: I received ZERO emails about interviewing cognitive neuroscientists at ANY of the companies I emailed.

So, unfortunately... based on my investigation, there aren't many open opportunities for cognitive neuroscientists in industry. There aren't even open opportunities to ask about opportunities. To smaller companies who do employ cognitive neuroscientists, I would love to speak to you. But to the companies I reached out to... you answered the thought I had from the onset of this project: job opportunities outside of academia are as meek as job opportunities in academia.

My investigation wasn't very comprehensive by any means. I selected large, big-named companies because I assumed a cognitive neuroscientist would have worked for them at some point in time. Please comment about this below if you have any other experiences or information on cognitive neuroscientists outside of academia!

10 thoughts on “Alternatives to academia for cognitive neuroscientists: Where are they?”

  1. name not needed says:

    Word on the street is that Lumosity isn't interested in cog neuroscientist for their research positions.

  2. Lenny Teytelman says:

    (I am copying my answer to the question of whether a PhD scientist needs business courses to transition out of academia see more answers here: https://www.pubchase.com/career/question/when-someone-wants-to-go-into-industry-after-5-years-194)

    As a sixth-year postdoc, you have over a decade of training. You are more trained than effectively the entire world labor force. The last thing you need now is additional classes.

    You are an extremely valuable employee because you are a scientist. It’s not the pipetting skills or the protein you have been studying – it’s the fact that you are a scientist that makes you so valuable. You know how to research, form hypotheses, test them, analyze and evaluate results, make quantitative conclusions, and communicate the results to others.

    The problem we have is that we have not been exposed to non-academic careers. While good mentors are supportive of all career plans (see here), good mentors are rare. We are trained to be professors, even though only a small fraction of the PhDs in life sciences will actually become faculty. Non-academic careers are called “alternative”, even though the numbers make it clear that it’s the professor job that is “alternative”.

    Scientists simply don’t know that they are valuable outside of academia. How many know that intellectual property (patent) law firms will hire PhDs and will pay for them to go to law school? How many know that life science venture capital firms hire PhDs to evaluate proposals? How many scientists know that graduate training is PERFECT for founding a startup? Think about lab meetings and the qualifying exam – it’s all about presenting, communicating, and defending your ideas. That’s exactly the set of skills key in pitching to investors. And running a startup is all about experimenting, evaluating, and forming new hypotheses. There are so many levels on which academia and the startup world are similar, I could give a 2-hour talk on this! For the sake of brevity, I’ll just say that I know many startup founders, and not a single one of them has an MBA. Conversely, I know many MBAs, and not one of them has co-founded a startup.

    Sean Muthian, former director of research at Pfizer and the current director of marketing at Sigma recently wrote in response to “Will I get hired without an MBA or a law degree?”

    You can certainly work in tech transfer and business development without these degrees. A PhD is sufficient to be a patent agent, but you need further law qualifications to be a patent attorney. Inside pharmaceutical companies a PhD will get your foot in the door, but many strategic positions will require further real-world experience, not another degree. In many cases, it is better to gain experience in these fields before investing more time and money into earning another advanced degree.

    I couldn’t agree more with Sean, and the consensus from the three responses above is clear – if you need another degree, your employer will pay for you to get it. This applies to law or MBA degrees, and doubly so for business-certification classes. Business programs luring highly trained scientists into certificate management courses are just trying to profit on the backs of already poor and financially-exploited researchers. After a decade of student and postdoc stipends, what you need is a highly paying job, not another loan for more schooling.

    --------------------------------------

    There are a three exceptions I can think of to the above advice.

    1. The App Academy. If you want to switch to software development, this 12-week training course is brilliant. And unlike the business training, App Academy does not charge tuition until you get a job in software development thanks to them. I particularly highlight this option because as a graduate student in Berkeley in 2007, I organized a 10-day programming for biologists bootcamp. I modeled it on a similar course by Lincoln Stein at Cold Spring Harbor. The Berkeley course has been offered every year at Berkeley since then. It turns out that 19/20 biologists can program well, and 50% have a particular aptitude for coding, probably because of their logical and scientific mindset.
    http://www.appacademy.io/#p-home

    2 ASCB runs a 2-week course for those interested in the biotech industry.
    https://medschool.vanderbilt.edu/career-development/blog/biotech-course-offered-ascb-summer-2014

    3. Insight Data Science Fellows Program is 6 weeks and also looks terrific.

    All three of the above are free. All of the above are short and concrete training courses that do not put you further into debt. I’d love to hear from people if anything else of this sort exists (please e-mail lenny at zappylab dot com if you know of others).
    http://insightdatascience.com/

    1. Nancy Tsai says:

      Hi Lenny,

      You mentioned that some venture capital firms hire PhDs to evaluate proposals. Do you know if this is common practice? For example, I'm currently getting my PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience and my work specifically evaluates the efficacy of brain-training programs. I'm considering industry jobs (because staying in academia is tough) and would love to look into working for groups (e.g. venture capital) that evaluate the efficacy of neuroscience/psychology/brain fitness type products.

      Thank you for any insight!

  3. Joe Moran says:

    Government research and government contracting is a large area where there are opportunities for people trained in cognitive neuroscience. Each branch of the military has people doing a large mix of basic and applied research.

    I do have to concur with Lenny above though. You don't need to narrow your thinking to "cognitive neuroscience" when looking outside academia: think about the many transferable skills you've already developed, and remember that non-academic jobs are very similar to academic ones. You form a team that is tasked with solving a problem or building something new, you do the research to see how other people have tackled similar problems, you formulate a plan, carry out the work, and then report about it. That's how science works and also how many business projects work too.

  4. Aman Eid says:

    Very insightful thread of discussion , here is my piece on the same topic quoting from you and building on it :

    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-cognitive-neuroscience-changing-way-we-manage-change-aman-eid?trk=prof-post

    1. Nick Wan says:

      Cool, thanks Aman!!

  5. inbabyattachmode says:

    I realize this is kind of an old post of yours but I'll add my 2 cents: I agree with one of the comments above that just looking at cognitive neuroscientist positions probably won't find you many options. You would have to be really lucky that that is exactly what a company needs at a certain time and even then, there might be a cognitive neuroscientist with more years of post-doc experience who gets the job.
    I think you have to look more at what kind of things you know how to do (programming, analysis of large data sets, writing, etc etc) and figure out where those skills are needed. I see people from cognitive neuroscience end up as online data scientists for a phone company for example, where they won't do any cognitive neuroscience but they do use their expertise of turning large datasets into something meaningful. I've found that getting a job outside academia needs a slightly different mindset, but once you're out, you'll find that there is a whole world of job options!

  6. Gehazi Bispo says:

    Neuralink Just landed here in the future, and is needing/hiring Neurocientists! https://neuralink.com/

    I think many more organizations/startups will come like this.

  7. Bradley Robinson says:

    This is late but: at one point in time, Valve was interested in hiring a psychologist. They seemed to be open in terms of backgrounds, and I remember the listing seemed to list skills that cognitive psychologists have. The other options seems to be to advertise yourself as a data scientist/analyst (so long as you have a portfolio and skills to back that up).

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