In the three years since getting my B.S. in Computer Science I have become more interested in biology again (my original major) and also in psychology and neuroscience. My current job -- which is more Information Technology than actual Computer Science -- is not fulfilling. My level of interest when learning about the brain and/or mind is so much higher than, say, learning about the architecture of some web application.

  • Is moving into psychology and/or neuroscience as drastic of a switch as I think it is? Does anyone have any advice for how best to start down that path?
  • If I decide to do this, I am assuming some graduate school will be required. Given that I finished undergrad with just average grades, is it a fool's errand to even consider going down this road?
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    $\begingroup$ I think it sensible to pursue your passions and would encourage you to do so. I would recommend starting the journey by swapping screen time in favour of reading and learning. If your passion persists for several months, then definitely time to consider a career change and/or formal studies. Best wishes $\endgroup$ – Tony Mobbs Jun 17 '20 at 1:00
  • $\begingroup$ This question is soliciting opinion-based answers, and is therefore off-topic here. Also, please review the discussion on meta before posting questions about career paths. $\endgroup$ – Arnon Weinberg Jun 17 '20 at 15:30

I don't think it's foolish.

If you want to make the switch, I'd look into BS-requiring lab tech jobs in labs doing things you are interested in, and trying to apply for graduate school in a year or two if that works out well.

These are jobs that recently-graduated students often do for a year or two while strengthening an application for graduate school, and in my experience a CS background can be quite useful to many labs. The lab I work in often takes on undergraduate assistants in CS, and some of those students choose to keep working after graduating (or come from elsewhere after graduating).

Titles for these jobs vary a lot by institution, but I've seen "research intern", "junior scientist", "research technician", etc. You can both look at job postings and try to contact professors directly; know that both methods may have a high rejection rate. You'll have the best chance if you both a) learn enough about what particular labs are doing to be able to describe why working there would interest you, and b) don't paint yourself into such a narrow focus that many opportunities are ruled out. Don't be afraid to contact past professors even if you've been out of school for a bit and ask their advice.

Expect to take a pay cut compared to your industry job, and to not have much (any) negotiating power. The things you would want to stress when you apply are that you are interested in making a career move to academia and pursuing a graduate degree, but want to get research experience. Look for jobs where you'll have an opportunity to work on projects and publish rather than becoming de facto IT support.

Poor undergraduate grades will hurt you - grad school applications can be very competitive, especially at better known schools (but don't discount other research institutions; good mentors are more important than Ivy-tier names). Your goal would be to accrue research experience and solid letters of recommendation: these can compensate a lot for average grades. At the same time, you should make it a personal goal to learn more about the specific fields of research and research questions you might be interested in, even if they're outside the work you start doing initially.

I'm speaking from a US perspective, so if you are elsewhere things may be a bit different. Good luck.


I second everything Bryan Krause said. I'm just adding few more thoughts and personal experience. I'm originally an electrical engineer, I started a PhD in psychophysics, got involved in some physiology projects along the way, and decided after my PhD (now quite a long time ago) to switch to basically straight physiology. Having an engineering background is not hurtful, on the contrary. If you check you'll realize there is a high proportion of engineers among neuroscientists. That's not a coincidence, modern neuroscience has been strongly influenced by electrical engineering, information theory, and increasingly computer science. But when you get involved in research none of these distinctions are really meaningful. On a given week I might participate in a surgery, program a new experiment, fix an electrical recording system and write a paper. No one cares what my original training was, only whether I'm able to do these stuff or not.

That being said there is a difference between how to think as an engineer (what's the most efficient way to solve a problem) and as a scientist (what does that mean). I've seen plenty of engineers unable to change the way they think. In science it is better to fail at something while understanding why, than succeeding without knowing why. I would still encourage you to do a PhD even if you want to remain an engineer, there is a big need of high-skills research engineers. Thinking like a scientist is really the only skill you need. If you are motivated you'll quickly learn any topic you want. You don't even need to be that smart to make it through grad-school frankly.

To answer your first question I would recommend you read a few introductory textbooks. See if you find it easy to go through them. Non-fiction books (or blogs, or whatever) are great, but deceiving because they make science sound exciting. The truth is 90% of science is painfully boring. You need to make sure you find even technical aspects interesting (e.g. I find phylogenetics or neuroanatomy fascinating, but I'm sure I would be unable to complete a PhD in these fields because doing these experiments sounds so boring to me).

To answer your second question getting into a prestigious grad school will be very challenging without good grades. But don't let that discourage you. I wasn't an especially good student either and I became what I would describe as a successful scientist nonetheless. I can guarantee you no one cares what grades I had in grad-school, and even less in undergrad. That's also pretty common among scientists. Diligently learning everything you are taught does not necessarily correlate with critical thinking (as long as you learn other stuff of course). I totally agree with Bryan Krause you shouldn't get too concerned about getting into a prestigious grad-school. (1) There are plenty of good mentors in "lower-tier" universities. The overall quality of the grad-school might be a little lower but that does not nearly compensate for having a good mentor. (2) I often tell undergrads and grad students that a PhD is more like a resume: it demonstrates you have learned techniques but no one expect you to do amazing work. Just like grades, no one cares where you went to grad school. I don't know where any of my colleagues did their PhD. (3) Prestigious grad-schools are pretty toxic environments: very competitive and not very friendly.


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