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I am thinking very hard about making a big career transition and could use some guidance. My end goal is to work in Academia as a Cognitive Neuroscience researcher.

For the past ten+ years I have been working in tech as an engineer. My bachelor's degree is in Social Sciences and I did very well academically (4.0/.40 Summa Cum Laude with Honors - from a US institution). I have been thinking about going back to school for several years, and the thing that most predominantly interests me is Cognitive Neuroscience. I listen to podcasts, read books and papers on the topic, and generally spend a lot of time thinking about the field outside of work. I am also at the point where I have realized I do want to leave tech, and honestly the only reason I haven't made this move earlier is finances and uncertainty.

Important note, I am a US expat living in the Netherlands and plan to stay here long-term (and potentially go for citizenship at some point).

Primary Question: So the question is, am I insane to make this change at this point in life? I would have to go back to school for a second bachelors > masters > PhD. As I understand it this is a fairly competitive field. I'm willing to put in the time and work, even take on the student debt, but it would be good to know if my prospects for actually getting a paid job after all of that are non-existent.

Some things going against me or that make the transition difficult:

  • Age: I am 35 (I would be 36 by the time I start my second bachelors, potentially 37)
    • 8+ years of school will mean I won't be starting a new career until I am in my 40s
  • Cost: This means taking on a lot of student debt (my previous debt is paid off)
  • Also this means not buying a house and going back to student housing
  • I have never done any kind of academic research before
  • My previous bachelors degree is in an unrelated field
  • Being a expat complicates things a little bit as well but I think that is manageable
  • If have a depreciable skill-set so if I go back to school for 8+ years and can't make the cut that could be a problem.

Some Key Uncertainties:

  • It seems even getting into a graduate program is dubious; and I am not sure what my real prospects are for a researcher job once I achieve a PhD.
  • From what I understand, doing academic research after achieving a PhD means more or less leading research and managing other people. I'm not sure I would be good at this. I believe I could do research on my own, but managing other people sounds very difficult, I wonder if anyone can speak to this?
  • I really enjoy learning things outside of neuroscience as well. While I imagine that would become my primary focus, does joining academia to research a specific topic mean you basically have to give up reading/learning outside of the field in order to compete? I really enjoy some specific periods of history, philosophy, as well as cosmology and others.

Some things going for me:

  • High interest in thinking very deeply about this topic and contributing to the field.
  • Previous Academic performance (overall I excelled in all areas).
  • I absolutely loved school and honestly have missed it a lot, so doing the work won't be a problem for me.
  • I have some savings since I was saving to buy a house, so I have some wiggle room.
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    Do you intend to study in the Netherlands or elsewhere, including the US? Europe generally?
    – Buffy
    Sep 21, 2023 at 17:23
  • 16
    You're aware that there are probably companies in neuroscience-related areas looking for engineers? Sep 21, 2023 at 22:36
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    Why do a second bachelors? If you're sufficiently motivated, have built up enough background knowledge and have relevant tech skills, you might be able to go straight into a PhD.
    – N. Virgo
    Sep 22, 2023 at 1:34
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    Random thoughts. If you become a Dutch citizen, it will probably be free of charge to enter a lot of universities in all of European Union (Erasmus program). You might be able to avoid some additional debt if you work part time at least when doing the Bachelors.
    – ghellquist
    Sep 22, 2023 at 7:57
  • 4
    Frame challenge: Being interested in something does not mean you should pursue it as a career. Not even close!
    – Behacad
    Sep 22, 2023 at 17:55

9 Answers 9

55

I'll answer as a life-long academic (now retired) with a PhD in biomedical sciences. I have true appreciation for your motivation and admire your willingness to take such a courageous career step, but I must answer you with the frankness and honesty that your question deserves. Don't do it. Absolutely, do not do it. You mention that the educational track will be 8+ years. Actually, the average time needed to go from a bachelor's to doctorate in neurosciences is 7 years. A second bachelor's will take 3 years at the minimum (given that you might be able to transfer general education credits, etc.), so that comes to 10 years at the least. THEN you will need an additional 1 or 2 years in postdoctoral study in order to even apply for an academic position. So the actual time frame would be 12 - 14 years of full-time study. At the youngest, you would be 47 years old -- maybe even in your 50s -- when you started to compete with bright, young applicants who are in their mid- to late 20s. AND the academic/research job market is VERY competitive, even for the younger go-getters. Forgive me if I sound harsh, but you probably wouldn't stand a chance. Others may have different and more hopeful opinions. I'm just one voice among many.

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    Upvoted. I think you should adjust the arithmetics a bit, though. After a period of 12 -14 years of full-time study the OP's competitors in a similar career stage (i.e., also after 12 - 14 years of full-time study) won't be in their mid- to late 20s, but rather in their early 30s (or mid 30s if their paths hasn't been completely straight, either). Sep 21, 2023 at 21:03
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    I think the asker wants to be a postdoc, not a professor, so maybe a few years can be shaved off of the plan. Overall, this answer is right. Sep 22, 2023 at 20:04
  • I think 2 years post-bac, 2 years masters, and 6 years PhD is more realistic. Some people can enter the PdD without the masters too, so possible to get out in 8 years. Sep 23, 2023 at 2:13
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    Thank you. I appreciate the candor, it was really helpful.
    – number37
    Sep 25, 2023 at 16:52
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Entering academia with the expectation of a career is not realistic at any age.

It's one of those vocations where people are taking a shot at something with very small chance of success, like struggling actors in Hollywood. There's a lot of desperation, uncertainty, sacrifice, and glorification of all that as commitment, grit, and living the "academic life". People hang their identity off it, they sacrifice relationships and move home for it. Every couple of years if not more, in the first decade or so. Almost none of them make it to tenure, without which there is no job security.

Many older people return to university, including for PhDs and perhaps a bit of postdoctoral research. And I bet they get what they wanted from that, because the work is so meaningful, and the people are just so intellectually stimulating. You have these amazing conversations with amazing people, and get to go away and work on those ideas with freedom to explore, and someone is [pretending to] pay you for it.

But I say that assuming those older entrants are not in it for a career - they've typically already had one, and now want to do something for themselves. When I've worked with them, their outlook, expectations, and risk of exploitation are very different from the young grads.

(To be fair many grads now also go in expecting only to spend a few years before moving on, but too many still pin all their hopes on being the 2% who will one day make tenure.)

If what you want is intellectual stimulation, or an experience you've always wondered about and regret not trying, then academia is unparalleled. But it's not a realistic career choice for anyone.

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    "Almost none of them make it to tenure, without which there is no job security." You're not the only person to mention "job security". As far as I can tell, outside of academia, there is almost no such thing as "job security". In many parts of the US, you can be fired from a job any time for almost any reason, or no reason (so called "at will" employment). Is there something different about academia where "job security" is more important than every other type of career? Sep 23, 2023 at 7:12
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    @ToddWilcox yes, I am referring to fixed-term contracts. In academia their length ranges from 6 months - 2 years, although some are shorter or longer. Academics in this "postdoc treadmill" stage are always frantically/desperately trying to line up the next contract while their current one is ticking down. This often forces harsh sacrifices like moving state or country, dragging your partner with you or leaving them (the other "two body problem"). The longer one spends in this treadmill phase, the harder it becomes to persuade your betters in the field to promote you out of it.
    – benxyzzy
    Sep 23, 2023 at 7:49
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    This seems the biggest point. Achieving the goal of a permanent academic position is very difficult and unpredictable at any age — but that doesn’t mean “stay away”, it means you need to consider how you feel about the more likely scenario, of doing a PhD and maybe spending a few years in research but not getting a permanent position. If that scenario also sounds fulfilling and financially acceptable to you, then following this ambition may well be good. If not, then you should probably avoid the risk.
    – PLL
    Sep 23, 2023 at 14:22
  • @ToddWilcox even if you are CEO of a company, you have more job security in the private world: there is more than one company needing a CEO in a range of 25 miles from your current house/employment. In the academia, if you are a Professor on temporary contract, the next contract may be anywhere in the world, but almost for sure not in an university being closer than 25 miles from your current institution. This is a different kind of job security, but still worthwhile to consider ...
    – EarlGrey
    Sep 24, 2023 at 20:29
  • Thank you, this was helpful
    – number37
    Sep 25, 2023 at 16:57
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I must agree with Douglas Perry PhD that it is very risky. Especially since you would be taking on debt and being limited to the Netherlands. However, I wonder, why would it have to be a traditional academic career? You mention that you work in tech. There are some tech firms, that go into neuroscience and there are some labs that hire technical staff. If you want to get closer to research, it might be worth looking into those options. Those positions are probably very competitive, but then so is academia.

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    Additionally, while those positions are likely to be competitive, you're in a good position to be exactly what they're looking for. Rather than going all-in on a full-time doctorate, try taking some courses on the side (perhaps one per semester) while you maintain your current career. Once you have a few courses under your belt, you start looking very shiny to the sort of place that does cognitive neuroscience work but needs tech staff.
    – Ben Barden
    Sep 21, 2023 at 21:05
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I'm going to disagree in principle with the first two answers here. I don't, however, know much of anything about the possibility of starting late study in Europe. In the US, it would probably be possible. I've seen it happen.

The reason I disagree is that, while you might not finish until you are well into your 40's, you will be there in any case. What will you have when you get there if you do and if you don't try? You only live once and it is a (deadly) shame to waste your chances at what you really want to do. I'd guess from what you say that you would probably be successful in a doctoral program if given the chance. You will need others, however, who know you well to attest to your likelihood of success.

And yes, it will be something of a struggle to get a permanent position, especially at a (primarily) research institution, but others have done so and it would depend on what you produce along the way.

There are no guarantees in life, but giving up dreams isn't a sure path to a happy life. If you really want to do it and can accept the cost and risk then at least explore the possibility with a few institutions.

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    "it will be something of a struggle to get a permanent position" Hmm, I don't know about the state of affairs in cognitive neurosciences, but this sounds like quite an... understatement? Even more so towards someone who hasn't started studying for a degree in this subject, yet. Sep 21, 2023 at 21:11
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    "I won the lottery, back when the odds where 100x better, so you should spend your life savings and 10 years of your life buying lottery tickets if it is your dream to be a lottery winner! YOLO!"
    – Yakk
    Sep 22, 2023 at 2:36
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    @Yakk Buffy made it clear that it is hard to get a permanent position, gave a much more moderate and sensible answer than you are implying, and talked about other aspects of the question which you are ignoring. The answer is helpful and I don't think there is any reason to be sarcastic.
    – toby544
    Sep 22, 2023 at 9:21
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    @toby544 "something of a struggle" Someone admitted to a PhD program getting a Tenured job at a primary research university is about the same chance (ballpark) as a someone who plays Football in High School getting signed to the NFL. Make plans for the 95% likely outcome, not the < 5% outlier cases. You only live once.
    – Yakk
    Sep 22, 2023 at 16:11
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    Likely just a US/UK language issue. Americans do not tend to use understatement as an intensifier. British people VERY much do. This has historically caused loss of life, including much of the Gloucestershire regiment due to an American Major General who did not understand what "things are pretty sticky" means to a British soldier. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_understatement - so "something of a struggle" is fine and understood in BrEng, but in AmerEng, it's... something of an understatement. Sep 22, 2023 at 21:14
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I work in this topic, and have a software engineering background (which came second). My academic career was across Australasia, some of Europe, and a little experience in the US. There are some important points missing from other responses. In short, absolutely do not take this path the way you describe it. Thinking more laterally, there are options.

The US is not the world

The US system is quite unlike many other countries - the road to being treated as a respected researcher is much longer and the goal of most academics in that system is to obtain tenure because it offers job security. While I do not know the Netherlands well, outside the US you can expect much better job security because a multi-year contract or permanent role is enshrined in law.

In the US, post-docs are trainees who follow orders. If you talk to post-docs from countries such as Australia, New Zealand, or the UK, you often will find those are independent or (more commonly) semi-independent researchers, paid reasonable salaries, can have their own students, and so on. I personally had my own grants as a post-doc and met my supervisor once a year to rubber-stamp my progress paperwork. That is not typical, but quite possible.

The US system also takes much longer to get to this stage. An good student can, in many systems, go from no degree to a PhD in 7 - 8 years. If you have relevant credits, you may be able to obtain a graduate diploma + MSc, rather than BSc, or at least shave some time off the undergraduate degree.

Academic Science Careers are about trajectory

There are two serious bottlenecks in careers in this space - getting a post-doc, and being promoted from post-doc. During the second of these, panels are often eyeing up where you could be in 15 or so years time. They want to promote people who have the potential to build a large, stable, laboratory group of their own. Your age, I'm afraid, will count against you, because you will retire before you make the most of senior positions. You're extremely unlikely to pass this second bottleneck.

Pop science isn't science

If you're hoping to be closer to the biology side of this topic than the social science side, you will find quickly that existing reading in this area counts for very little. These topics can get very deep very quickly. The day-to-day of academia also looks nothing like reading about exciting discoveries. Almost all experiments fail. A more typical view of the day-to-day, especially at PhD level, is spending 6 months (or longer) trying to solve a single minor issue, to add only an incremental improvement, with precisely 0 hits on Google to help you along. Then again. Then again. It's common for people to enjoy their PhD, but it's also common for people to find after a few months that it was not like they envisioned.

Neuroscience is less narrow than you think

Most people I have worked with in neuroscience were computer scientists or physicists who never went back to study at an undergrad level. Some laboratories in Europe even hire software engineers to help with data processing pipelines. There are also plenty of businesses in this space who hire software engineers who simply have an interest in the topic, but no formal knowledge. Such companies can pay a salary twice as high as you'd see in academia.

I can't recommend following the path you've suggested. There are, however, alternative avenues that could see you in this field much faster and leverage that skills you already have. I would scan job boards in industry, or non-university organisations, to find some topics you could pick up quickly given your background (e.g. adverts requiring DICOM experience), and consider jumping there.

The other option, of course, is to satisfy your hobby by doing some undergraduate papers without quitting your day job. You'd hardly be the first.

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    Thank you, this was very helpful.
    – number37
    Sep 25, 2023 at 16:56
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I am a US expat living in the Netherlands and plan to stay here long-term

My end goal is to work in Academia as a Cognitive Neuroscience researcher.

If I ignore all the other things in the question, in my opinion this is not a realistic plan. The Netherlands only has about 14 universities. Between them, they will only hire a handful of cognitive neuroscience researchers a year. People from all over the world will seek those jobs.

Your plan to live in the Netherlands is a much bigger problem for your career goal than your age.

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  • Thanks for your input. Do you think it would more or less be necessary to be in the US to have any chance at this (or maybe somewhere else)? I'm curious which side you fall on if you take this factor out of the equation (i.e. if I was willing to move somewhere else).
    – number37
    Sep 25, 2023 at 17:41
  • Follow-up. Would you say it would be better to study in the US or EU (NL preferably) if I was willing to move elsewhere to actually find a job?
    – number37
    Sep 25, 2023 at 17:57
  • If you want a professorship at a university, you need to have a very well known PhD supervisor at a very famous university. The country does not matter. Accumulating residency visas for wealthy places can help you. Sep 26, 2023 at 0:33
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Say you're at your early fifties now. Which one would you regret more?

(a) You pursued your dream. You've been applying to a lot of jobs and see no hope of getting one soon.

(b) You did not pursue your dream, but you still kept your interest and have been doing your own independent research since then.

If it's (a), then you may be better off taking Doulas Perry's advise; otherwise Buffy's answer would serve you better.

You can take another strategy: take baby steps towards your career goal, continuously re-evaluating your decisions and revising your ambitions as you trod along. For instance you can search for a Master's program where Cognitive Neuroscience courses are offered. The program itself may not be Cognitive Neuroscience (say Biology or Computational Neuroscience), but the idea is to get yourself closer into the field of Neuroscience. Ask professors for advice, join some student club and talk to like-minded people. Build your own network of peers. After a year or so of immersing yourself into the periphery of your chosen field, you will be better positioned to answer your questions now.

Personally I very much agree with Buffy's advice, as I myself is in the midst of a career change. It's just a matter of execution—with our non-traditional starting age the traditional path wouldn't suit us well, and so we need a more creative way to get there. In the end I may not end up where I initially wanted to be, but the experience I've gained and the people I've met along the way who share my passions are priceless, leaving me with no regrets. Perhaps you are the same.

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  • Thank you, yes that seems to be what it comes down to. I feel like I would rather be in the (a) category, but then again in that case I could be flat out broke and in debt, which at that age would not be ideal
    – number37
    Sep 25, 2023 at 17:36
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Having started my PhD around age 40 with a much much much less significant change of direction (from one to another closely related fields, neither of which is close to yours) I am only qualified to add this observation:

The choice is yours to make, and you should take everyone's feedback seriously, then make your own decision. But the longer you wait, the older you will be when you start and finish.

This is significant in two ways:

  • First, the amount of career you will have left in front of you

  • Second, and probably more importantly, the amount of day to day energy you will have, as your body ages, from when you start to when you finish the program.

Do not discount either of these, even though no one can predict how aging into middle-age will affect them.

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Do it. Get into Academia.

I have personal experience with this. I started grad school at age 37. I got a PhD at age 47. I received my PhD from a small-name university in Engineering. I live in the United States.

I was hired as faculty before I finished my PhD at age 46. At a university, in the United States. In my opinion, getting the faculty position was easy.

I found that working in industry for 15 years prepared me very well for grad school. Three critical skills I developed while working:

  1. Good at presenting information, orally and in writing
  2. Good at prioritizing work and focusing on key items.
  3. Most importantly, I understood how to network and develop professional relationships.

Just as in your current work, these 3 skills are important in academia. Of course, I needed to spend a few years developing my technical skills in my area of research. However, once those technical skills existed, I found learning how to author journal articles very easy, as well as organizing and writing grant applications. Even more, I avidly attended conferences and presented with flair, and had drinks and socialized with top scientists in my field. Younger researchers did not have the subtle professional networking skills to do this.

Just like in industry, I came to be known as someone who was dependable and someone who was pleasant to be around. When a position opened up, a colleague invited me to apply. Now I'm 50, and still laying groundwork to develop my research plans. I enjoy teaching very much more than I thought I would, even though it is time consuming.

One problem is that when I finally get my research group where I want it to be, I will be about 60. I notice that generally speaking, many researchers start to slow down around this age. I don't know if that will happen to me; I'm something of a late bloomer. However, the past 13 years have been great, and the next 10 will be great also (god willing). I am happy that I took a risk and switched careers.

Even more, there are other positions besides faculty. I would have been happy to spend my 50's as a post-doc. They are well paid, and they get to do research full time. I still consider quitting my faculty position to be a post-doc.

There are also many staff researcher positions around, especially for someone who is able to do grant writing.

So, the focus of this answer has been that it is possible to start a second career as a research scientist in your 30's and 40's. I am proof of this.


Note 1: Make sure to work out your finances. I didn't mind living on $20k/year while I was a grad student. I had enough savings to make it work. I didn't need to take out any student loans.

Note 2: If you have never done research before, reach out to a few people and give it a try. At the very least, you will figure out if you like spending time with academics. At the best, they will help you into a research program through the back door (that's how I started).

Note 3: Managing graduate students and post docs is much easier than managing subordinate employees. To a certain extent, managing grad students is more-or-less just making sure they can find something to do that interests them, and that this aligns somehow with your research interests. In addition, I know some academics who don't take grad students, and just do research on their own. This is a definite option.

Note 4: It is good that you have broad interests. I found that picking a good adviser was more important than picking a specific research topic.

Note 5: There were two nice comments to your OP:

"You're aware that there are probably companies in neuroscience-related areas looking for engineers?"

"Why do a second bachelors? If you're sufficiently motivated, have built up enough background knowledge and have relevant tech skills, you might be able to go straight into a PhD."

I agree with both of these ideas. Find a researcher, and start your PhD. Asses your skills, take a few remedial classes only if you need to. I think you can have a launched career in less than 10 years.

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    This is interesting, especially the point about the skills you developed in industry. But OP needs to take into account that stories like this are very rare.
    – toby544
    Sep 23, 2023 at 10:29
  • Thank you, this was helpful. So at least in the Netherlands you need to have a masters before you can pursue a PhD, and you have to have (as far as I find anyway) the necessary pre-reqs to get a masters. Otherwise you need to do a pre-masters or a bachelors. It does sound like most people are saying it would be necessary to go outside of the Netherlands to do this work anyway. Can I ask what the best way to try out research extra-curricularly?
    – number37
    Sep 25, 2023 at 18:13
  • @number37 FWIW, I received two master's degrees prior to getting my PhD. Sep 26, 2023 at 1:27

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