You are a young person considering career options and you are fascinated by the ethical, legal and social implications of neuroscience. How do you pursue a career in this area?

The most obvious answer might seem to be to enroll in a graduate program or accept a job that will allow you to focus on neuroethics. In the words of Joseph Campbell, “Follow your bliss.” There is much to be said for this approach to career planning. Back in the 70’s, when I was an undergraduate contemplating a move from engineering to psychology, there were abundant opportunities for engineers and the academic job market in psychology was bleak. But I pursued my true interests and, by the time I was ready for a job, the academic psychology market had rebounded and the engineering market had contracted. To think that I might have stifled my true interests for the sake of job security and then found myself without that security!

Yet, even after that experience, my personal belief is that an early focus on neuroethics is probably not a good idea. (I hasten to add that the one-size-fits-all advice that follows may well have exceptions!)

Instead, I think most people will be better served by education in a traditional field — be it law, medicine, neuroscience, philosophy or whathaveyou – and by including neuroethics in their early training but not focusing exclusively on it. Master one of the traditional disciplines, while exploring its connections to neuroethics in your thesis or other early career projects.

One reason for this advice is pragmatic. The vast majority of jobs in which one might do neuroethics work are defined in terms of conventional fields and professions. They are in organizations made up of people who belong to, and identify with, those same fields and professions. You will be a more natural fit to the job if your expertise, credentials and professional identity match up with those of the organization. And this isn’t just about landing a job — the same holds true for developing collegial relations within and beyond your organization and for obtaining promotions.

Another reason is intellectual. The novel questions and diverse methods of neuroethics make it an exciting field, but they also make it a poor intellectual training ground. If the extent of one’s expertise in any one discipline is what has so far made it into the interdisciplinary neuroethics literature, then one’s capabilities are limited. Rigorous training in an established field is empowering, and in the long run it will benefit you and your contributions to the field of neuroethics.

— Martha J. Farah, Director of the Penn Center for Neuroscience & Society

I recently emailed a few of the field’s leading lights to see how their advice might differ from mine. Here are their responses:

career-N_Levy“Neuroethics is an interdisciplinary field, and good interdisciplinary work requires a solid grounding. Solid contributions will come from people who are experts in at least one of the major fields relevant to neuroethics, as well as competent in at least one other field. It is therefore important to have a home discipline, in which you are genuinely expert (where expertise is measured by your ability to publish in your home discipline’s journals, not only in interdisciplinary journals). Neuroethics needs good neuroscientists, social and cognitive psychologists, and philosophers (with an emphasis on moral philosophy and philosophy of mind, though political philosophy is also relevant). It also needs sociologists and lawyers. Too much interdisciplinarity too early can lead all too easily to superficiality (I know; I’ve been there).”

— Neil Levy, Head of Neuroethics, Florey Neuroscience Institutes, and Director of Research, Oxford Centre for Neuroethics

career-J-Illes“Basically I suggest, and have my own students pursue, a traditional track that best suits them (neuroscience, bioethics, philosophy, law, anthro, and so on), and layered on that a specialization in neuroethics. That way the greatest range of options are open to them down the road. Our gauge is that neuroethics faculty positions are likely to materialize in neuroscience departments down the road by the way. Everywhere – not just US and Canada.”

— Judy Illes, Canada Research Chair in Neuroethics and Director, National Core for Neuroethics , The University of British Columbia

career-o-jones“The key thing is to identify a field you are passionate about, such as medicine or law, that intersects with neuroethics. You can then pursue training and a career in that field, as well as suitable internships, while maintaining and deepening your focus on neuroethical issues. In the long term, faculties and companies may specifically recruit people for positions in neuroethics. In the near term, expertise in neuroethical issues is more likely to be an attractive bonus — a distinguishing specialty that sets you apart from the crowd by equipping you to confront some of the most challenging issues facing society.”

— Owen D. Jones, Professor of Law and Professor Biological Sciences, Vanderbilt University