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The complexities of the human brain are the subject of a variety of disciplines that require education at the doctoral level. What do you call a person who studies the human brain? Medical doctors, researchers and mental health professionals all belong to a broad category that can be labeled "brain doctors." Neurologists, neurosurgeons and psychiatrists are physicians who all specialize in the brain, but in different ways. Psychologists typically hold a nonmedical doctorate in psychology or counseling that allows them to work with patients in an office or clinical setting. Medical scientists, also called medical researchers, can specialize in studying the anatomy and functioning of the brain. Some of these scientists have a Ph.D. in their field, though it is not unusual to find dual-degree holders (M.D. and Ph.D.) among the most highly trained specialists.
If you're fascinated by the brain and how it works, there are several avenues you can pursue. All require years of intensive study beyond the bachelor's degree.
Becoming a Medical Doctor
The first step to becoming a neurologist, neurosurgeon or psychiatrist is getting a medical degree. It requires four years of intensive study after your bachelor's degree. Although there is no formal education requirement for individuals who want to apply to medical school, demonstrated success in a rigorous program of life sciences, chemistry, physics, mathematics and psychology is necessary. Medical school admissions are competitive. Admitted students have usually attained an undergraduate grade point average of at least 3.6 and a minimum score of 510 on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Three strong letters of recommendation are generally required as well, attesting to the student's academic achievement and fitness for a demanding career in medicine.
Once in medical school, students spend the first two years participating in lecture and laboratory courses in advanced life sciences and pharmacology. They learn about the medical ethics and communications related to patient care. They observe licensed physicians working with patients in various settings to start building the foundation for providing medical care. The final two years of medical school consist of additional lecture and supervised clinical practice in a variety of medical specialties. These rotations through the specialties provide students with valuable learning experiences as well as with the information they need to help make decisions about their choice of specialty after graduation.
After completing medical school with either an M.D. or D.O. degree (doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathy), the new physician completes a one-year internship and then a residency in the area of specialty. A residency can require three years or more, depending on the requirements for practice and the physician's area of interest. All physicians must be licensed in the state where they will practice. Board certification in the specialty area is not required, but is highly desirable. Board certification demonstrates to patients and employers that a physician has achieved a high level of education and experience and is up-to-date on the latest research in the field.
What Is a Neurologist?
A neurologist is a medical doctor who diagnoses and treats diseases of the brain, spinal cord and central nervous system. Neurologists specialize in disorders such as cerebrovascular disease, or stroke, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, sleep disorders and chronic headache. Many neurologists specialize in one area, such as movement disorders or conditions related to dementia. They may specialize in treating children, in athletes who suffer sports injuries or in treating older adults.
A neurology residency usually requires three years after the internship year. Some neurologists choose a longer residency in order to study a subspecialty. Neurologists do not perform surgery. If they determine surgery is necessary to the course of treatment, they will refer the patient to a neurosurgeon.
What Is a Neurosurgeon?
Neurosurgeons are medical doctors who provide both nonsurgical and surgical treatment of conditions, diseases and injuries to the brain, neck, spinal cord and central nervous system. They perform brain surgery but may also operate on herniated discs and pinched nerves that cause pain in other parts of the body, including the legs and back.
Neurosurgeons have the longest required training period of any medical specialty. After medical school, they must complete a one-year internship and then spend five to seven years in residency. Some doctors will undertake additional specialty training in the form of a fellowship so they can focus intensely on one area of the body, such as the spine.
What Is a Psychiatrist?
Neurologists and neurosurgeons treat physiological conditions, meaning the physical functioning and mechanisms of the brain and its related systems. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who diagnoses and treats the brain through the psychological perspective. Psychiatrists deal with mental, emotional and behavioral disorders such as depression, anxiety, psychoses and addiction. They typically treat patients by using a combination of psychotherapy and prescription medications.
Becoming a psychiatrist requires four years of residency training. In the first year, residents work with patients with a range of medical conditions. In the second, third and fourth years, they devote themselves to the diagnosis and treatment of mental health, working with inpatients and outpatients in clinics, hospitals and emergency rooms.
What Is a Psychologist?
Psychologists help people with a variety of mental, emotional and behavioral issues, including depression and anxiety, grief, anger management, addiction and problems with relationships. Although a psychologist is not a medical doctor, five to seven years of training and supervised clinical practice is required after earning a bachelor's degree. Depending on the academic institution and the program of study, a psychologist earns a Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy), a Psy.D. (doctor of psychology) or an Ed.D. (doctor of education). The last designation is usually held by individuals who want to work with children and teens in the schools.
A psychologist is qualified to administer various psychological tests and assessments to determine the needs of the patients. Psychologists provide psychotherapy in individual and group settings. They cannot prescribe medication, but work with primary care physicians, psychiatrists and other medical doctors if they believe medications are warranted.
What Is a Medical Scientist?
Medical researchers and scientists devise and conduct experiments, investigate causes of disease and search for treatments and cures. They typically work as part of a team, asking complex questions and seeking answers about very specific topics of investigation. Researchers need skill sets and formal education particular to an area of expertise. It is not unusual for a medical researcher specializing in the brain to hold both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in order to develop the deep level of knowledge required for scientific study of neurology. Depending on the area of interest, a medical scientist earns a Ph.D. in biology, epidemiology, biomedical science or a related field. Some schools, such as Stanford University, train a small, highly select group of students in a dual degree program, from which students graduate with both an M.D. and Ph.D.
Brain Doctors and Sports Medicine
A relatively new subspecialty within sports medicine has to do specifically with the brain. Any athlete can sustain a brain injury, but those who play high contact sports such as football and ice hockey are particularly susceptible to concussions. A concussion is a traumatic brain injury (TMI) resulting from a blow to the head that causes the brain to move rapidly back and forth inside the skull. A concussion can cause chemical changes in the brain and can stretch or damage brain cells. Although a concussion is usually not life-threatening, it is an injury that must be taken seriously. It can cause dizziness, double vision and impairment of motor function. A history of repetitive brain injury, as seen in some retired players from the National Football League, is blamed for a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. This condition is not seen in athletes only – military veterans and others who have been subject to repeated brain injuries can develop this debilitating condition.
With greater awareness of the dangers of head injuries, particularly in young people, doctors and researchers are working toward better measures of prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of brain injury.
Work Environment for Brain Doctors
The work environment depends on the practitioner's credentials and job requirements. Not all those who fall under the broad category of brain doctors are qualified, or choose, to treat patients.
Neurologists, psychiatrists and psychologists can be solo practitioners, working out of their own offices, or they can be part of a group practice with others in the same and/or related fields. Neurosurgeons may meet with patients and other medical professionals in an office or clinic. They perform surgery at a hospital or university-affiliated medical center. Medical scientists typically work behind the scenes, in laboratories. They are employed by universities, pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers of medical supplies and equipment, and others in the healthcare industry. Psychologists may find employment with a school district or academic institution.
Brain doctors may find employment with universities and medical schools. Psychologists and medical scientists might teach undergraduate or graduate courses in their respective fields. Psychologists can supervise the clinical practice of students working toward an advanced degree. Neurologists, neurosurgeons and psychiatrists may teach their specialties in medical schools and supervise interns, residents and post-doctoral fellows in their clinical rotations.
Salaries and Job Outlook for Brain Doctors
|Brain Doctor Type||Salary|
For each type of brain doctor discussed, here's a snapshot of salary ranges and job outlooks. Salaries and opportunities vary depending on education, training and skills, as well as geographic location and other factors.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks salaries and makes employment projections for civilian occupations in all industries. Although the bureau does not specifically look at neurologists, they belong to a category titled "Physicians and Surgeons." Median pay is approximately $208,000 annually, meaning that half in these professions earn more and half earn less. Other sources of salary information for neurologists show a range between $98,036 and $333,410 per year. The job growth for physicians and surgeons is expected to be 13 percent through 2026, faster than average compared to all other jobs.
As with neurologists, the BLS does not track by this specialty. Other sources show the median salary to be $395,329 annually, with a range between $103,899 and $788,689.
The average annual salary for a psychiatrist is $197,986 per year. Salaries typically range from $99,861 to $283,381.
The average psychologist salary is $74,410 per year. Salaries typically range from $44,721 to $112,272 annually. Psychologists who provide patient counseling, psychological testing and services to individuals on the autism spectrum often earn more. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks this profession, estimates 14 percent job growth through 2026.
The average salary for a medical scientist is $83,520 a year, with salaries ranging from $39,951 to $161,488. Education, experience and specific research field account for the wide variation. According to the BLS, job growth for medical scientists should remain around 13 percent through 2026.
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- WebMD: What is a Neurologist?
- University of Rochester Highland Hospital: Neurology at Highland Hospital
- The Princeton Review: What is a Good MCAT Score?
- Neurosurgery Associates: When Do You Need a Neurosurgeon?
- American Psychiatric Association: What is Psychiatry?
- American Psychological Association: What Do Practicing Psychologists Do?
- New Scientist: How to Make a Career in Medical Research?
- US Bureau of Labor Statistics: Physicians and Surgeons
- PayScale: Average Physician/Doctor, Neurologist Salary
- PayScale: Neurosurgeon Salary
- PayScale: Psychiatrist
- PayScale: Psychologist
- PayScale: Medical Science
- US Bureau of Labor Statistics: Psychologists
- Stanford University: MSTP MD-PhD Program
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: What is a Concussion?
- Concussion Legacy Foundation: What is CTE?