The “Why” of Neuropsychology
If you are a neuropsychologist or a neuropsychology trainee, then we need your help! We want to hear why you chose this career: what were the main reasons why you decided to become a neuropsychologist and what are you passionate about that keeps you going? Also, tell us about the path you took to get to where you are: did you take a straight path from an undergrad degree right into grad school or was your path winding and unique? We hope to create a large collection of reasons and stories so that students who are considering a career in neuropsychology can get a better understanding of why we do what we do and how we get to where we are. Please use the comment box below to add your story (save it in a word document and make sure the comment posts before deleting). Make sure to list your current status (i.e., grad student, intern, postdoc, or neuropsychologist) and affiliations. Email us at Feedback@NavNeuro.com if you have any questions or experience any technical difficulties. We really appreciate it!
There are so many reasons why I chose to pursue a career as a neuropsychologist, but what initially drew me in was the combination of neuroscience, philosophy, and interpersonal contact. In high school I became interested in existential and epistemological philosophy and considered pursuing a career as a philosophy professor but wanted more stability (and money, I’ll be honest) than academic philosophy typically provides; plus, I was looking for a way to make a more direct impact in people’s lives (cliché, I know, but true). I went into college as a psych major because I figured it would be pretty flexible (and for lack of a better idea), but I began to enjoy the classes and then in my junior year I took a biopsychology class that lit a spark in me. The professor focused on the philosophical aspects of neuroscience, like consciousness, free will, the engram, the idea cognitive maps…I fell in love with it. This class, coupled with a research lab I had gotten involved with, led me to apply to Psychology Ph.D. programs that had a neuropsychology emphasis. Grad school further solidified my passion for neuropsychology. The fact that I could continue to study the brain, contribute to scientific knowledge, make a profound impact in people’s lives, and make a decent salary while doing it…can’t beat that!
John Bellone, Ph.D.
Clinical Neuropsychologist in group practice
This really struck home to me. Thanks so much for sharing!
I’m currently looking into the field and wanted more information as a clinical neuropsychologist i want to study how drugs interact with human cognition which also impact the humans neurology. I wanted to do research in this field and also provide therapy to patients. is that possible in this carrier?
Thanks for the message. Yes, neuropsychologists can both provide therapy (if they are licensed in the state/province) and do research. Some choose to focus on one or the other, but many of us do both (in addition to cognitive assessment). Ryan and I recently published a book that provides an overview of the field and a step-by-step guide for how to pursue a career in the field. In case you are interested, the book is Becoming a Neuropsychologist: Advice and Guidance for Students and Trainees.
All the best,
After graduating from high school I completed an Associate’s Degree at a local community college in central Virginia. At that point, I had a lot of interests, but I had no idea what type of career I wanted to pursue yet, so I took a full time job as a “produce boy” at a local grocery store. I also worked for about a year driving box trucks to deliver uniforms to local businesses in the area, although I ultimately returned to my strong produce roots. I had always been an incredibly curious person (possibly to an annoying level!). One day, while visiting my aunt in the Chesapeake Bay area, I found an old 1980’s Abnormal Psychology textbook that she had in her attic. She let me borrow it and I started reading it every day during my breaks at work. I noticed people smirking and chuckling at me more than once, but I didn’t care… I was hooked! I started thinking, talking, and reading more and more about psychology. I was absolutely fascinated by how the brain and the mind work. Not long after I first borrowed the book, I had enrolled at a local university and started taking courses. I initially majored in psychology and took courses in the pre-med program, with the plan of becoming a neurologist or psychiatrist. But, although I thoroughly enjoyed physics, chemistry, and biology, it never felt quite right to be moving away from psychology. Then, in a stroke of serendipity, my Biopsychology professor took 15 minutes out of one class period to talk about a few careers in biology and psychology. I had my epiphany! From the moment he began describing neuropsychology (the first time I had heard of the field) I was completely hooked, and never looked back.
Ryan Van Patten, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Geriatric Mental Health
Department of Psychiatry
University of California San Diego
Thank you for sharing your story
It inspired me
I have done Engineering
But I wanted to study Neuropsychology
Truth be told, I was damn lucky. I was fortunate to stumble across inspiring professors as an undergraduate, who sparked my interest in the brain and human behavior. Then in grad school, I was again inspired by a mentor, Dr. Erin Bigler, whose enthusiasm and knowledge about the field of neuropsychology was contagious. I caught the bug and still am amazed and grateful to be part of such an exciting, dynamic and rewarding field.
Nancy L. Nussbaum, PhD, ABPP
Board Certified in Clinical Neuropsychology
Board Certified Subspecialist in Pediatric Neuropsychology
Section of Pediatric Neuropsychology
Dell Children’s Medical Group (Austin, Texas)
I hope to become a neuropsychologist for two primary reasons. First, although admittedly cliché, I want to serve others. As a health service profession, neuropsychology provides a myriad of opportunities to positively impact the lives of those around us. Second, I want to feel intellectually engaged in my daily activities, and the study of brain-behavior relationships readily allows for this. As a relatively nascent science, neuropsychology has a high rate of knowledge turnover. As such, the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to advances in our understanding of brain-behavior relationships is highly appealing and exciting.
Chad Gaudet, M.A.
When I started in my clinical psychology doctoral program, I aspired to be a therapist. As I began my training, I enjoyed working with patients, but didn’t feel entirely fulfilled by the practice of psychotherapy. As part of my training, we were required to take some classes related to neuropsychology and to complete some neuropsychological test batteries in our practica. I had found my home! Neuropsychology provided a new and more dynamic understanding of patients, incorporating training in psychopathology and intervention with brain structures and systems. I appreciated neuropsychology’s ability to develop a very unique picture of each patient, and to generate information and recommendations that can have a powerful impact on patients. I’ve never regretted my decision to pursue neuropsychology and encourage students considering psychology to seriously consider neuropsychology as part of their own career path.
Megan Spencer, PhD
Alpert Medical School of Brown University
I have always been intrigued by human motivation and behavior. As a child, I would secretly watch people and imagine their story. In addition, my role with family and friends was to be the “diplomat” and peacekeeper when there was conflict. I found neuropsychology to be a career in which I could exploit these interests and personality traits. My work involves understanding the influence of neurological, emotional, and psychosocial factors on behavior. I provide education and intervention to patients and their families about their illness and how to manage it. I engage in research to identify important breakthroughs in understanding brain-behavior relationships and in developing effective interventions.
Geoffrey Tremont, Ph.D., ABPP-CN
Associate Professor of Psychiatry
Alpert Medical School of Brown University
Rhode Island Hospital & The Miriam Hospital
My aspiration to become a clinical neuropsychologist is multi-faceted that can be better explained through incremental steps rather than the start and end points of my life. First, graduate students are overworked, underpaid, and it’s primarily self-induced. Why would someone do this to themselves? Passion. Without passion, I would NOT have the fuel to stay motivated. After serving an enlistment as a US Marine and completing a 12-month tour to Afghanistan, I knew that I wanted to a career helping people because I witnessed first-hand how war trauma and blast-injuries can impact veterans and their families. Confused and uncertain of the future, I actively sought mentors from various fields to help guide me in the right direction. Shortly after my first experience in research in a clinical neuropsychology laboratory, I discovered a relentless curiosity within me that wanted to understand how brain function controls human behavior. During this process, I recognized that I would be able to combine my military background, help people, and study brain-behavior relationships as a clinical neuropsychologist. Thus, I pursued this career. Lastly, learning how to deal with failure and then taking those experiences, as well as my successes, with a grain of salt are critical factors for success in any career. In response to failing remedial math during my first semester of college and failing additional graduate-level courses, I decided to perceive failure as opportunity to learn. How can failing be a bad thing when I can experience failure as an opportunity to problem-solve? I learned early on that I needed to develop this skill in order to become a clinical neuropsychologist.
Charles C. Moreno, MS
University of Florida
I was initially drawn to neuropsychology because I found it to be an ideal blend between science and the helping profession. I had long known I wanted a career that directly involved helping people, and at the same time I was aware of my enjoyment in scientific thought and problem solving, with a special fascination for neuroscience. When I discovered clinical neuropsychology — a career that would allow me to help people by solving the puzzles of how their brains function — it was a perfect fit!
-Neuropsychology grad student at St. Louis University
My journey to becoming a clinical neuropsychologist began when I was a pre-medical undergraduate student, majoring in Neuroscience with a minor in Philosophy. My immersion into two seemingly contradictory yet remarkably analogous fields of study shaped my fascination with understanding the neurological bases of human experience. On one hand, I studied the intricacies of the brain at the molecular, cellular, and systems levels; on the other, I sought to resolve the “mind-body problem” posed by Plato and Descartes and grasp the relationship between the brain and human consciousness. I was drawn to neuropsychology, as it allowed the opportunity to ask questions regarding human behavior and examine psychological phenomena through biological processes—perfectly merging my passions for science and the philosophical notion of what it means to be human.
Tanya T. Nguyen, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry
University of California, San Diego
I have always been curious about the mind and the meaning of our existence.
I was first drawn to psychology and assessment after early exposure to both IQ and projective testing as a high school intern at the University of AZ Medical Center. The outcome of these measures (as explained by the graduate students) was fascinating! In college and the beginning of graduate school, I was most interested in a career in social psychology, including the study of religion/psychology – but my passion shifted after completing a practicum in geropsychology (therapy) and landing a job as a psychometrist (neuropsychological assessment). I was enthralled by how the data informed the research team about the brain functioning of the individuals participating in the health study. The supervision I received from Dr. Susan Bookheimer and Dr. Gary Small at UCLA inspired me to pursue an emphasis in neuropsychology as a career with a desire to better understand how early we can detect cognitive decline (and how to treat/prevent these changes). Twenty-five year later, I can honestly say there has never been one dull day in my career as a UCLA Neuropsychologist. I never tire of the analysis of the data, the combing through research, the delivery of the results to patients/families, the creation of cognitive rehabilitation programs, and the desire/need to share it all with a fresh crop of graduate students each year.
Karen Miller, Ph.D.
Health Sciences Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences,
Division of Geriatric Psychiatry, David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA
Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior
Karen Miller is one of the biggest reasons I have pursued this field. Her passion coupled with her insurmountable amount of knowledge of the brain-body connection has been a motivating force for me to continue my training.
I am forever grateful for her, her work with our patients, and for this field of neuropsychology.
My interest in the brain and in neuropsychology was sparked by two faculty members in the Psychology Department at the University of Wisconsin – Madison where I was an undergraduate student in the late 1980’s. I had the good fortune of working in a psychophysiology laboratory with a relatively new faculty member at the time, Dr. Richie Davidson, who was a pioneer in the very early stages of the field of Affective Neuroscience. The other spark came from taking a class with Dr. Terrie “Temi” Moffitt, another recent arrival to UW whose groundbreaking research into how genes and environment affect brain development fascinated me and ultimately contributed to my own decision to pursue pediatric neuropsychology and to do research on neurodevelopmental disorders. My path wandered a bit, as many do. I thought I wanted to be a practicing adult clinical psychologist and, so, pursued a Ph.D. at Kent State University. I was fortunate to work with two clinical neuropsychologists there and regained an appreciation for working with kids and adolescents while doing assessments in a residential treatment facility in Columbus, OH. I then came to the University of Minnesota for internship because of the strong pediatric neuropsychology training opportunity and the Medical School’s excellent reputation. I stayed for post-doctoral training which was intensive and solidified my identity as a neuropsychologist for the rest of my career. Even at that point, I would not have predicted that I would develop an interest in Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) that would allow me to also conduct studies involving neuropsychology, brain imaging, electrophysiology, neuromodulation, and clinical trials. All of this stemmed from opportunities that presented themselves along the way. I noticed the opportunities, took the advice of outstanding mentors, combined resources that were in front of me, pursued what was important, and became increasingly passionate as I progressed (as opposed to waiting for inspiration). Today, I am pleased that I have had the chance to choose my own path, to contribute to an important field of science, to have 20+ years of working with patients and families, to help lead a Department, and most importantly, to have participated in the growth and training and mentoring of many outstanding young psychologists and neuropsychologists.
Jeff Wozniak, Ph.D., L.P.
Professor and Director of the Division of Behavioral Sciences
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
University of Minnesota
I got into Psychology because of a broad interest in human behavior. For a long time, I considered History but in the end considered that too passive. I wanted to be more actively involved. During undergrad, I had broad interests, ranging from understanding optical illusions to child development to psychopathology. However, at first, I did not have much of an interest in the physiology of the brain. In fact, I was essentially forced into my first encounter with neuropsychology – just by chance. My fellow students and I were taking an undergraduate developmental psychology class. As part of that, we had to take one of two workshops. One was about the interpretation of children’s drawings and the other one was about pediatric neuropsychology. Well, about 90% of the class wanted to do the former and the instructors said, “no way – we need to have two equal groups”. So, they literally put all of our names into a hat and guess whose came out first to be transferred to the neuropsychic group? That would be mine. I was then assigned the topic of childhood aphasia. The first paper I read was one from 1976 (quite recent at that time) by Hecaen in Brain & Language. It was fascinating and I soon became hooked after delving into the topic some more. I ended up doing my thesis on reading patterns in children with dyslexia and an internship at a local hospital with a large adult neurology clinic. The rest is pretty much history. I have now been in practice (after residency) for more than 30 years and still love what I do.
My initial interest in Psychology was largely due to a positive experience with my Introductory to Psychology professor, Dr. Anthony Lopez, a clinical psychologist who worked with the LAPD. Prior to that, I had no idea whatsoever what I wanted my major to be. I was only attending college because I had heard that attending college would ensure a decent job in the future. Fascinated by the study of human behavior, particularly abnormal behavior, led me to pursue Psychology as a major at Cerritos Community College. In my final year, I took a research methods course with Dr. Kimberley Duff and discovered my passion for research. Upon transferring to Cal State University Long Beach (CSULB) I continued to pursue research through the Career Opportunities in Research Program, mostly in the area of social psychology (e.g., examining the effects of stereotype threat and delinquent behaviors in adolescents). In my last year at CSULB, I took courses in neuroscience, neuropsychology and pharmacology and really enjoyed learning about brain mechanisms that were responsible for behavior. After graduate school, I completed my 2-year postdoctoral fellowship in neuropsychology at UCLA, and was fortunate enough to be mentored and supervised by top neuropsychologists in the field. Now as an Associate Professor at the University of Southern California, my research examines the role of psychosocial issues on brain-behavior relationships. My clinical interests are in working with culturally diverse aging populations.
Throughout high school, I worked in a nursing home for patients with dementia. Witnessing cognitive and functional decline in these patients sparked a desire to help and a curiosity for comprehending factors contributing the development of dementia.
During my undergraduate degree in Psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, I took a course in neuropsychology as a freshman. I remember the enthusiasm of the professors, including Martine van Zandvoort and Esther van den Berg, about the “neuropsychological puzzle” and the videos of their recent assessment patients with Broca’s aphasia and other fascinating disorders. That’s when I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
I am beyond lucky that, as a graduate student in Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Florida, I get to be trained in both of these components. I study research risk factors, protective factors, and behavioral interventions in individuals at risk for dementia while I am also trained in neuropsychological assessment and intervention by an amazing team of neuropsychologists including Glenn Smith, Dawn Bowers, and Russel Bauer.
From my experience, there is no difference in the quality of clinical or research training between Europe and the US. However, it is rare to find opportunities to simultaneously work on research and clinical competencies in Europe right after the master’s degree level. One of the reasons I moved to the US is that my clinical work gets to inform my research questions and that my research knowledge gets to inform my clinical work. This scientist-practitioner model continues to be my favorite aspect of my PhD.
Liselotte De Wit
Department of Clinical & Health Psychology
University of Florida
From an early age, I always knew I wanted to work with children and have a career in the medical field, I just wasn’t exactly sure what that would look like. I originally thought I would go to medical school, but this changed when I took my first psychology class during freshman year of college. About halfway through this class, I knew I wanted to get my PhD in clinical psychology but also knew I would need to get research experience. On a university website, I found an opportunity for a psychology research assistant at the VA with an adult neuropsychologist, Linas Bieliauskas. Even though I was not sure what neuropsychology was and had no experience working with actual patients, I took a chance and applied for the position. Working with Linas taught me a lot about neuropsychology and he encouraged me to apply to graduate school straight from undergrad. Around this time, I also began learning about traumatic brain injury in children and knew this was my calling. I sent an email to a pediatric neuropsychology listserve asking members about graduate programs with researchers in the area of pediatric TBI. Much to my surprise, one of the seminal researchers in this area, Keith Yeates, responded. He ended up becoming my advisor and mentor in graduate school and shaped me into the pediatric neuropsychologist that I am today. During my internship, I gained experience with rehabilitation populations, which further strengthened my interest in TBI, as well as other populations, like spina bifida myelomeningocele. Today, I have a career that I love, where I get to work in the medical field and make a difference in the lives of children and families. I am thankful to have found the field of neuropsychology and consider myself fortunate to have worked with an amazing group of mentors along the way.
Christine Koterba, PhD, ABPP
Nationwide Children’s Hospital
The Ohio State University
I got into the field of neuropsychology because of its interdisciplinary nature. It is a field that combines the scientific, medical approach while also bringing in personality, history, biology, pharmacology etc. I have always been intrigued by the brain behavior relationship and knew I wanted to be in a helping profession. I enjoy working directly with people, and I also appreciate the objective nature of assessments. Another aspect that drew me in is the research and the potential of advancing this field of study. I went directly from my undergraduate program, where I majored in Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience, to a Clinical Psychology program, with a track in neuropsychology. I am a little over one semester in and I have only gotten more passionate and excited about becoming a pediatric neuropsychologist.
First Year Clinical Psychology Doctoral Student
I started listening to NavNeuro shortly after the podcast launched. It came about fortuitously (WOTD check) from a search on neuropsychology. I have been a loyal listener since.
I live in Canada. My undergrad degree is in environmental engineering, I have post-grad courses in the same as well as infrastructure protection and international security. For the past 28 years, I have been in the Canadian Army. After my tour in Afghanistan, I ended up in medical care and received multiple diagnoses – PTSD, MDD, GAD, and ADHD (attention).
Because I have been dealing with these issues for over a decade, I decided to start looking in to psychology and neuroscience. My disorders – I’m taking ownership of these, so they aren’t labels – have made it so that working with technology or being in an operational military environment are no longer options for me. I started listening to and reading Jordan B. Peterson, Sam Harris, Peter Atria, and others. My interest laid in why did my brain react to trauma in the way it did, and what did I need to know in order to understand the physiological and neurological aspects of where I was. Also, it was my hope to be able to use this knowledge on my journey to get better.
After attending a few of in-resident peee group therapy treatments with other veterans and first responders, I was offered the opportunity to facilitate a peer support group. In light of the years of my leadership experience, individual therapy, and what I had found out about the brain, psychology, and the CNS, I was able to be very affective and facilitating and leading these groups.
This is what led to me looking in to getting a psychology or neuroscience degree at one of my local universities (Carleton University and the University of Ottawa). I would already be well on my to getting either, or both, and using that to possibly go on to becoming a psychologist or neuropsychologist.
At any rate – I accept that this is a long post – my desire to pursue neuropsychology now (if I can execute) would be to find meaning in my life and continue to help others. My hope would be to use the potential for meaning and serving others as the underpinning motivation to accomplish the goal of being a bona fide therapist. Regardless of this, NavNeuro has been one of the few places where I can seek solace for what has been dogging me for quite some time. Drs. Ryan and John are awesome hosts, and if I could be even 1/10 as capable as they seem, then I would be better off for it.
Gentlemen, brothers, docs – thank you for what you have started. Keep it real, and stay safe.
Vernon, thank you so much for the kind words and for your inspirational story. Best of luck in all your endeavors.
But I am fascinated by Neurophysiology
Not sure from where to start this journey
I really wanted to study and become one best Neuropsychologist
We just published a book called “Becoming a Neuropsychologist” that provides an overview of the field and then offers a step-by-step guide for how to pursue this profession. If interested, you can find more information at http://www.NavNeuro.com/book.
I wish you all the best on your journey!
I was lucky enough to pretty much always know that neuropsychology was the pathway for me. I excelled at biology and psychology in Year 12. While I have a deep appreciation for the work of clinical psychologists, I knew it wasn’t really for me. My Year 12 teacher told me about this discipline of neuropsychology which was at the interface of biology, psychology and neuroscience, and I knew that this was what I would do. In Australia, the pathway for neuropsychology includes an undergraduate honours degree in psychology/behavioural sciences, followed by a Masters of Psychology (Neuropsychology) and then 2 years supervised practice to gain endorsement with the Board of Psychology.
I enjoy the investigative side of neuropsychology; the piecing together of a bigger picture; the moments of connection with patients and their families, while helping them to understand themselves and their loved ones better. I hope to complete a PhD in the future, but I am so unsure of what area of research to complete my thesis in. I love so many areas of neuropsychology, the human experience is such a varied and intriguing thing!
I work currently in an older person’s mental health unit, and every day presents new and different challenges. It’s hectic, and sometimes stressful, but always enjoyable and rewarding. I’m a big advocate for our field, and hope to see bigger and better things to come!
Older Persons Mental Health
I took a rather meandering path to neuropsychology. Prior to college, I knew next to nothing about psychology and nothing about neuroscience. In college, I majored in psychology and thought I would become a college professor one day. After completing a master’s degree, I entered the counseling psychology program at the University of Iowa, still planning to become a professor. I remained clueless about neuropsychology. During my second year, a clinical neuropsychologist was supposed to visit one of my classes and I was eager to learn about this field I knew nothing about, but he had to cancel. I reached out to him and offered to buy him lunch so I could hear more. He said “Why don’t you join me for a day instead?” He brought me to a brain injury rehabilitation center and introduced me to a patient who had a recent stroke and then asked him to draw a clock. As I watched this person attempt to draw a clock, I was hooked. Though I remained in the counseling psychology program, I shifted my practica, research, and free time to working in the neuropsychology services at the University hospitals and clinics. I had the good fortune that my counseling psychology program also happened to be at a university with a strong tradition in neuropsychology, but it was that one pinnacle event that changed everything.
Jason Kanz, ABPP
Marshfield Medical Center
Eau Claire, Wisconsin