Careers in Neurology
The study of the human mind has long fascinated scientists and healers throughout the ages. From Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to modern neurological studies, we have long pursued a greater understanding of the complicated hardware and intricate programming of our brains.
As the research community has explored the cognitive and biological functions of the brain our understanding of the relationship between the brain and our central nervous system has grown exponentially. The nervous system, which controls movement and transmits signals that convey sensation and sensory information to the brain, is integral part of everything we do as human beings. As you might imagine, when a disorder interferes with the health and proper operation of that system, the impact on everyday life can be devastating.
That’s where neurologists come in. As experts in neurological disorders and diseases that affect the brain and nervous system, they confront dysfunction and search for treatment solutions that positively affect this most crucial of bodily systems. While neurology doesn’t have an answer to every problem or malady, those who work in this field contribute every single day to the body of knowledge that brings us closer to overcoming disease and disorder.
What Is a Neurologist?
A neurologist is a medical specialist that focuses on the functions and disorders of the nerves and brain, collectively known as the nervous system. Specifically, neurologists are tasked with researching illnesses and disorders, helping patients find solutions to neurological impairment, and exploring treatment and prevention strategies.
The nervous system can be divided into two main parts: the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral system – which is all other elements, such as limbs, extremities and sensory organs. The nervous system isn’t limited specifically to brain and nerve tissue - it also concerns nerve sheaths and surrounding muscle tissue, blood vessels and more. The nervous system can also be subdivided in another way: the somatic and autonomic systems. The first controls voluntary movements, such as when we reach for a glass of water. The second controls functions that go on “in the background,” such as breathing and heartbeats.
Depending on a neurologist’s specialty, they may deal with every part of the nervous system, or focus on disorders in only one part – for instance, in the hands and feet, or in the brain. Likewise, they may focus on disorders affecting either the somatic or autonomic nervous systems. In many cases, neurologists may use psychiatric techniques and treatments, because so many neurological disorders stem from and require treatment in the brain.
What Does a Neurologist Do?
A neurologist may perform several different duties and job functions depending on the setting in which they work and the specific job description of their employer. They may conduct research and scientific studies to contribute to the academic body of knowledge in neurology, or they may spend their day interacting with and treating patients. They may study specific neurological conditions and craft experiments that develop new medical and drug treatment plans, or explore a combination of medical and therapeutic approaches to help patients overcome disorders.
A neurologist may study or provide treatment for a wide range of disorders, including:
- Stroke or other diseases affecting the brain
- Diseases that affect nerve sheaths, such as multiple sclerosis, which are together termed “demyelinating diseases”
- Movement disorders (Parkinson’s, for instance)
- Headache and migraine disorders
- Infections of the brain, spinal cord and central nervous system (for example, meningitis or encephalitis)
- Degenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and others
- Epilepsy and other seizure disorders
- Speech and language issues
- Neuromuscular conditions, such as myasthenia gravis
- Spinal cord disorders from congenital issues or traumatic injury
Neurologists may specialize in one or multiple areas, such as critical care, childhood disorders, specific causes (such as stroke) or diseases (such as multiple sclerosis). Neurologists are responsible for the diagnosis, assessment, and recommended treatment of a patient, but they do not perform surgery (if that is the recommended medical approach to treatment). Surgery on the brain is performed by a neurosurgeon.
What Is the Difference Between Neurology and Neuroscience?
While neurologists and neuroscientists work in closely related fields, there are distinct differences between the two. Neuroscientists focus on the structure and makeup of the brain, spinal cord, and nerve cells throughout the body. They have specialized knowledge in areas such as biochemistry, molecular biology, physiology, and anatomy, which are collectively known as neuroscience – a branch of biology. They typically spend their time in research-oriented careers investigating the function and development of the nervous system, and may or may not have a degree in medicine.
Neurologists, by contrast, are medical doctors who specialize in the treatment of nervous system disorders. Diseases of the central nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis, are a common area of specialization for a neurologist, in addition to the treatment of disorders affecting the brain, nerves, and spinal cord. They commonly use diagnostic tools and evaluation methods such as lumbar puncture, computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, and electroencephalograms (EEGs) to better understand the root problems affecting a patient.
Where Does a Neurologist Work?
Neurologists work in many healthcare-focused environments. This includes work in private practice as a specialist in a certain disorder or disease, or in clinics, hospitals, and other healthcare settings. Neurologists frequently focus on research and teaching. They may conduct scientific research in a college, university, private industry, or government agency setting where the try to add to the understanding of nervous system disorders. They may also focus on clinical research and clinical trials.
Steps to Become a Neurologist
To become a neurologist, you must first earn a bachelor’s degree in a field that will prepare you for medical school. The most common degree programs for students who hope to attend medical school include:
- Biology: With a biology degree, you will focus heavily on the anatomy, physiology and makeup of organisms and their systems. Biologists study both plant and animal life, as well as bacteria, viruses, funguses and other organisms, learning about evolution and other related concepts as well.
- Chemistry: This branch of scientific thought is concerned with atoms, molecules and the other basic building blocks that comprise the substances that in turn comprise both animate and inanimate objects. Chemists study how different substances and molecules interact, change one another and form new substances.
- Physics: Physicists study the laws of matter. These include properties related to light, sound, magnetism, electricity, the structure of atoms. Physics covers every aspect of matter, from the smallest fundamental building blocks of the universe – which are still hotly contested – to the universe on a galactic and even infinite scale.
- Pre-Med: Pre-med students take a variety of courses geared specifically toward preparing them for entrance to medical school. The pre-med track helps ensure that you cover every requirement for entrance to medical school without having to keep track of those you need above and beyond your major’s requirements. Common courses include microbiology, biochemistry and human anatomy.
Once you earn a bachelor’s degree, and assuming you have earned all the pre-requisites necessary to apply to medical school, you must take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). With an MCAT score you may submit your application to medical schools of your choice. If you want to improve your resume before application, consider volunteering, participating in extracurricular activities and/or learning a foreign language.
In medical school, you will spend approximately 2 years in a classroom setting and the following 2 years in clinical rotations at a teaching hospital. During the latter period, you are expected to apply the knowledge learned in the classroom to real life medical situations. During a clinical rotation students will shadow a physician and interact directly with patients, gaining valuable hands-on experience.
Once you receive your medical degree, you will need to pass either the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX). After passing the exam, you will be required to complete a 1-year internship in a field of medicine or surgery related to neurology, in addition to three years in residency in a hospital. In residency, you may seek further training to specialize in a particular field of interest. Resident neurologists may choose, for example, to focus on sleep disorders, epilepsy, neuromuscular diseases and more.
Neurologist Jobs & Job Description
A neurologist, at the most fundamental level, must be prepared to evaluate, observe and investigate a wide range of nervous system conditions and disorders. They make medical evaluations, interact with patients, review tests and diagnoses from referring physicians, order tests and assessments, and assemble treatment plans for patients depending on the disorder.
Neurologists frequently work closely with neurosurgeons, planning surgeries that will hopefully relieve or improve the condition of a patient. They may also teach, travel, speak and publish findings for the academic community. Occassionally, they are required by their employers – most frequently hospitals and academic institutions – to do all of the above, while treating patients directly.
Such rigorous expectations necessarily demand an equally rigorous skill set and knowledge base. Neurologists require the following skills and areas of expertise:
- A thorough understanding of the human nervous system, as well as potential disorders
- Working knowledge of the main therapeutic treatments, medications and surgeries available to patients with a variety of different disorders
- Ability to navigate the complex world of insurance and medical standards
- Organization skills enabling them to keep track of a huge amount of paperwork and records-keeping
- Excellent communication to work with nurses, specialists, family members, caregivers and others
- Thorough evaluative and observational skills
- Flexibility in updating diagnoses and evaluations to reflect current findings and new available treatments
- Ability to converse with patients kindly and compassionately while explaining disorders and treatments, and answering questions
- Good oratory skills to educate peers and the community about areas of expertise
- An understanding of how neurological study ties in with functional medicine (treating the body right), nutrition, fitness, hygiene and other medical conditions and disorders
Neurologist Salary & Job Outlook
As of May 2022, neurologists earn an average salary of $255,510 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The BLS reports that the highest-paying employers of neurologists are:
- Outpatient care centers: $406,380
- Offices of physicians: $258,100
- General medical and surgical hospitals: $251,590
- Offices of other health practitioners (not including physicians): $188,480
Some neurologists also work for colleges, professional schools, and pharmaceutical companies. However, the BLS doesn’t currently track data for these professionals because so few work outside of traditional clinical settings.
Neurology External Resources and Organizations
2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for neurologists are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed July 2023.