I’m contacted periodically by those who think neuromarketing would be an interesting career, and want to get in on the ground floor. At the moment, it’s difficult to steer these individuals (usually college students), because there are no well-defined job descriptions or career paths. Indeed, a quick search of the bazillion jobs listed at Monster.com showed zero listings containing the term “neuromarketing”, and only three biomedical industry jobs contained both “neuroscience” and “marketing”. ScienceCareers.org has published an interesting and reasonably accurate perspective on careers in neuromarketing.

The ScienceCareers.org article plays down the immediate career prospects in neuromarketing, noting that much of the action is still in the academic world. They also point out the gulf that exists between academia and business by quoting George Loewenstein of the Decision Sciences Department at Carnegie Mellon University – we don’t doubt that CMU’s founding father, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, would be spinning in his grave if he heard Loewenstein say,

If a graduate student in neuroeconomics ended up in industry, that would be a disappointment. The reality is that when you do marketing, you are a slave to economic interests, to people who want to promote certain goods and services.

Loewenstein isn’t quite as Marxist as that makes him sound – we’ve reported on his groundbreaking neuroeconomics research several times. He even did an interview with us – see The Pain of Buying. And while his views are common enough in academia, some other profs seem hell-bent on cashing in on their neuroscience expertise.

So what should one who believes in neuromarketing as a future career path do? It seems to me that there are two paths likely to develop, and the correct choice depends on the individual’s interests and strengths.

Science-based Careers. A student with a strong scientific bent can certainly get in on the ground floor of neuromarketing and neuroeconomics by pursuing an advanced degree in neuroscience at an institution that is engaged in such research. (An interdisciplinary program like CMU’s Social and Decision Sciences department might be even better. I expect to see formal neuroeconomics programs before neuromarketing programs – pursuing neuroeconomics would be as close to a neuromarketing degree as one can get.) An undergrad degree in neuroscience would probably be a good foundation, but to get into the serious hands-on brain scan studies and the like enrolling in an advanced degree program is almost certainly necessary. If neuromarketing takes off, then grad students (or newly minted PhDs) with direct experience in designing and analyzing brain scan studies will be in demand. At some schools, there may already be opportunities for grad students to work in professor-led business ventures.

Marketing-based Careers. Not everyone is cut out to slog through four years of undergrad science and math, and many more years as a grad student/lab rat. Students who are more geared to the business side of things might pursue an undergrad degree appropriate for business. That might be a business or economics major at some schools, or even a more communication-oriented liberal arts degree like English. I’d highly recommend loading up on psychology courses as a minor or concentration, perhaps picking up some neuroscience coursework along the way. As neuromarketing develops, both advertising firms, the advertisers themselves, and boutique neuromarketing agencies will have a need for individuals who are primarily marketers and business people, but can communicate with the neuroscientists. Being able to understand and criticize proposed studies and their results will be important skills. Particularly for students without an undergraduate business degree, an MBA will provide some of the additional quantitative grounding and business strategic thinking that will be helpful in managing research.

At this point, of course, neuromarketing career opportunities are speculative, to say the least. Focusing on a particular technology might prove unproductive – fMRI gets most of the press now, for example, but it’s possible that other brain activity measurement techniques might prove more productive for marketing purposes in the future. My advice for prospective neuromarketers starting their college careers is not much different than the advice I’d offer to students interested in other fields: get a solid undergrad degree in a field that you enjoy, take diverse courses to broaden your knowledge and resume, and try to affiliate yourself with activity in your field of interest by volunteering, summer internships, etc. At the end of your undergrad education, with any luck you’ll have a better understanding of potential careers via first-hand exposure, and will be well-equipped either to continue in your original direction or pursue different opportunities. Trying to guess what career will be “hot” four years or more in the future is a fool’s errand. Focus on what you like and enjoy, attend a school that will provide a transforming undergrad experience and both breadth and depth of knowledge, and you’ll be well equipped for even an uncertain future.

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