Seven years ago, with the completion of the Human Genome Project, scientists ushered in a new era for research. After sequencing nearly every gene in the human body, they now have a wealth of new tools and information to learn more about humans than ever before.
These new tools have led to great demand for behavioral geneticists, who work to decipher the intricate ways that the environment and genes interact to influence human behavior and cause disease. A couple of decades ago, twin sets and large families were the only way to explore the role of genes in such complex human traits as intelligence. Today, researchers also have silicon chips and powerful sequencing machinery that allow them to conduct sophisticated searches for the multitude of genetic variants that may influence a single trait. They can even look at the human epigenome, the network of chemical tags that control gene expression.
The ways that behavior, genes and environment interact are often incredibly complex, but it's an exciting intellectual challenge, and jobs in the field abound, says Michael Neale, PhD, a behavioral genetics professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va.
"Good people are very highly sought after," he adds.
Why it's hot
Behavioral genetics is in the midst of a technological revolution. A decade ago, researchers focused on one or two regions of the genome. With the new DNA chips — thumbnail-size pieces of silicon that allow researchers to assess the presence or absence of given variants — "it's easy to measure a couple of million single base pair changes," Neale says.
The rapidly falling price of these DNA chips means that researchers will soon be able to sequence a person's entire genome for less than $1,000. "Once we can do that, we'll have radically higher power to analyze the inheritance of behavioral and psychological traits," says Geoffrey Miller, PhD, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, who uses behavioral genetics methods in his research. That means researchers will have a better chance of uncovering rare variants and copy number variants associated with given behavioral traits or psychological disorders.
With these powerful new tools, behavioral geneticists are on the cusp of revolutionizing our understanding of human personality and intelligence and figuring out which genes influence our risk for mental illnesses. That's attracting the attention of major funders, including the National Institutes of Health. Since 2000, the NIH's Center for Scientific Review has had a study section devoted to reviewing behavioral genetics grant applications. In a commentary in the May 19 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, National Institute of Mental Health Director Thomas Insel, MD, and co-author Philip Wang, MD, DrPH, emphasized the importance of genetics and epigenetics in understanding the biological basis for mental illnesses.
The field is heating up in more quantifiable ways as well. Although the number of submissions to the journal Behavior Genetics increased only slightly last year, the journal's impact continues to rise: The number of PDF downloads, for example, climbed from 66,362 in 2008 to 105,222 in 2009, according to Janice Stern, the journal's publishing editor at Springer Science + Business Media.
What you can do
Most psychologists who work in behavioral genetics end up in academia. According to Michael Stallings, PhD, a professor at the University of Colorado's Institute for Behavioral Genetics in Boulder, 75 percent of the PhDs who have graduated with certificates in behavioral genetics from his institute have found jobs in universities.
Within academia, options abound. "This area of research spans so many different areas and disciplines," says Danielle Dick, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University who conducts behavioral genetics research. She has received job offers from programs in clinical psychology, general psychology, developmental psychology and genetics.
Many behavioral geneticists hope to learn more about the complex relationship between genes and addiction. But researchers are also trying to answer questions related to development, personality, cognition, language acquisition, music ability and much more. Behavioral geneticists also search for genetic variants linked to such complex diseases as Alzheimer's, childhood obesity, Type 2 diabetes and schizophrenia.
Some behavioral geneticists find jobs in the private sector, often at drug companies that are trying to use genotyping to identify people who are likely to respond well to drugs. Genome-testing companies, such as 23andMe, are also interested.
In the future, behavioral geneticists may even work in clinical settings. Once researchers have a better understanding of how genes influence addiction risk or mental health, genetic counselors may be able to offer families guidance.
Salaries vary widely by location and experience, but an informal survey of experts in the field yielded the following ranges: Postdocs earn anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000 a year. Assistant professors typically make in the $60,000 to $80,000 range. Those who go on to become associate professors can make $80,000 and up. Full professors can "wind up north of $200,000, if you're doing well," Neale says.
According to APA's 2010 annual salary survey, assistant professors in doctoral psychology departments earned a median salary of $63,000, associate professors earned $72,000 and full professors brought in $104,300.
Not surprisingly, salaries tend to be higher in the private sector. One of Stallings's students went on to work for a drug company. Five years out of graduate school, she's earning $100,000 a year.
How to get there
A few institutions offer graduate training in behavioral genetics. At the University of Colorado–Boulder, for example, students can earn a certificate in behavioral genetics in addition to their psychology degree. Researchers like Neale and Dick at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, part of Virginia Commonwealth University, also accept graduate students through a variety of departments.
However, any psychology doctoral degree can lay the foundation for a career in behavioral genetics. But be sure to take courses in neuroscience and genetics on top of your required psychology classes, Stallings says. Also, pay attention in your advanced math and statistics classes. "It's one of these areas where your ability to prove your statistical aptitude is sort of a requirement for entry into the field," Miller says.
After graduating, most budding behavioral geneticists seek additional research experience as a postdoc in a behavioral genetics lab. Collecting DNA may be simple these days, but it's only the first step. "You have to really understand gene function and gene structure to interpret your results," Dick says.
Because there are only a handful of such labs, competition for postdoctoral positions can be fierce. Stand out by having strong publications, math skills and perhaps even computer programming expertise, says Stallings. It also helps to network at the annual Behavior Genetics Association meeting, he adds.
Pros and cons
Like to work in teams? Then behavioral genetics may be a good choice for you. "This is big science," Miller says. "It's not something you can do effectively as a solo researcher." So, be prepared to have your name appear next to 12 others when you publish. Another plus: Behavior genetics papers tend to end up in high-profile journals, Miller says, and a Science or Nature paper looks pretty good on your curriculum vitae.
Another advantage to the field is that behavior geneticists tend to work with large data sets, which provide researchers with a lot of statistical power, allowing them to come to less ambiguous conclusions.
Once you've published your findings, however, they may be hotly debated. "People are still sometimes uncomfortable with finding that particular psychological traits are influenced by genes," Miller says. Also, because the studies are often extremely technical, explaining your work to the public and the media can be challenging. A given behavior might be linked to dozens of genes and have an environmental component, as well, says Neale.
For Dick, the pace of discovery makes such frustrations fade into the background. "What we were doing six months ago is different than what we're doing today," she says. "And there are few areas in psychology where you can say that."
Cassandra Willyard is a writer in New York.