Immunologist Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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Learn about an immunologist's job description, salary and education requirements. Get straight talk about the pros and cons of an immunologist career.
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Pros and Cons of an Immunologist Career

A career in immunology can include researching how the human immune system responds to diseases and treating diseases caused by the immune system's failure. Check out the pros and cons of being an immunologist to help you decide if it's the right career for you.

Pros of Being an Immunologist
Those in the medical field can earn good salaries ($190,000 approximate average annual salary)*
High expected job growth between 2012-2022 (18% for physicians and 13% for medical scientists)*
A variety of work settings (hospitals, universities, laboratories, etc.)*
Opportunity to help people overcome diseases*

Cons of Being an Immunologist
Over eight years of schooling and training*
Admission to medical school is very competitive*
Exposure to blood and other bodily fluids*
Educational costs can be high (86% of 2011 medical school graduates were in debt)**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Association of American Medical Colleges.

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

People with conditions affecting the immune system, such as anaphylaxis, asthma, eczema, allergies, autoimmune disease and immune deficiency diseases, often visit medical immunologists for diagnosis and treatment. Immunologists also manage patients experiencing negative reactions caused by food, drugs and organ transplants. As an immunologist, your duties will include creating treatment plans, administering immunological therapy, coordinating with primary care physicians for follow-up care and performing diagnostic procedures, such as skin allergy tests.

Instead of working as physicians, some immunologists work as research scientists for medical schools, private laboratories and pharmaceutical companies. These immunologists conduct studies aimed at examining the gene and cell interactions necessary for properly functioning immune systems. They also study how the immune system works to remove pathogens in the hopes of improving the success of organ transplants, vaccines and medications used to treat diseases, including cancer.

Salary Information

Since immunology is a subspecialty of internal medicine, medical immunologists are usually classified as internists. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physicians earned average annual salaries of about $190,000 in 2014. Immunologists who conduct research rather than practice medicine may earn lower salaries. The BLS reports that the median annual salary for medical scientists was around $80,000 as of May 2014.

Education and Training Requirements

Medical immunologists begin their careers by taking pre-medical courses (chemistry, biology, mathematics and physics) while earning bachelor's degrees. You'll need a high undergraduate GPA and Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) score to attend medical school. The Association of American Medical Colleges reports that the mean GPA for accepted applicants in 2011 was 3.67, and the mean MCAT score was 31 out of 45. Medical school graduates then complete 3-year residency programs in internal medicine or pediatrics and 2-year fellowships in immunology departments. After training, you're eligible for board certification by the American Board of Allergy and Immunology.

If you're interested in becoming a research immunologist and not a physician, you'll likely need a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). As an undergraduate pursuing a bachelor's degree, you should major in a related field, such as microbiology or biology. After earning a 4-year degree, you'll spend about 4-5 years in graduate school completing a doctoral degree program in immunology. As part of the program, you'll complete lab research and class work in cell biology, biochemistry, biostatistics and genetics. You can also expect to complete a dissertation or thesis.

Useful Skills

In this field, you'll need strong communication skills to interact with patients and other physicians or medical scientists. As an immunologist working directly with patients, you'll need good interpersonal skills and patience for explaining various procedures. The ability to solve problems and make decisions based on research results may also be useful.

What Employers Are Seeking

Employers typically advertise for immunology scientists needed for research positions or physicians board certified in immunology. Job postings for immunologists generally request applicants with doctoral degrees and several years of experience. Below are some examples of immunologist job listings open during May 2012:

  • A research company in California is looking for an immunology scientist with a Ph.D. in a related field, such as molecular biology, pharmacology or immunology. Candidates must have post-doctoral training, strong communication skills, leadership skills and evidence of professional accomplishments. The employer prefers candidates with at least seven years of experience working in pharmaceuticals.
  • A corporation in Wisconsin that produces personal care products seeks an immunologist to be part of a research team. Applicants need Ph.D.s, experience using bioinformatics techniques and knowledge of cell biology and epidermal immunology. The position also requires expertise using laboratory methods, such as microscopy, flow cytometry, immunoblotting and histology.
  • A Seattle, WA, medical center advertised for a physician board certified in immunology to treat both adults and children. Candidates must have 3-5 years of experience practicing medicine in the allergy/immunology field.
  • A hospital in Missouri wants a physician with board certification in internal medicine or pediatrics. Ideal candidates should have clinical experience and an interest in research.

How to Beat the Competition

Immunologists can set themselves apart from other job applicants by familiarizing themselves with the latest research and treatments concerning immune system-related diseases. By joining a professional organization such as the Clinical Immunology Society or the American Association of Immunologists, you can share knowledge and practices with other physicians and researchers. Additionally, you can increase your chances of employment by receiving both research and clinical training in immunology. Medical school graduates can follow the American Board of Internal Medicine's Research Pathway, which requires a 2-year residency in internal medicine, a 2-year fellowship in immunology and three years of research training.

Alternative Career Paths

Immunology Technologist

If your interests are in the medical field, but you don't want the education burden that comes with becoming an immunologist, you have other options. Medical technologists specializing in immunology work in laboratories performing tests concerning the immune system. Technologists are also responsible for training medical technicians, reporting findings to physicians and operating advanced lab equipment. You'll need a bachelor's degree in life sciences or medical technology to become a technologist, according to the BLS. The median annual salary for medical technologists was about $57,000 in May 2011, the BLS reported.

Registered Nurse

You can also help patients without attending medical school and acquiring substantial debt by becoming a registered nurse. Daily duties for nurses include administering medication, composing medical records, performing tests and monitoring a patient's condition. Aspiring nurses must earn bachelor's degrees, associate's degrees or certificates from accredited nursing programs. After earning a degree, you must become licensed by passing the National Council Licensure Examination. The BLS reported that registered nurses earned median annual salaries of approximately $66,000 in May 2011.

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