Become an Immunologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become an immunologist. Research the education and career requirements, licensure information and experience required for starting a career in immunology.

Should I Become an Immunologist?

Immunologists are physicians who study the functions and disorders of the immune system, including asthma, allergies, arthritis, lupus, and Crohn's disease. Career paths include direct patient care or research of diagnoses and treatment options. Physicians who provide hands-on care can work long hours; daytime, evening, night, weekend, holiday, and on-call shifts are common. Some doctors balance this commitment by choosing to work in a place where medical responsibilities are shared, such as in a hospital or group practice.

Immunologists who operate their own solo medical practices may have more control over their schedule but must also be business savvy with regard to topics like business operations, health information technology, and marketing. Physicians willing to work in rural and low-income areas may have better employment prospects. There are also opportunities to sub-specialize in this field, such as immunologists whom choose to work with children in pediatrics. Such physicians may focus on common ailments for minors such as allergies, chicken pox, and other common childhood illnesses. Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not acquire salary info for immunologists specifically, below you can find general salary info for all physicians.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctor of Medicine (MD) required
Degree Field Any undergraduate major
Experience 3 year residency, 2-3 year fellowship
Licensure and Certification State license required, board certification optional
Key Skills Strong verbal/written communication, empathy, problem-solving
Computer Skills Medical software for managing patient charts
Salary (2015) $165,640 (median for allergist-immunologists)

Sources: American Medical Association, New England Journal of Medicine, Payscale.com

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Although some schools offer pre-med programs, there is no undergraduate program specifically required for admission to medical school. For students to successfully pass the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), however, it's recommended that they take courses in chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, biology, math, and writing. In addition to being necessary for the MCAT, these courses may be required by some medical schools for admission. Students are also expected to take courses in social sciences to build a comprehensive body of knowledge.

Success Tip:

  • Volunteer. Volunteer work at a local hospital, nursing home, or clinic provides experience in a healthcare setting. It's also looked upon favorably by medical school admissions committees, and could provide an edge in the highly competitive medical school admissions process.

Step 2: Earn a Medical Degree

In the first two years of medical school, students spend time in both classroom and lab, learning about human body systems, disease, pharmacology, medical ethics, as well as skills such as patient examinations. For the second two years, students complete clinical rotations and have an opportunity to diagnose and treat patients under the supervision of a licensed physician. Rotations can include general medicine, family medicine, and pediatrics.

Success Tip:

  • Begin taking the licensing exam early. The United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) is the three-part exam that most doctors need to obtain a medical license. Many students take parts of the USMLE after their second year of medical school. They often take part two after their final year of medical school. In some states, individuals may be required to pass parts one and two to obtain a residents' license.

Step 3: Complete a Residency

Immunologists usually do a residency in internal medicine or pediatrics. During the residency, they will have an opportunity to complete an immunology rotation that focuses on disorders of the immune system. A large component of such a rotation includes intensive, supervised lab work to learn immunological testing methods and interpretation of clinical results. Residents may also be required to provide oral and/or written immunology reports during class or conferences.

Step 4: Complete a Fellowship

A fellowship in immunology generally lasts three years. Residents have a chance to see patients with immunological disorders and diseases under the supervision of a licensed physician. They may also delve into a specialized area such as rheumatology or allergies. In addition, residents might be able to participate in immunology-related research.

Step 5: Obtain a Medical License

Once individuals have completed their studies and training, they become eligible to obtain a license from their state's health board or similar governing body. The minimum requirements include medical training, a medical degree, and passing the USMLE. Since requirements vary by state, applicants may be required to take additional training such as in the identification of child abuse.

Step 6: Become Board Certified

Physicians who have earned a medical degree, completed medical training, and obtained a license become eligible to take certification exams. Immunologists must be certified by the American Board of Pediatrics (ABP) or the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) as a prerequisite for being certified by the American Board of Allergy and Immunology (ABAI). Additional requirements for the ABAI certification include a 2-year fellowship in an immunology or allergy program and passing a qualifying exam.

Step 7: Earn Continuing Education Credits

To maintain both a license and certification, physicians must earn a minimum number of continuing education credits. Different states vary in their requirements. To maintain immunology certification, the ABAI requires 25 credits per year in addition to periodic assessment exams. Immunologists also have to maintain certification for the ABP or the ABIM. Continuing education credits can be earned by attending seminars, watching/participating in webcasts, or publishing articles.

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