Become a Research Immunologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a research immunologist. Research the education and career requirements, training and licensure information and experience required for starting a career in research immunology. View article »

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  • 1:01 Earn a Bachelor's Degree
  • 2:09 Attend Medical School
  • 3:05 Obtain Licensure
  • 3:43 Finish Residency
  • 4:08 Obtain Fellowship
  • 4:38 Obtain Certification

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Video Transcript

Deciding to Become an Immunologist

Degree Level Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.)
Degree Field Medicine
Licensure and Certification State-issued license is required to practice medicine; specialized certification in immunology required
Experience 2-year residency and 4-year fellowship required
Key Skills Strong communication, leadership skills, organizational skills, and problem-solving skills; attention to detail; patience and empathy; knowledge of human allergies and other issues related to the immune system; dexterity and physical stamina
Salary $166,940 per year (2016 median salary for allergists/immunologists)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Payscale.com, American Board of Allergy and Immunology, American Board of Internal Medicine

Immunologists study the human immune system and immunological disorders. Unlike clinical immunologists, who work directly with patients, research immunologists' careers center on teaching medical students and expanding society's understanding of immune system physiology and pathology. Safety precautions must be carefully followed in the lab to prevent contamination from toxic materials or organisms. Research immunologists must have key skills, such as strong communication skills, leadership skills, attention to detail, organizational skills, problem-solving skills, patience and empathy. More specifically, they must have knowledge of human allergies and other issues related to the immune system. Physically speaking, they must have dexterity and stamina. As of 2016, the median salary for allergists immunologists was $166,940 per year.

Earn a Bachelor's Degree

The first step towards becoming a research immunologist is earning a bachelor's degree and gaining entrance to medical school. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that college students who choose a premedical course of study enroll in courses such as chemistry, biology and mathematics.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), medical schools recruit students who have studied liberal arts and the humanities as well as the sciences, but the organization emphasizes that successful applicants must earn high Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) scores, regardless of their academic backgrounds. This test assesses examinees' knowledge of the physical and biological sciences, as well as their writing and verbal reasoning skills.

Here's a success tip that you should consider when completing this first step. Volunteering at a local hospital or health clinic can help an aspiring immunologist gain hands-on experience working with patients. Volunteering may also help students stand out when applying to medical school programs.

Attend Medical School

The next step in a research immunology career is completing medical school, a process that usually takes four years. The medical school curriculum includes both classroom and practical components, according to the BLS. During their initial two years in medical school, students study subjects such as medical ethics and anatomy. During the last two years, they complete rotations, which are practical experiences in different medical specialties and settings.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) suggested that medical students interested in immunology careers should complete one of their rotations in immunology. The AAAAI says that prospective immunologists might complete a supervised research elective on immunology, and they can gain more experience by compiling a report that outlines a clinical case relevant to immunology.

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Obtain Licensure

All physicians are required to obtain licensure in the state in which they plan to practice medicine. MDs take the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE), while DOs take and the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA). The USMLE is a 3-part exam, and most residency programs require that at least one part be completed before an individual can begin his or her residency training. DOs, however, must complete 1-2 years of residency training before obtaining licensure.

Finish Internal Medicine Residency

The American Board of Internal Medicine's Research Pathway dictates the requirements that medical residents who want to be research physicians must meet. After completing medical school, aspiring research immunologists complete a 24-month residency in internal medicine. After completing the residency, students sit for a certification exam that the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) administers.

Obtain Fellowship

After satisfactorily completing the 24-month internal medicine residency requirement, aspiring immunologists may begin their immunology fellowships. According to ABIM, medical trainees who pursue research careers must complete 12 months of practical training in immunology, followed by 36 months of research training. During the research component of their fellowships, trainees must still devote 20% of their time to working directly with patients in a clinical setting.

Obtain Certification

In addition to completing a medical residency and an immunology fellowship, aspiring research immunologists must pass the certification exam that the American Board of Allergy and Immunology (ABAI) administers. Prior to sitting for the ABAI's exam, examinees must have completed at least 24 months of practical training in immunology. According to the ABIM, medical students pursuing research careers typically take this exam during the sixth year of their residencies.

Here's another success tip you should consider: In order to renew licensure and certification, research immunologists must regularly participate in continuing education opportunities. The AAAAI offers a variety of online and on-site courses covering advanced topics in immunology such as allergen immunotherapy, infant anaphylaxis and occupational asthma. In addition to continuing education, AAAAI provides other resources for professional growth and advancement, such as networking opportunities, industry-related conventions and publications.

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