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Become a Virologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a virologist. Research the job description, education requirements, and pros and cons of this career. Read on to find out how to start a career in virology.

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Should I Become a Virologist?

Virologists study viruses that affect humans, animals, insects, bacteria, fungi, and plants in community, clinical, agricultural, and natural environments. Virologists typically work in research or teaching, and many split their time between these two activities. Virologists may also work as science writers or pursue additional training to work in pharmaceutical business or law. Researchers may be employed by universities, government agencies, or health organizations. Some virologists work in industry research and develop new medications.

Medical doctors focusing on virology may carry out clinical research or work with patients afflicted with viruses. Virology researchers work under a broad range of issues including viral pathology, viral oncology, emerging viruses, virotherapy, viral replication, virus-cell interactions, and plant virology.

Because virologists work with infectious microorganisms, there is a small risk of illness, but preventative measures minimize that risk. Virologists work in office and laboratory settings, though a few may take samples in the field. Virologists, like other microbiologists, work on a full-time basis and usually collaborate with other scientists.

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Career Requirements

Degree Level M.D. and/or Ph.D. with postdoctoral training
Degree Field Virology, molecular virology, viral oncology, immunology
Licensure Virologists with M.D. degrees must earn medical licenses
Experience 3-5 years postdoctoral research experience
Key Skills Observation, communication, analysis, critical thinking, reasoning, problem solving, perseverance, scientific and medical software, which may include: BD Biosciences CellQuest, Protein Explorer, Computer Service & Support CLS-2000 Laboratory System, Orchard Software Orchard Harvest LIS, TreeView, and Verity Software House ModFit LT, laboratory equipment and tools, which may include: air samplers or collectors, infrared spectrometers, analyzing equipment, and sterilizing equipment
Salary (2014) $187,199 was the median for various types of physicians and surgeons; $67,790 was the median for microbiologists

Sources: American Society for Virology, Virology doctoral and postdoctoral programs, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ONet Online

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Virology is not typically offered as a bachelor's degree major. Because a strong science background is essential, most aspiring virologists major in biology, chemistry, or a related science as undergraduates. Coursework that includes organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, biology, cell biology, biochemistry, microbiology, physics, mathematics, English, humanities, and social science can prepare students for graduate degree programs in virology.

Success Tips:

  • Gain experience working in a lab environment. Though students will likely have the opportunity to work in the lab during their degree program, they should also pursue any available research opportunities. Many schools have resources that match students up with potential internships. Students can also search job boards and other online resources for openings.
  • Work closely with mentors. Undergraduate students may want to gain research experience and form strong relationships with their research mentors, since letters of recommendation are commonly required for admission to graduate school.
  • Develop interpersonal and communication skills. Virologists typically work on research teams in their doctoral programs as well as in their professional careers. Aspiring virologists can benefit by polishing these skills as undergraduates through writing and speech classes.
  • Take time to research graduate schools before applying. It's important for students to review numerous virology graduate training options to find programs with professors and coursework that match with their research interests. For example, someone interested in cancer virology would probably not want to apply to a program with faculty who primarily study viruses affecting agricultural crops.

Step 2: Take Graduate School Entrance Exams

Medical schools require applicants to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Virology Ph.D. programs may require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

Success Tip:

  • Take a GRE subject exam. Virology graduate program admissions committees may favor individuals who complete a relevant subject test in chemistry, biology, or molecular biology.

Step 3: Complete Doctoral or Medical Training

In general, Ph.D. programs in virology, immunology, or a relevant field take 4-6 years to complete and are very research oriented. During the first year, students usually take science courses such as cell biology, virology, bacteria structure, prokaryotic and eukaryotic genetics, immunology and cancer biology, as well as complete lab rotations. Laboratory work and research for the dissertation become intensive in the second year. Qualifying exams and teaching experience are typically required in the second or third year, and the rest of the time is devoted to researching and writing the dissertation. Possible research areas include environmental virology, parasitology, pediatric viral infections, HIV vaccination development, and cancer suppression techniques.

For those taking the medical school route, their first two years are focused on coursework and lab work covering topics like anatomy, pharmacology, and biochemistry. The last two years are characterized by clinical rotations throughout major medical departments including pediatrics, surgery, and family medicine.

Success Tip:

  • Take advantage of career services. Doctoral programs may coordinate virology career workshops and career fairs. They may also provide career advising services to help students figure out their career paths.
  • Obtain a dual M.D./Ph.D. Dual Ph.D. and M.D. degree programs may interject Ph.D. work in the middle of the typical course of medical school. After the first two years of medical and science classes, dual-degree students may spend several years taking academic virology courses and performing research before completing medical school clinical work.

Step 4: Complete Postdoctoral Research Training

Graduates from medical school must complete additional residency requirements that usually last three years. Aspiring virologists often complete their residencies in pediatrics or internal medicine.

Individuals who want to work in virology research are typically required to complete an additional 3-5 years of postdoctoral research training, often called a fellowship, after graduating from Ph.D. programs or completing their medical residencies. In addition to carrying out research in their area of interest, postdoctoral students attend research retreats, seminars, and symposiums to learn additional skills to succeed as researchers, such as teaching and presentation skills. Fellows are typically required to participate in a journal club to share research findings. They may also elect additional graduate courses in virology topics or take a grant writing course.

Step 5: Earn a Medical License

Virologists with M.D. degrees must be licensed in order to work as clinical virologists. After completing medical school and residency requirements, they must pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) tests. States may have additional requirements. The license must be renewed periodically, requiring continuing education and professional development activities.

Step 6: Continue Education

Virology is an ever-expanding field with new developments that can cause drastic changes. Therefore, it is essential to remain apprised of advances in research. Organizations such as the Pan American Society for Clinical Virology (PASCV) and the American Society for Virology (ASV) are good organizations to look into regarding seminars, symposiums, and networking opportunities.

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