Become an Immunologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Jan 10, 2020

Immunologists are doctors who provide care relating to the body's immune system, including allergies. Find out how to become an allergist or immunologist, including information on immunologist education requirements and training they need, as well as specifics about immunologist careers.

What Do Immunologists Do?

Clinical immunologists, also referred to as allergists, are doctors who specialize in treating ailments that afflict the body's immune system, which range from everyday allergies to serious diseases like AIDS. Like other doctors, they are highly educated and must go through an extensive period of training and schooling before being allowed to practice on patients. They generally begin with a wider focus, such as internal medicine or pediatrics, before narrowing their specialty to immunology. They might work at hospitals, clinics, or practice independently out of their own office. While it can take a very long time to become an immunologist, they are usually well compensated, with an average salary of $182,438 per year, according to salary data website Payscale.com in 2019.

How to Become an Immunologist/ Allergist

The path to becoming an allergist/immunologist is a long one, however each step along the way is well defined and regulated. This career is best suited to those who are studious, patient, kind, and highly dedicated to their goal.

Step 1: Complete Basic Immunologist Education Requirements

In order to be admitted to medical schools, it is first necessary to complete a four-year bachelor's degree program. While some schools offer pre-medicine undergraduate degrees, it is not necessary to earn a degree in any particular area in order to attend medical school. There are even some online or hybrid pre-med programs which may fit what's required. Students planning to attend medical school should, however, ensure that they have taken coursework in areas related to science and medicine, such as:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Mathematics
  • Psychology

These fields will lay the groundwork for medical school courses, and may cover material that will be tested in entrance exams for medical school.

Step 2: Take the MCAT Examination

The Medical College Admissions Test is the most commonly required entrance exam for medical schools throughout the US. It is a multiple-choice exam put out by the Association of American Medical Colleges, offered regularly to aid in applying for medical schools. You may need to apply to schools both in-state and out-of-state; there are a few medical schools in New Jersey, for example. While not universally required, a high score on the MCAT is critical for admission to a great number of medical schools. The MCAT can be taken multiple times, if needed, and is usually taken the same year that a student plans to begin medical school.

Step 3: Complete Medical School

Coursework essential to an immunologist's education begins once a student starts medical school. Medical students will typically spend their first year performing standard graded coursework, learning about the systems of the body and how to care for patients. Once that is successfully completed, students may begin gaining hands-on experience through clinical rotations, which will allow them to learn about how different specialties operate in the real world. Students may also begin building a specialization of their own through electives. Medical school usually takes 4 years to complete, after which time students graduate and become eligible for residencies.

Step 4: Find a Relevant Residency

Residency programs are used to continue to teach new doctors after their graduation, and are required in order to receive full licensure to practice medicine. They take place in teaching hospitals, where residents work alongside experienced doctors on real patients. Immunology residencies are exceedingly rare, so most aspiring immunologists will need to complete their residency in another area. As noted above, a residency in internal medicine or pediatrics is the most common choice, as their wider area of focus can still allow for relevant education in immunology. Residencies usually last for about 3 years.

Step 5: Complete a Fellowship

Fellowships are additional training which are taken on after completion of a residency, and are used to further hone your skills towards a particular specialty. Immunology fellowships are also quite rare, and often take 2-3 years to finish. Fellowships may include lecture and coursework in addition to clinical rounds where patients are seen. Research is also a common component of fellowships, and it may be necessary to produce research related to immunology over the course of a fellowship.

Step 6: Take the USMLE

With your required allergist schooling nearing completion, the time to take the United States Medical Licensing Examination is at hand. The USMLE is generally taken in 3 portions, with the first two taken during medical school. The final stage of the exam, step 3, is the last step to becoming fully licensed to practice medicine in the US. This exam takes place over 2 days and consists of hundreds of multiple choice questions, separated into blocks by subject, in addition to simulated cases which soon-to-be doctors must solve.

Step 7 (Optional): Become Certified

In addition to licensure, doctors can become certified in their area of specialization. Immunologists must be certified by the American Board of Pediatrics (ABP) or American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM), depending on their chosen residency. Once certification through one of these two organizations has been achieved, an immunologist can receive specialty certification through the American Board of Allergy and Immunology (ABAI). ABAI certification requires completion of at least a 2 year fellowship in immunology, as well as documentation of training and letters of recommendation. An immunologist's career can benefit from this additional certification, as it offers independent verification of a doctor's skills and knowledge.

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