Immunology is an area of biomedical science that focuses on conditions involving the immune system, and it is one of the few specialties requiring training in both adult and pediatric medicine. Immunologists research, diagnose, and treat patients with such diverse conditions as allergies, autoimmune diseases, some types of cancer, and transplant rejection, to name a few.
When considering the possibility of becoming an immunologist, it is important to understand the differences between clinical immunologists and research immunologists. Those who desire to practice medicine and interact with patients choose a career in clinical immunology, while research immunologists prefer to work in a laboratory or teach in a classroom. Although there are some commonalities, each type of immunologist has a specific career path.
A strong background in biology or chemistry is important for anyone considering a career as an immunologist. In high school, appropriate college prep and Advanced Placement (AP) courses would provide a good foundation, but a later start is no reason to worry.
Anyone interested in becoming an immunologist should attend a college or university with a strong science department. A Bachelor’s degree, preferably a B.S. in biology or chemistry, is preferred and will take approximately four years to complete.
As physicians, practicing clinical immunologists have attended medical school. Therefore, those who want to become clinical immunologists should take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and begin applying to medical schools accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME). Most medical schools in the United States require MCAT scores less than three years old.
Medical school consists of both classroom and clinical work and generally takes four years to complete. Graduates must then complete a residency program. For aspiring immunologists, the residency should be in either internal medicine or pediatrics. This will take three years, after which it will be necessary to pass the American Board of Allergy and Immunology exam. A fellowship in allergy and immunology is the next step and is acquired through the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. This will take two to three years.
For those who prefer a career in research immunology, it may be possible to get by with a Bachelor’s degree. However, it is best to continue with graduate school, and a PhD in immunology is preferable and will enable them to teach or work in research. In addition, many schools offer dual MD/PhD programs for aspiring research immunologists who desire the same training as clinical immunologists. Research immunologists attend conferences, read trade journals, and belong to professional associations in order to keep up with the latest developments. They also have to publish regularly in order to maintain a strong reputation in their field.
In addition to strong grades and an aptitude for biomedical sciences, a career as an immunologist requires attention to detail, critical thinking, patience, and the ability to work well with others. Those interested in a career in immunology should decide as early as possible which type of work they would prefer so that they can follow the appropriate career path.