How to Become a Virologist

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Scientists who study viruses to try to understand how they work play a vital role in microbiology and medicine. Their research helps to minimize the spread of infectious diseases and develop vaccines to counteract their effects. A medical virologist works as a physician, treating patients with infectious diseases or working on clinical research. A scientific virologist typically works only in research. Both require extensive education with some major differences.

Start With a Bachelor's Degree

  • You need a bachelor's degree to start on your career path to become a clinical or a scientific virologist. You won't typically major in virology at an undergraduate level, but you will focus on the sciences. According to the American Society for Virology, biology and chemistry are the most common majors. Useful electives, meanwhile, include biochemistry, microbiology, cell biology and immunology. Plan to take the medical college admission test or the graduate record examination, depending on the career path you choose.

Medical School or Graduate School

  • A clinical virologist follows the traditional medical school path for four years after completing undergraduate studies. As a scientific virologist, you'll typically join a Ph.D program for four to six years, combining coursework, lab rotations and research. Some medical schools offer a joint MD and Ph.D qualification. This usually splits a regular med school program into two sets of two years, with as many as four years of Ph.D study in between.

Residency and Post-Doctoral Training

  • If you've taken the medical training route, you must complete a residency before you can practice as a physician. This usually lasts for three years. The American Society for Virology notes that internal medicine and pediatrics are the most common residency choices for virologists. After this, you'll spend three to five years in post-doctoral research training. If you've taken the scientific route, you'll do the same post-doctoral training once you've earned your Ph.D. Physicians in virology must obtain a medical license. This involves passing the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination and meeting any state-specific requirements. Scientific virologists don't have to meet any licensing or certification criteria.

Virology Salaries

  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics includes virologists in its microbiologist classification. According to its data, the average annual salary in this field in 2013 was $75,230. Results from "The Scientist" magazine's 2013 salary survey gave a higher average salary of $79,582 a year for virology professionals. Clinical virologists may command higher salaries. For example, the average starting salary for physicians specializing in infectious disease was $158,000 a year, according to the Profiles 2013-2014 Physician Salary Survey. Virologists work in hospitals, clinics and labs; for pharmaceutical companies; and at schools and colleges.

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