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How to Become an Immunologist

May 30, 2022
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Should I Become an Immunologist?Immunologist SalaryHow Long Does It Take to Become an ImmunologistStep by Step: How to Become an ImmunologistHow to Become an Immunologist FAQs

”Rohan

Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Chief Resident in Anesthesiology, Weill Cornell Medicine, & Admissions Officer, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/30/22

Wondering if immunology is right for you? How hard is it to become an immunologist? How long does it take? Here we go over everything you need to know about how to become an immunologist.

Allergies have become increasingly common in America. With over 50 million Americans suffering from allergies each year, immunology positions have been on the rise. Although immunology may not be the most popular specialty choice, there are several benefits to the position including job security and stability.  

If you’re in the process of deciding whether or not immunology is right for you, we’ve got all the information to help. Here we’ll cover a step-by-step guide on how to become an immunologist, including details about the length of the program, salary, and more. 

Let’s get started!

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Should I Become an immunologist?

Before choosing a medical specialty, it is critical to weigh all your options and learn everything you can about the field. Here we cover some of the highlights of a career in immunology.

Daily Life of an Immunologist

So, what does the daily life of an immunologist look like? According to Stephen Boag,

Immunology Specialty Registrar at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle, it is challenging to nail down the events of a “typical day.’ 

Many days include a mix of direct clinical work, along with laboratory time, liaison with other specialists, audit and/or research. An average day might begin with a clinic, which will usually include both new and follow-up patients.” states Boag. 

His day continues at the immunology lab. “As a trainee, this often involves hands-on benchtop work, as we need to become competent in the assays used in the immunology laboratory. These include flow cytometry, ELISAs and other immunoassays, immunofluorescence, electrophoresis and functional cellular assays.

Boag’s day ends by finishing up some lab work, taking a look at results, and heading home for the evening. “Before I finish for the day, I may have some results authorization to undertake. This involves reviewing any abnormal results and if appropriate providing relevant clinical interpretation.”

Benefits of Immunology as a Specialty

Allergy and immunology have multiple benefits as a specialty. For instance, becoming an immunologist is an excellent option for future physicians interested in teaching. Due to the nature of the specialty, immunologists spend a lot of their time teaching patients how to manage their symptoms and informing them of treatment plans. 

“Clinical immunology is a holistic speciality and a close link between clinical practice and research as well as basic science is essential. We're lucky to work often within multidisciplinary teams with other clinicians, clinical and biomedical scientists and academics.

The opportunity to provide a more individualized and less rushed clinical contact with our patients is a bonus.”

  - Dr Dziadzio, Consultant in Immunology and Allergy 

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Immunologist Salary

Salary is an important factor in making your specialty decision. In the case of immunology, the specialty reports a higher than average salary. In 2022, Immunology specialists in the US reported an average salary of $264,100

Table showing immunology salaries by percentage in the US as of 2022
Source: Salary.com

The table above reports immunology salaries by percentage in the US as of 2022. Overall, immunology salaries can range from $213,473 to $351,407 depending on a number of factors, including the location of the position, field experience, and the individual institution.

How Long Does It Take to Become an Immunologist?

Before specializing in allergy and immunology, students are required to complete a four-year bachelor's degree followed by another four years in medical school before moving onto residency and fellowship programs.

It should be noted that becoming an immunologist takes more time than some other specialties because it requires successful completion of a two-year fellowship program. In total, becoming an immunologist takes nine to ten years of education beyond a bachelor’s degree. 

Step-by-Step: How to Become an Immunologist

Follow along with our step-by-step guide on how to become an immunologist. Each step is a necessary part of the process.

Step 1: Decide if Immunology is Right for You

As a medical student or resident, there are many options available to you. Before settling on immunology, make sure to weigh all of the possibilities and consider the pros and cons of each. Ask yourself the following questions to help determine how passionate you are about the program: 

Passion and dedication are required in the field of immunology, so it’s crucial to understand how you feel about it before applying. Speaking to professionals, shadowing, and volunteering in allergy and immunology settings are great experiences that will help you make your decision and look excellent on your pre-med CV.

Step 2: Complete a Bachelor's Degree

Most medical schools in the United States require applicants to have completed a bachelor’s degree. Your major during your bachelor’s doesn’t necessarily matter, as long as you are able to take the necessary prerequisite courses for medical school. The common required courses for medical school are:

Every medical school has unique prerequisite requirements. You should research the requirements for each of your target schools two years before you apply to medical school to give yourself plenty of time to build your course schedule accordingly. Taking the necessary prerequisite courses will also help you prepare for the MCAT.

Step 3: Take the MCAT

Almost every medical school in the United States requires the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) to apply. You should give yourself at least three months to study for the MCAT and several months to retake the test if need be. 

Many students retake the MCAT to ensure their score is competitive. The highest possible MCAT score is 528, while the average MCAT score for entering MD students in the US is 511. To determine if your MCAT score is competitive within the expectations of your target schools, take a look at their class statistics. 

Step 4: Apply for Medical School

Once you’ve completed your prerequisites and taken the MCAT, it’s time to apply for medical school. Most medical schools require the AMCAS application alongside other application materials, including: 

Medical schools also often request a video or in-person interview to make their final decisions. 

Applying for medical school is a long and challenging process. It is crucial to do extensive research on your target schools and put your heart into your application. If you are applying for medical school and are seeking guidance, try setting up a consultation with an academic advisor or an experienced admissions consultant.

Step 5: Complete an MD or DO degree

Once you’ve been accepted into a program, you can complete your DO or MD degree at an accredited osteopathic or allopathic medical school. 

Most medical school programs are four years in length, with the first two years consisting of general science courses and the last two years focusing more on your areas of interest. Students typically spend the last two years of their degree taking courses that are tailored to their interests. 

After your second year, you’ll also take Step 1 of the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE), the first of three licensing exams you’ll need to complete throughout your education. Most students also take Step 2 of the USMLE in their fourth year before moving to residency. 

Step 6: Apply for a Residency in Internal Medicine or Pediatrics

After graduating from medical school and completing steps one and two of the USMLE, you can begin applying to residency programs in either internal medicine or pediatrics. Completing a residency in either one of these specialties will allow you to later attend an allergy and immunology fellowship program upon completion. 

To apply for internal medicine or pediatrics programs, you’ll typically need to complete an ERAS application (unless a program has provided its own separate application). If a residency program is interested in your application, they will most likely ask you for an interview or additional application materials. 

Once you’ve completed all of your interviews (and submitted additional material if necessary), both parties can move on to the matching process. 

Using the National Residency Matching Program (NRMP) system, you can create a rank order list in which you name your target residency programs in order of preference. Once the residency program’s top choices are taken into consideration, the Match pairs each resident with one of the programs on their list. 

Internal medicine residency programs are typically three years in length, while pediatrics programs typically take four years. Of course, you should choose the specialty that best suits your areas of interest and what you are passionate about. 

Step 7: Complete a Residency Program

As mentioned above, to complete an allergy and immunology fellowship, you’ll have to complete a residency in either internal medicine (three years) or pediatrics (four years). After the first year of your internal medicine or pediatrics residency, you will be able to complete the third and final step of your USMLE exam. 

Once you have completed your residency, you’ll need to pass an examination for board certification from either the American Board of Pediatrics (ABP) or the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM).

Step 8: Complete an Allergy and Immunology Fellowship 

Once you’ve made it to your allergy and immunology fellowship program, you can zero in on your specialty and master your craft. Fellowship programs are highly selective educational opportunities for motivated doctors who want to perfect their craft. 

The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) keeps a list of allergy/immunology fellowship programs on its website. 

Use this time to make connections, gain plenty of hands-on experience, and learn as much as you can. Since allergy and immunology fellowships are typically only two years in length, it’s crucial to absorb as much information as possible before moving on to the next phase of your career. 

Once you have completed your allergy and immunology fellowship program, you must pass the board certification exam administered by the American Board of Allergy and Immunology (ABAI). 

Step 9: Obtain a Medical License

By the time you have completed medical school, residency, and your allergy/immunology fellowship, you should have completed every step of the USMLE and two board certification exams. 

However, some US states have separate requirements for licensure and need to verify your documents before granting a medical license. You should apply for state licensure in every state you intend to work in to avoid delays or confusion later on.

FAQs: How to Become an immunologist

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about how to become an immunologist. 

1. Is Immunology a Good Career?

In general, immunology is an excellent career choice for science lovers and doctors who enjoy teaching. Job satisfaction ranges widely, and salary is average for physicians in the US. There is a shortage of immunology specialists in the US, meaning there are plenty of job opportunities within the field as well. 

2. Is an Immunologist a Doctor?

Yes, an immunologist is a doctor who continued training after achieving their MD to become an immunology specialist. 

3. Are Immunologists in demand?

Yes, immunologists are in demand in the US. A recent report from the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) has stated that the United States is currently facing a shortage of immunology specialists. 

They have also stated that this shortage is expected to increase in coming years. For doctors considering entering the field, this may mean there are plenty of job opportunities.

4. Can You Be an Immunologist with a PhD?

You can become an immunologist with a PhD, in which you would focus on academic medicine. A PhD in immunology would allow you to contribute to immunological research, and obtain academic, government agency and non-profit research positions.

Final Thoughts

While considering a career in immunology, it’s essential to understand the level of dedication the specialty requires. Immunology is not the highest paying specialty, and requires more years of education than some other specialties due to the requirement of a fellowship program after residency. 

Immunology fellowships can be highly selective, small, and tough to get into. To have a competitive shot, you should focus on demonstrating a strong passion for allergy and immunology through volunteerism, internships, or extracurricular programs. 

If you’re applying to residency or fellowships to become an immunologist and are looking for assistance, try speaking with an experienced admissions consultant to help craft a stellar application. Good luck!

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