Virologist: Salary, Job Description & Education Requirements

This article describes the general duties a virologist undertakes and which educational and training steps should be followed to become a virologist. You can also find salary and job outlook information for this profession. Schools offering Biology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Virologist Career Information at a Glance

Scientists who study viruses such as chicken pox, HIV and Ebola are known as virologists. Virologists tend to work as either physicians who treat patients with infectious diseases or medical research scientists who work on developing antiviral drugs and vaccines. The key requirements and career information for budding virologists are summarized in the table below.

Degree Required BS, MD and/or PhD
Education Field of Study Biology, immunology, molecular/viral oncology
Training Required Residency required (usually three years) to practice as a physician; Postdoctoral training required (three to five years) for both physicians and medical researchers
Key Skills Strong interest in science, analytical thinking skills, proficiency in using specific medical technology and IT, strong interpersonal skills, ability to stay calm under pressure
Licensure Physicians must obtain a medical license
Job Growth (2016-2026)* 13% (Medical scientists); 11% (Physicians and surgeons, all other)
Median Salary (2017)* $82,090 (Medical scientists), $211,390 (Physician and surgeons, all other)

Source: *U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Does a Virologist Do?

Virologists are medical professionals who seek to understand viruses. They diagnose, characterize and attempt to prevent viral infections. A day in the life of a virologist could be spent advising medical staff across health and government departments or working at a lab bench where they use techniques such as Polymerase Chain Reaction and antibody detection. Investigations also incorporate studies into how infections spread across populations and the environment.

What Undergraduate Education Do I Need to Become a Virologist?

Aspiring virologists need to earn a bachelor's degree in biology or a virology-related science that includes courses in cell biology, biochemistry, microbiology, immunology and molecular biology. Cell biology and biochemistry courses are particularly important. Undergraduate courses that allow students to acquire a background in such areas as epidemiology and sociology could also be useful.

Do I Need a Graduate Degree to Become a Virologist?

For most careers in virology, graduate education is necessary. Upon completion of a bachelor's degree, prospective virologists need to take entrance exams for medical or graduate school. Physician hopefuls should take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), whereas individuals interested in a virology research career often need to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) as part of their application to PhD programs.

Students in medical school focus on theoretical courses for the first two years before embarking on clinical rotations. PhD programs in virology subjects are research focused and usually take 4-6 years to complete. Students are required to complete classes in their first year and undergo lab rotations so they can get an idea of where they would like to carry out their thesis research. Some dual MD/PhD programs exist that allow candidates to acquire both clinical and research training.

What Training Do I Need to Become a Virologist?

Once prospective clinical virologists graduate from medical school, they obtain training over the course of their residencies, which are often undertaken in internal medicine and pediatrics and last three years. Physicians are also advised to complete 3-5 years of postdoctoral research training.

Upon completion of a PhD program it is expected that a prospective virology researcher will also undertake 3-5 years of postdoctoral research in an appropriate institution, usually a university.

What Can I Earn as a Virologist?

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't have salary statistics specific to virologists, it does report that medical research scientists in general earned a median salary of $82,090 as of May 2017. Similarly, the occupational category of physicians and surgeons, all other - into which clinical virologists fall - earned median salaries of $211,390 in the same year.

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