Immunologists work to diagnose, manage and stamp out unwanted, annoying and often harmful immune disorders. Some immunologists work in the background, hidden from patients whose ailments their research might one day cure. Others fix up treatment plans for patients, and still others teach students the ins and outs of immunology. Whatever career path you'd like to focus on, your focus will first be on years and years of schoolwork.
If you're a people person, then you'll probably enjoy the clinical side of immunology. Clinical immunologists work with patients directly to diagnose and treat the nasty disorders that are causing them trouble, from the common, such as allergies and asthma, to the less common, such as lupus and primary immunodeficiency disease. Put on the clinical immunologist's white coat and you'll have the opportunity to work in hospitals, clinics, community health centers and your own or another doctor's private practice. A few of your daily duties, aside from the paperwork, will likely include performing allergy tests, administering allergy shots, ordering blood tests, prescribing medications and talking to patients about the importance of managing their disorders.
Treatments and ways in which to diagnose immune disorders don't grow on trees. Immunology researchers give birth to them through years of intensive research, finding out what works, what doesn't, how certain disorders come to be and why they're difficult to treat. Research branches off into two categories: clinical research and bench research. Through observing patients, talking to them, doing group studies and conducting surveys, clinical immunology researchers gain lots of data that gives them insight into the whys and hows of immune disorders and their treatments. For instance, by conducting a group study of patients with asthma, you might find certain lifestyles reduce asthma problems more than others. Bench research replaces people with things like pipettes, Bunsen burners, test tubes, Petri dishes and microscopes. Sure, these objects might be inanimate and have no personality, but through using them alongside human cells, viruses, bacteria and model organisms, like test mice, and even chemicals, you can find breakthroughs in treatments and diagnoses. Researchers can work at hospitals, universities, private companies or for the government.
Until robots replace people, professors will be in demand. Teaching immunology at a university can be rewarding if you enjoy passing down your knowledge to students and helping them prepare for a career of their own. Generally, if you teach at a research university, the school will expect you to conduct research as well. But you can also share clinical duties and see patients, so long as you hold a doctorate of medicine or doctorate of osteopathic medicine. That's true of all career choices for immunologists -- clinical immunologists can conduct research and teach, and research immunologists can see patients and teach.
Becoming One and Salary Information
Hopefully, you enjoy education, because becoming an immunologist means you'll be hitting the books for years to come. To teach or conduct research, you can earn your doctorate of philosophy in immunology. To become a clinical immunologist, you must graduate from an allopathic or osteopathic medical school, complete a residency program in pediatrics or internal medicine, complete a fellowship in immunology and become board certified. Dual MD-PhD programs also exist. Once you become an immunologist, you'll likely receive a handsome paycheck. No recent salary data exists, but the National Institutes of Health noted that the median income for immunologists in 2008 was $166,400 per year.
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