From the common cold and the flu to Ebola and HIV, viruses have wreaked havoc on immune systems throughout human history -- often resulting in death. Virologists are specialized microbiologists who devote their lives to studying the structure and development of viruses, and their work has led directly to higher recovery and survival rates for those infected. If you dream of studying viruses and contributing to advances in medicine, you'll have to meet some basic requirements before you can call yourself a virologist.
Scientific Virologist Education
You have a few education pathways available to you as an aspiring virologist, and the path you take will depend on your specific career goals. If you're interested in becoming a scientific virologist in an academic environment, you'll start out in a bachelor's program in biology or biochemistry. This will help you build a strong foundation of knowledge in how various organisms function, including viruses. From there, you'll enter a Ph.D. program in virology where your studies will be much more focused on your ultimate career goals. You'll participate in laboratory rotations studying viruses in action, and your studies will result in a research project of your own known as a dissertation. Your graduate training will take roughly four to six years to complete.
Medical Virologist Education
If the medical end of virology is more your fancy, you'll still start out in a biology or biochemistry bachelor's program, but instead of graduate school you'll attend medical school. Your first two years of medical school will be spent in a classroom setting taking courses in anatomy and physiology, pharmacology and other concepts related to medicine. During the final two years, you'll participate in clinical rotations in a real-world medical setting where you'll learn about various specialties in medicine, such as psychiatry, cardiology, pediatrics and obstetrics. While it may not seem like these specializations have anything to do with virology, the experience in medicine you'll gain will greatly benefit your future career pursuits. At the end of the program, you'll officially be a Doctor of Medicine, or M.D.
Regardless of which educational path you choose, you'll have to undergo specialized training in virology beyond your degree after graduation. Virologists with a Ph.D. typically participate in three to five years of postdoctoral research training in a laboratory setting alongside an experienced mentor. Virologists with an M.D. usually complete a three-year residency in internal medicine followed by three to five years of postdoctoral research training.
Licensure and Certification
If you choose to become a scientific virologist, you don't have to earn any special certifications or obtain any kind of license. If you're planning to become a medical virologist, however, you'll need to obtain a state-issued license to practice medicine. Requirements vary by state, but usually include completing medical school, participating in an approved residency and passing a licensing examination.