Immunologist

The Job and What's Involved

Immunologists are concerned with the body's immune system in both health and disease. They seek to understand how the immune system works in combating disease and what happens when it fails to function properly. This knowledge is used in treating and controlling a range of diseases and disorders. These include allergies, cancer, AIDS, autoimmunity (a condition that occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue), and immunodeficiency (when the body's immune response is reduced or absent).

The work of individual immunologists varies considerably.

Treatment of immunological disorders: The National Health Service (NHS) employs immunologists who are qualified doctors specialising in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the immune system. They provide clinical advice on wards and run dedicated outpatient clinics.

The NHS also employs clinical scientists who specialise as clinical immunologists. They conduct tests on body fluids and tissues to help diagnose, monitor and treat diseases of the immune system. They may also be involved in researching and developing new tests or treatments for immunological diseases.

Some NHS biomedical scientists work in immunology. They investigate abnormalities and disturbances in a patient's immune system. Their work includes tissue typing for tissue grafts and organ transplants.

Research and lecturing: Universities employ immunologists as researchers and lecturers. Researchers work on projects aimed at increasing our understanding of the immune system. They usually develop and manage their own research projects. They are responsible for securing funding from the government, medical charities or industry. They may also become involved in teaching and management in their department.

Lecturers teach students through lectures and practical classes, and spend time on the management of their department. They also conduct research and usually manage and supervise the research of students and other researchers. In addition to securing funding, they are expected to publish their findings in academic journals and deliver papers at conferences.

Product development: Immunologists in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries help to develop new medical products and therapies. They work with other biomedical scientists on research aimed at launching new products, such as diagnostics, improving existing products or production techniques.

Immunologists play an important role in animal health. They develop vaccines to protect animals against diseases and work in veterinary research.

Hours vary between areas of work, but immunologists generally work standard daytime hours from Monday to Friday. Some evening and weekend work may be necessary, with extra hours at busy times.

Doctors who specialise in immunology spend some time on hospital wards and in outpatient clinics. Much of immunologists' work takes place in laboratories, sometimes under sterile conditions. Protective clothing may be worn, including overalls, coats, gloves, masks and safety glasses. Lecturers also work in classrooms and lecture theatres.

Entrants to immunology in the NHS start at around £24,831 a year. With experience, they may earn up to £33,436 a year (plus supplements). Biomedical scientists in the NHS working as immunologists may earn up to £95,333.

In the private sector clinical immunologists may earn up to £100,000. University researchers and lecturers earn between around £30,000 and £60,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

The number of immunologists has grown in recent years. Employers include:

- NHS trusts
- Regional NHS immunology laboratories
- NHS National Blood and Transplant Service
- The Heath Protection Agency
- Universities
- Pharmaceutical companies
- Biotechnology companies
- Government departments, such as the Ministry of Defence

The NHS recruits new clinical immunologist trainees each year through the Clinical Scientists Recruitment Centre.

Job vacancies may be advertised in national newspapers, in publications such as New Scientist and Nature, on the NHS jobs vacancy website www.jobs.nhs.uk and the website of the British Society for Immunology (BSI) www.immunology.org.

Academic research posts are also advertised on websites such as www.jobs.ac.uk and in The Times Higher Education Supplement.

Education and Training

Most immunology posts require a degree in immunology or a related subject, such as:

- Medical microbiology
- Biology
- Biochemistry
- Biomedical science
- Genetics
- Medicine
- Pharmacology

Entry to a relevant degree course usually requires a minimum of two, often three A levels, including appropriate science subjects, plus five GCSE's (A*-C), including English and maths, or equivalent. The Diploma in science may also be relevant.

Chemistry and biology tend to be the most required or preferred A level subjects. Other qualifications may be accepted for entry to degree courses, either on their own or in combination with A levels.

Applicants may be accepted on to degree courses without the usual entry requirements, particularly if they have relevant experience or qualifications. Applicants are advised to check entry requirements with individual universities.

NHS clinical immunologists usually need a first or upper second class honours degree in a relevant subject. Most biomedical scientists enter with a degree in biomedical science with a specialty in immunology.

Some jobs, especially those based in universities, need a postgraduate qualification, such as an MSc or PhD. Posts where a postgraduate qualification is not strictly necessary still tend to attract many applicants with such a qualification.

Doctors who specialise in immunology will have completed a medical degree and specialty training.

It may be possible to enter work as a trainee in a pathology laboratory with science A levels or equivalent and many employers will offer support to gain further qualifications. Entrants gain experience of laboratory work and study part time for a degree to pursue a career at a more senior level. In practice, however, most employers recruit graduates to fill technician posts.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

NHS clinical immunologists begin as clinical scientist trainees. Training lasts two to three years and combines study for an appropriate qualification with on-the-job learning. After at least four years in a training post, it is possible to apply for registration with the Health Professions Council. Biomedical scientists are trained on the job by their employers.

Immunologists employed by universities normally work towards a PhD, if they do not already have such a qualification.

Employers in industry often run their own in-house training and support their staff in attending meetings and conferences.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

An immunologist should:

  • Have a high level of ability in science.
  • Be good at solving problems.
  • Have a logical mind.
  • Be able to work methodically and keep meticulous records of research.
  • Be patient, as research projects can take several years.
  • Be able to work independently and as part of a team.
  • Be able to use initiative.
  • Have excellent communication skills, particularly if working as a lecturer.

Your Long Term Prospects

The NHS has a clearly defined career structure. Doctors may become consultants. Clinical immunologists may progress to managing a large department or major departmental section. Biomedical scientists may be promoted to being in charge of a section within a laboratory or managing a department. Others go on to more specialist laboratory work.

In universities, there may be promotion from researcher to lecturer, and then to higher grades, such as senior lecturer, professor or head of department.

In industry, promotion may be possible to management roles.

Immunologists may move into related work. This includes scientific writing and publishing, and patent work. It also includes working for the biotechnology industry in areas such as quality assurance and control, or sales, finance or management.

It may be possible to work overseas.

Get Further Information

The Association for Clinical Biochemistry,
130-132 Tooley Street, London SE1 2TU
Tel: 020 7403 8001
Website: www.acb.org.uk and www.science4u.info/virtuallab

British Society for Immunology,
Vintage House, 37 Albert Embankment,
London SE1 7TL
Tel: 020 3031 9800
Website: www.immunology.org

Institute of Biomedical Science,
12 Coldbath Square,
London EC1R 5HL
Tel: 020 7713 0214
Website: www.ibms.org

NHS Careers (England),
PO Box 2311, Bristol BS2 2SX
Tel: 0345 606 0655
Website: www.nhscareers.nhs.uk

Skills for Health, 2nd Floor,
Goldsmiths House, Broad Plain,
Bristol BS2 0JP
Tel: 0117 922 1155
Website: www.skillsforhealth.org.uk

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