Not all superheroes wear capes – some don lab coats instead. Whenever there's an outbreak of a deadly virus like Ebola or H1N1, virologists are on the front lines in the fight to stop the spread and cure affected people. Even if a virologist never works directly with patients, he or she will have to spend years becoming an expert on all things related to viruses because the virologist training requirements are demanding. It's a high-stakes and ever-changing field, so virologists have to be ready.
Virologists specialize in all things related to viruses. Many virologists work purely on research (rather than seeing patients), studying strains of viruses from HIV and hepatitis to smallpox and dengue. Some virologists work in vaccine research, creating and testing new drugs to combat the effects of deadly viruses. Others work as medical doctors and consult with patients who have contracted viruses. Still others work in academia, teaching students about virology and conducting original research.
This field isn't just about the study of viruses in humans. Some virologists specialize in viruses that affect animals or plant life, or those that are spread by insects or through food.
Like with other medical and scientific specialties, the path to becoming a virologist includes many years of formal education. Start your virologist education by obtaining a bachelor's degree in a life sciences field like biology or biochemistry.
The next step is a graduate program. Depending on what area of virology a student wants to enter, he might pursue a Ph.D. (to become a scientific researcher) or attend medical school to become a physician. Some students opt for a master's degree instead, or attend a joint M.D./Ph.D. program. After completing schoolwork, a virologist often completes a fellowship or other extensive training program, which will typically take several years. But again, whether or not that step is necessary depends on the person's chosen career path.
Although the specialty seems small from the outside, the virology field offers a range of career paths. Some virologists do field research and focus on specific virus types or strains, traveling to affected areas for long periods of time. Others do laboratory research, work in academia or are employed by federal or local governments. Virologists may also work for medical companies that are designing or testing vaccines, or work in hospitals and clinics where they consult on cases as needed.
Years of Experience and Salary
Because the field is small compared to other medical and scientific specialties, virologist salary information isn't widely available. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that microbiologists – a category that includes virologists – earned a median salary of $69,960 per year, or $33.64 per hour, as of May 2017. However, virologists who work as medical doctors or in academia may earn dramatically different salaries than those who work in government-funded or privately-funded research. For example, the BLS reported that the median salary for physicians was $208,000 or higher, as of May 2017.
Like in many fields, salary is typically dependent on experience in virology.
Job Growth Trend
Unfortunately for aspiring virologists looking for job security, the BLS doesn't track the field's growth or make predictions for its future. However, all microbiologist fields are projected to grow 8 percent between 2016 and 2026, which is around the average rate across all industries.