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What is an Immunology Degree?
In the broad sense, immunology is the field of biology which studies the immune system, also known as the body’s defense system. In medical terms, immunology is the subspecialty of internal medicine which deals with both the normal and abnormal functioning of the immune system.
Immunologists work with adult and pediatric patients suffering from common diseases such as asthma, food and drug allergies, immune deficiencies, and diseases of the lung. Their responsibilities in laboratory-based work involve conducting original medical research and experiments and developing new treatments, therapies, or vaccines to control infections and illnesses.
Students who wish to become a clinical immunologist earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) Degree and complete a residency in internal medicine or pediatrics as well as a fellowship in immunology. Those who wish to pursue a career in immunological research typically do not attend medical school and instead earn a Ph.D. in the field. Regardless of the educational route they take, aspiring immunologists will play key roles in the fight against diseases from the common cold to the deadliest of cancers.
- The traditional route to a degree in immunology starts with a two-step process involving completion of a bachelor’s degree program followed by applications and admission to medical school.
- The alternative to the traditional program is called a combined program. The majority of bachelor’s / MD programs – which are limited in number – allow high school students to go right from undergraduate studies to the medical school curriculum, removing the stresses of traditional medical school admissions. For details, please read our Medicine Degree overview.
- Scientific research immunologists, who do not diagnose and treat patients, are generally required to have a Ph.D. instead of a medical degree.
The Traditional Program
Bachelor’s Degree in Any Discipline – Four Year Duration
While they must hold a bachelor’s degree to apply for medical school, aspiring immunologists do not have to earn their degree in a specific discipline. However, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), they are most likely to earn a bachelor’s in a major from these areas:
- Biological Sciences
- Social Sciences
- Physical Sciences
- Mathematics / Statistics
Regardless of their chosen undergrad major, students planning to attend medical school must meet med school admission requirements, which typically include:
- Biology with lab
- General Chemistry with lab
- Organic Chemistry with lab
- Physics with lab
- Mathematics and/or Statistics
Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC)
It is common for undergraduates to write the MCAT and begin applying to medical schools in their junior year. Through a set of multiple-choice questions, the MCAT allows medical schools to evaluate a candidate’s training and skill set. Many schools share their incoming student MCAT score average on their website to inform undergraduates of how well they need to score to compete with other applicants.
To achieve their highest possible MCAT score, students are encouraged to take advantage of assistance available to them. This includes study materials, pre-tests, practice tests, and online and in-person tutoring. These resources are designed to ensure that students attain the best possible score, which will open doors to medical schools.
Doctoral / Medical Degree in Immunology – Nine to Ten Year Duration (see breakdown below)
The process of becoming a board-certified immunologist is a long one. After completing medical school during which they gain general experience in treating patients, candidates begin a residency program, typically in either internal medicine or pediatrics. Following completion of their residency, aspiring immunologists apply for a fellowship in immunology and allergy.
Medical School – Four Year Duration
Medical school is a very challenging four years of study that is divided into two parts. The first part, comprising the first two years of the schooling, is focused on course and lab work that prepares students intellectually for patient interaction. This training is in the biological and natural sciences, physiology, chemistry, medical ethics, and the art and practice of medicine.
To test their grasp of this portion of training, in the second year of medical school students pursuing a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree must take and pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) – Step 1. Those pursuing a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree must take and pass the United States Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) – Level 1.
A passing score on the USMLE or COMLEX-USA indicates that students are ready to begin supervised patient visits and gain clinical experience.
The second part of medical school, the second two years, is called Rotations. During this time, students have the opportunity to experience a variety of medical specialties and a variety of medical settings under the supervision of experienced physicians.
Rotations further students’ understanding of patient care, situations, scenarios, and the teams that come together to help those that are sick. As they complete rotations, students tend to find out that they gravitate towards certain specialties or environments that fit their particular interests and skill sets. It is important that this time inform their decision of specialty or subspecialty, so that they find complete satisfaction as a physician.
After part two of medical school, students take the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) – Step 2 or the United States Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) – Level 2. The objective of these exams is to test whether or not students have developed the clinical knowledge and skills that they will need to transition into unsupervised medical practice.
Internal Medicine Residency – Three Year Duration
or Pediatrics Residency – Three to Four Year Duration
or Combined Internal Medicine and Pediatrics (‘Med-Peds’) Residency – Four Year Duration
Internal medicine is a broad-based specialty focused on the diagnosis and management of diseases involving any of the organ systems. Internal medicine residents are trained to treat patients suffering from advanced illness and/or diseases of more than one system. Training spans these subspecialties certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine:
- Cardiology – the heart and vascular system
- Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism –glandular, hormonal, and metabolic disorders
- Gastroenterology – the digestive system, including the liver, gall bladder, and metabolism / nutrition
- Haematology – disorders of the blood, bone marrow, and lymphatics
- Oncology – benign (noncancerous) and malignant (cancerous) diseases that cause abnormal growth of cells (tumors)
- Infectious Diseases – bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitic infections
- Nephrology – the kidney and associated diseases
- Pulmonary Disease – the lungs and respiratory system
- Rheumatology – the joints and musculoskeletal system, particularly related to systemic and metabolic disorders such as arthritis
Pediatrics is concerned with the physical, emotional, and social health of children from birth to young adulthood. The field encompasses preventive health as well as diagnosis and treatment of both acute and chronic diseases.
Internal Medicine and Pediatrics
The combined med-peds residency program provides concurrent, dual training in both internal medicine and pediatrics. The clinical knowledge of med-peds physicians allows them to care for patients across the lifespan from birth until death. Their dual training makes them uniquely qualified to care for adolescent patients with complex and chronic conditions as they transition to adulthood.
Immunology Fellowship – Two Year Duration
The first year of an allergy and immunology fellowship is largely dedicated to training in clinical / patient care. The second year comprises study and research.
During their clinical training, immunology fellows learn to treat the following types of medical conditions:
- Respiratory / lung and breathing-related diseases, including asthma, sinusitis, and occupational lung disease
- Eye diseases such as allergic rhinitis or hay fever
- Skin diseases like eczema and contact dermatitis
- Severe reactions to medications, food, vaccines, and insect bites
- Gastrointestinal disorders such as peptic ulcer disease, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease
- Autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, lupus, and inflammatory bowel disease
They become familiar with common procedures and interventions, including:
- Use of drugs to suppress the immune system
- Intravenous therapies for antibody replacement and immunomodulation (therapeutic interventions that modify the immune response)
- Monoclonal antibody therapies – involving the use of a single type of antibody to either stimulate or block the immune system
They also learn to perform tests to identify the allergen or substance that causes a specific reaction. The testing includes:
- Blood testing to detect and measure possible allergens in the blood
- Patch testing – placing a patch containing the allergen on the skin
- Pulmonary / lung function testing to evaluate how the lungs are working
- Skin testing, which involves using needles to prick the skin and then placing the allergen on the scratched surface
- Nasal smears – swabbing the inside of the nose
The non-clinical component of an immunology fellowship involves conducting research in various areas such as stem cells, bone marrow, organ transplants, and gene therapy.
Throughout their training, immunology fellows may develop subspecialty interests such as rheumatology, HIV medicine, or transplantation.
Degrees Similar to Immunology
The focus of biochemistry is the chemical processes and reactions that occur in living matter. Biochemists apply principles of both biology and chemistry to issues in many different sectors, including the environment, medicine and health, industry and manufacturing, agriculture, biofuels, and marine science.
A general biology degree program may include subjects like animal biology, invertebrate biology, vertebrate biology, cellular and molecular biology, evolution, microbiology, and ecology.
Biophysics applies the theories and methods of physics to understand how biological systems like the brain, the circulatory system, and the immune system function. Coursework includes math, chemistry, physics, engineering, pharmacology, and materials science.
Cellular biology is a branch of biology focused on the study of cell structure and function, on how cells form and divide, and how they differentiate and specialize.
Genetics is concerned with how traits such as hair color, eye color, and risk for disease are passed or inherited from parents to their children, and how these inherited traits differ from person to person. At the center of the study of genetics is the genetic code or ‘genome.’ This genetic information is made up of a chemical called deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and is stored in almost every cell in the body.
Microbiology is the study of all living organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye. These ‘microbes’ include bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, prions, protozoa, and algae.
The field of molecular biology is concerned with genetics, with the structure and the relationships between four molecules in the body: proteins, fats, carbohydrates, nucleic acids.
Pathology is the science of the causes and effects of diseases. Pathologists are the medical doctors who analyze organs, tissues, blood, and body fluids to search for medical conditions and diagnose disease and illness. In other words, their job is to solve often complex medical mysteries.
Pathologists typically do not have direct contact with patients, but they work closely with primary care physicians and other medical specialists. This unique position in medical practice has earned them the moniker of the ‘doctor’s doctor.’
Degree programs in this field are concerned with how the parts of the body work to keep it alive. Physiology, a subsection of biology, covers a variety of interconnected topics including, organs, anatomy, cells, and biological compounds.
There is no distinct pre-medicine degree. ‘Pre-medicine’ or ‘pre-med’ is merely a term that students planning to go to medical school use to describe their undergraduate studies. In fact, aspiring doctors enter med school having earned many different bachelor’s degrees. A science program such as biology or chemistry is certainly a common choice, but it is not mandatory. In other words, a pre-med student can be a psychology major, a statistics major, or a Spanish major. The key for students is to incorporate into their studies the classes needed to apply to medical school.
We are all exposed to chemicals. Many of them benefit society. Some, however, may threaten our health. Pesticides in the food we eat, pollutants in the air we breathe, chemicals in the water we drink, adverse effects of drugs used to treat disease – these are the subjects of toxicology. These are the concerns of toxicologists, who seek to understand the effects of exposure to harmful substances, to improve the health and safety of humans and other living organisms, and to protect the environment in which we live.
Toxicology connects knowledge from biology, chemistry, medicine, veterinary medicine, pharmacology, public health, and environmental science.
Skills You’ll Learn
Attention to Detail
Diagnosing and treating patients demand attention to detail. Patients’ lives are at stake.
A significant part of the physician’s role is communicating with and educating patients.
Empathy and Compassion
Working with patients calls for someone who is not only adept at monitoring patients’ physical comfort, but sensitive and responsive to the emotional stress they may be experiencing.
The physician who knows their limitations is the best physician, because they know when to call in another specialist to avoid making a misdiagnosis, risking a patient’s health, and triggering a lawsuit.
Physicians spend much of their time on their feet.
The medical and health implications of the work can make it stressful.
Teamwork and Collaboration
Physicians are part of a team of medical professionals, who share information and work together for the well-being of the patient.
Immunology students also develop in-laboratory skills, including:
- Designing, planning, and conducting controlled experiments and trials
- Devising and testing hypotheses using appropriate analytical techniques
- Analyzing and interpreting data
- Writing reports, reviews, and papers
What Can You Do with an Immunology Degree?
Career opportunities for immunology graduates exist primarily in three sectors:
Medical / Clinical Practice
Physicians specializing in immunology find and treat problems associated with allergies and immune system malfunctions in adults. Pediatric immunologists specialize in diagnosing and treating these disorders in infants, children, and adolescents. They work in hospitals, children’s hospitals, private offices, and university medical centers. Veterinary immunologists work in veterinary hospitals and clinics where they treat infections, diseases, and immunological conditions in animals.
The work of immunologists who research and analyze the immune system leads to the discovery of new findings and treatments for persistent illnesses. These scientists work in laboratories operated by pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies as well as government health agencies. They study and test interactions of chemicals, cells, and genes in the body to better understand what makes an immune system function properly.
College / University Teaching and Research
Immunologists who hold a position as a faculty member of a college or university typically both teach and conduct research.
Find out what graduates typically earn.Read about Salary