What kind of college education is best for preparing
for a career in virology?
Many good colleges and universities
provide courses and training in virology. Most virologists
attend college and major in the sciences. Biology and
chemistry tend to be the most popular undergraduate
majors. Since the biology of viruses is so tightly
intertwined with the biology of cells, a good background
in biochemistry and cell biology will be essential.
Because virology also impacts on human health, epidemiology,
behavior and sociological considerations, virologists
also should be well grounded in the humanities; a broad
approach to undergraduate education will be most useful.
Following completion of college, most virologists
go on to pursue an MD or PhD degree. Again, there are
many excellent medical schools and graduate schools
to complete this training. Many MDs pursue virology
research in the context of human health and become
clinical investigators in infectious disease or epidemiology.
Most PhDs pursue more basic questions, although the
divisions are not absolute, and cross-fertilization
of expertise has been critical for major developments
For those interested in virology careers, college
and university websites are a good source of information.
They often provide a description of course offerings
and the types of virology training available. For PhD
training, good mentors are essential. It really pays
to do some research in exploring who the mentors are
and what types of training opportunities are offered.
2. How many years of school are needed?
scientists pursuing careers in virology in an academic
environment, the requirements are as follows:
Graduate school (PhD): 4-6 years
research training: 3-5 years
For those pursuing pure teaching careers, there is
less of a requirement for postdoctoral research training.
Instead, some formal training in teaching is often
required, depending on the teaching position.
For physicians pursuing careers in virology:
Medical school (MD): 4 years
internal medicine or pediatrics): 3 years
research training: 3-5 years
Many medical schools have combined programs that
lead to both the MD and PhD degrees. Most MD/PhD students
complete the first two years of medical school, pursue
graduate studies for three to four years, and then
return to medical school to complete the final two
years of clinical training. These programs have been
designed for physicians who desire academic (research)
3. What courses should be taken?
The courses to be
taken depend in great part on the undergraduate major
and graduate course requirements. These can be quite
variable. As a general rule, the following courses
should be completed:
Undergraduate: Biology, Inorganic
and Organic Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics (calculus
and advanced algebra), and some electives (Biochemistry,
Cell Biology, Microbiology, and Immunology) along
with English, History, and a language.
Cell Biology, Molecular Biology, Virology, Immunology,
and Structural Biology. The majority of time in graduate
school should be spent conducting research.
These, of course, are general recommendations. There
may be overlap in some subject areas between the undergraduate
and graduate phases, with greater depth in the latter.
Additional coverage of core areas can be advantageous.
4. What are Ph.D. programs like? What does the curriculum
Although each graduate program is unique, most follow
a common format. First-year graduate students take
classes and complete laboratory rotations to choose
a lab for the thesis research. The classes are often
introductory in nature and may be held with other graduate
programs or sometimes with medical students. There
are usually only two or three courses required each
semester, but they tend to be fairly rigorous. Laboratory
rotations usually last 2-4 months, during which time
students work on specific projects and assess whether
the laboratory environment is conducive for the thesis
research. By the end of the summer after the first
year, students in most programs will be asked to select
a thesis research laboratory. This is usually, but
not always, one of those chosen for a rotation. While
there are likely to be more classes in the second year,
class work is quickly replaced by research time in
the thesis laboratory. Once the preliminary exams have
been completed (which test academic knowledge, largely
based on graduate course work), the student and mentor
assemble a thesis advisory committee that will consist
of the mentor and generally three to four additional
members of the faculty who will periodically meet with
the student to provide constructive criticism and guidance.
This group will approve the thesis, affirming that
a PhD has been earned. In addition to research, some
PhD programs require graduate students to teach. These
teaching requirements usually involve facilitating
discussion groups or serving as an assistant in a laboratory
5. What should I look for in selecting a graduate
school for research training in virology?
of a graduate school for virology training very much
depends on your specific area of interest. For example,
if you're interested in plant virology, a graduate
program in animal virology may not provide the best
preparation. Graduate programs do differ, and many
have a particular research emphasis. For example, virology
programs based at cancer centers may emphasize those
viruses that are associated with oncogenesis. University
programs are quite diverse, reflecting the diversity
of the discipline itself and the varied interests of
the graduate faculty. Graduate programs may be large,
multidisciplinary programs, combining activities in
different departments with research tracks or areas
of emphasis, or entirely department-based. Students
interested in virology should check whether the combined
programs that they may be interested in have an emphasis
In selecting a graduate program, it pays to do some
research. First, read a few papers from members of
the department, and be sure that there are mentors
in the program whose research interests mirror your
own. Make sure that the laboratories that have attracted
your interest are accepting new students. Second, find
out if the institution has a graduate student training
grant. In addition to providing funds for graduate
student tuition and stipends, training grants are a
good indication of an active and involved department.
Third, visit the institution for an interview. This
is especially important for meeting possible mentors.
Similar to making a college or university choice, there's
no better way to find out about the atmosphere of a
department than by paying it a visit. While you're
there, ask to meet with some of the students, and get
a candid opinion from them about the pros and cons
of the department or program to which you are applying.
Finally, be sure the program is in a city and state
in which you would enjoy living—yes, you’ll
be in the lab a lot, but everyone needs a break once
in a while!
6. What kind of students are graduate schools looking
In general, graduate schools are seeking bright,
curious, hardworking students who have a passion for
science. How do you show you have these traits? In
addition to academic performance, accumulate some experience
in research by working in a laboratory. Many undergraduate
campuses afford students a chance to get involved in
research. If you don’t go to a college or university
that has research training options, perhaps consider
doing a summer internship at an institution that does—in
fact, many have programs (and stipends) specifically
to support summer undergraduate research. Regardless
of how, be sure you get some experience in a lab: it
is a key opportunity that will help you decide whether
a career in science is right for you and will enhance
your chances to be accepted by a top-flight graduate
7. How do I prepare for an interview for a virology
Preparation is important to making
a good impression. Typically, if you either visit a
program or are invited to participate in a “recruitment
weekend” (which many programs are now doing),
you will be meeting with a number of the faculty in
the department or interdisciplinary program. You may
have several one-on-one meetings with members of the
faculty, and in such cases, the faculty member will
likely tell you about his or her research. It helps
if you have become familiar with the work of the faculty
members with whom you will be meeting. Don’t
be afraid to ask lots of questions about the research
being discussed as well as the graduate program in
general. Questions communicate your interest in the
program and your curiosity about science.
8. Are there many job opportunities in this field?
in any career in science, there are many different
kinds of job opportunities in virology. Careers include
academic research (you think of the ideas and conduct
the experiments), industry research (studies focused
on the development of new drugs or vaccines), or government
research organizations like the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC) or the National Institutes
of Health (a combination of both).
Virologists also are active teachers in the high
school, college, graduate school, and medical school
settings. Research and teaching are not mutually exclusive.
In fact, most academic researchers also teach. However,
there are careers in fulltime teaching or fulltime
Some virologists investigate disease outbreaks (epidemiologists)
and work for health departments, CDC, or the World
Health Organization. For example, many virologists
have been involved in tracking down the cause and spread
of the SARS coronavirus, avian influenza viruses, and
hemorrhagic fever viruses, to name but a few.
In addition, virologists can use their knowledge
to pursue careers in communication, serving as science
writers or reporters. They also can pursue careers
in business, administration, or law, especially involving
the pharmaceutical industry or patent law. Every year
at the annual American Society for Virology meeting
there is a session dedicated to Career Development.
In the past, topics have included career options, how
to give a good talk, and preparing a compelling application.
If you are at the meeting, be sure you attend!
9. What are the current “hot” areas
of research in Virology?
The answer to this question is
very broad, but some research areas and themes are
emerging as major new directions in the field. With
our growing understanding of how the human immune response
functions, many scientists are focusing their efforts
on viral pathogenesis, which explores how viruses cause
disease. While many employ animal models for such research,
excellent viral pathogenesis studies also can be done
using cells grown in tissue culture. Current pathogenesis
studies now commonly use information from both the
viral and host genomes to dissect specific determinants
of viral virulence. A key goal for these types of studies
is to use information gathered from a better understanding
of disease pathogenesis to develop improved antiviral
drugs and vaccines.
A second area of interest is that of emerging viruses--in
other words, viruses such as Ebola virus, Sin Nombre
virus or the SARS coronavirus, that have been only
recently discovered and for which little information
about basic aspects of replication, spread, and pathogenesis
is known. Some of these pathogens are highly transmissible
to humans and, therefore, work with these viruses must
be done in special biosafety facilities that protect
scientists from becoming infected. However, many laboratories
have made substantial advances in understanding the
structure and replication of these viruses by using
portions of the virus that are not infectious and therefore
cannot cause disease.
A third “hot” area is plant virology.
Like humans, plants are susceptible to infection by
viruses, and these infections can have a devastating
impact on agriculture. Again, knowing how these viruses
grow and spread, and how these processes can be interrupted,
are matters of major economic and public health importance.
A fourth area of recent interest pertinent to virology
is bioinformatics. The use of microarray technology
has greatly expanded our ability to probe the host
response at the molecular level. These types of studies
have allowed virologists to elucidate virus-host interactions
and molecular pathogenesis. Students who may be interested
in this area may want to take statistics in addition
to the other courses mentioned.
10. How do I know a career in virology is right for
If your image of being a virologist comes from
watching CSI or reading “The Hot Zone,” you
probably have a skewed idea of what the work entails.
If you pay attention to the popular press (such as
TV news programs and magazines such as Scientific American
and Discover), your perspective will certainly be better
but will still not be entirely accurate. The best way
to find out about careers in virology is to get involved
in research. Laboratory research can be done by individuals
at all stages of their careers, from high school students
to full professors. Volunteer in a lab for a semester
or work in a lab over the summer and find out for yourself
if the field is right for you.
Finally, the Education and Career Development committee
of ASV is dedicated to helping you navigate the process
of becoming a terrific scientist...if we can be helpful,
please contact us through the ASV office. We look forward
to hearing from you!
*Updated April 2008