The American Society for Virology was founded in 1981 to provide a forum for investigators of human, animal, insect, plant, fungal, and bacterial viruses, whether the research involves clinical, ecological, biological, or biochemical approaches. The stated aim of the Society is to promote the exchange of information and stimulate discussion and collaboration among scientists active in all aspects of virology. These goals are achieved by means of meetings organized or sponsored by the Society, obtaining for the members reduced subscription rates for virological journals, soliciting travel grants to attend national and international meetings and representation on national and international councils.
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Ten Frequently Asked Questions about Training in Virology
1. 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 in virology.

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?
For basic scientists pursuing careers in virology in an academic environment, the requirements are as follows:

Undergraduate: 4 years
Graduate school (PhD): 4-6 years
Postdoctoral 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:

Undergraduate: 4 years
Medical school (MD): 4 years
Residency (usually internal medicine or pediatrics): 3 years
Postdoctoral 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) careers.

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.
Graduate: Biochemistry, 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 entail?
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 course.

5. What should I look for in selecting a graduate school for research training in virology?
Selection 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 virology.

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 for?
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 school.

7. How do I prepare for an interview for a virology graduate program?
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?
As 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 research.

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 me?
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