A career in immunology may suit you if you enjoy a challenge, have a strong life sciences background, and want to help people

As a healthcare scientist (also known as a clinical scientist) working in immunology you'll help to diagnose, monitor and treat patients with a range of immune system disorders, including:

  • allergy
  • autoimmune disorders - when the body's defence system attacks itself (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis)
  • primary immunodeficiency - where part of the immune system is missing or doesn't function as it should
  • antibody deficiency.

You'll work as part of a team, including immunologists (medical doctors specialising in immunology) and biomedical scientists, to research the causes of patients' immune system problems.

Doctors who specialise in immunology follow a very different qualification route. For more information see hospital doctor.

Responsibilities

As a healthcare scientist working in clinical immunology, you'll need to:

  • investigate patients' immune systems and research the causes of any problems
  • undertake a range of laboratory-based activities to help diagnose, monitor and treat patients with a variety of immunological disorders, including HIV, leukemia and Type-1 diabetes
  • work with patients and run specialised patient clinics
  • help colleagues with the interpretation and validation of test results
  • help prescribe specific types of treatment for individual patients
  • discuss patient treatment plans with relevant staff such as immunologists, specialist nurses and paediatricians
  • produce reports and provide key information to medical staff about a patient's condition
  • maintain accurate and detailed records.

At a senior level, you may also need to:

  • teach or train medical students and other hospital staff
  • apply for and manage departmental and/or laboratory finances and resources
  • take responsibility for working towards targets
  • liaise with immunology colleagues on a regional or national basis.

Salary

  • Jobs in the NHS are usually covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates consisting of nine pay bands. Trainee healthcare scientists are employed at Band 6, starting at £26,302.
  • Once qualified, you're likely to be employed on Band 7 (£31,383 to £41,373).
  • Salaries for principal and consultant scientists range from £40,028 (Band 8) to £99,437 (Band 9), depending on your experience and training.

Those working in London and the surrounding areas may receive a high-cost area supplement of between 5% and 20% of their basic salary.

Salaries for healthcare scientists working for private companies, universities, government bodies and other organisations may vary.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You'll generally work a 37.5 hour week, Monday to Friday. You may also be required to work a shift pattern.

There are opportunities to work part time.

What to expect

  • If you're working in a laboratory-based role, you'll liaise closely with medical and other hospital staff. In a clinical role you'll have more direct contact with patients and their families, as well as other clinical professionals.
  • Jobs are available in hospitals throughout the UK although you may need to relocate to progress your career as there are only a few dedicated laboratories in each NHS region.
  • Self-employment is rare due to the specialised equipment and materials required to do the job.
  • In addition to clinical immunology, you can also work in academic settings and in industrial research.
  • You may need to visit other hospitals or clinics, but travel during your working day is uncommon.

Qualifications

As a graduate with a life sciences degree in a subject such as biomedical sciences, biology, microbiology, genetics or biochemistry, you can apply for a place on the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP). Entry on to the STP is competitive and you'll need a first or 2:1 degree, or a 2:2 with a relevant Masters or PhD. For all applicants, getting good academic results and relevant work experience is helpful, as is evidence of research experience (for example, through a relevant Masters or PhD).

The STP is a three-year, full-time workplace-based training programme and during this time you'll be employed in a fixed-term salaried post in clinical immunology. The first year of training is spent on rotation in a range of settings before specialising in years two and three. Training includes study for an approved and accredited Masters degree specialising in blood sciences - clinical immunology.

If you already work for the NHS, you can apply to the STP as an internal candidate. See the National School of Healthcare Science (NSHCS) for programme details for both external and internal applicants.

Details of training posts may be advertised in the New Scientist, but candidates must apply through the online application portal Oriel. Recruitment usually takes place in January but check the NSHCS website regularly for details.

On successful completion of the STP you're eligible to apply for a Certificate of Attainment from the Academy for Healthcare Science (AHCS), which allows registration as a clinical scientist with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). See the NSHCS website for full details on how to apply.

For information on STP training in Wales, see the Workforce, Education and Development Services (WEDS). There are separate scientist training schemes in:

If your degree is accredited by the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS) you can apply for trainee biomedical scientist posts in the NHS and ultimately register with the HCPC as a biomedical scientist. Some biomedical scientists may specialise in immunology. For full details, see biomedical scientist.

If you don't already have a degree, you can apply for the NHS Practitioner Training Programme (PTP), which provides undergraduate training that leads to a BSc (Hons) Healthcare Science (life sciences - blood sciences). Courses are full time (usually three years) and include at least 50 weeks of workplace-based training in the NHS. After graduation you can usually register as a biomedical scientist with the HCPC. Check that your course is accredited by the IBMS or HCPC approved. It's also possible to apply for the STP.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • excellent communication skills
  • the ability to organise and carry out research
  • teamworking skills
  • a high level of self-motivation
  • meticulous documentation and record-keeping
  • confidence in using technology and systems
  • flexibility and adaptability
  • the ability to use your initiative.

Work experience

Entry on to the training scheme is competitive and there are many more applicants than places. To improve your chances, try and get some work experience within a hospital immunology department. Arrange a visit to a department in your local hospital to find out more about the role.

Make sure you attend an open day for your specialism, if there is one, to get a better insight into the role and STP programme.

Employers

Most healthcare scientists working in immunology are employed in immunology laboratories in NHS hospitals.

Other employers include:

  • independent and academic laboratories within the pharmaceutical industry
  • government agencies such as Public Health England
  • the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
  • scientific Civil Service.

You may choose to follow a research career, working in a university or research institute. Alternatively, you could work in industry for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, who employ immunologists to improve their understanding of the immune system and how to apply this to the development of new medical products and therapies.

It's also possible to work in veterinary science, researching animal healthcare and treating animals with infections or immunological disorders.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

Once qualified, you must keep up to date with the ongoing developments in research and analysis techniques. Continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of continuing registration with the HCPC and can include:

  • attending conferences workshops and lectures
  • publication in peer-reviewed journals
  • presenting research and papers at conferences
  • undertaking work exchanges abroad
  • applying for research grants.

You will usually undertake further study and training with a relevant professional body, such as the BSI, or study for a PhD. Membership of the BSI also provides opportunities to network with fellow professionals and access to advice and support.

Once you've got experience, you can train to become a consultant healthcare scientist via the Higher Specialist Scientific Training (HSST) programme. This five-year workplace-based training programme includes study at doctorate level and, where appropriate, study for Royal College qualifications. For full details see the NSHCS website.

Career prospects

There is a structured career path within the NHS. Once qualified, you can progress through the grades by gaining experience and completing further study and research. Promotion is based on merit and you may need to move to other hospitals to make the most of available opportunities or to related agencies such as NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT).

As your career develops, you're likely to take on a more supervisory role with responsibility for the work of your department. Progression to consultant and then deputy head or head of department involves further training and is likely to involve the management of a large department or major departmental section, and advanced budgeting and administration skills are often required.

Some immunologists follow an academic career, while others choose to work in industry or the scientific Civil Service.