MadSci Network: Virology

Re: How much do virologists get paid

Date: Sun Aug 19 15:41:02 2007
Posted By: Dean Cliver, Faculty, Food Safety Unit, Uiversity of California, Davis
Area of science: Virology
ID: 1187366116.Vi

Dear Elizabeth:

There is no simple answer to your question. What you ask is a little like, "How long is a piece of string?"

First, a virologist is someone who works with viruses, usually in a laboratory. The laboratory may belong to a branch of government, a company, or a university. The virologist will almost surely have a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree, and very possibly a Master of Science (MS) or a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree. There are also medical doctors and veterinarians who work with viruses, and some of them hold PhD degrees, in addition to the MD or DVM.

Additionally, there are viruses that infect people and animals, but also viruses that infect plants, and even bacteria. Some viruses cause disease, but others are being used to diagnose diseases, and others are being experimented with to cure diseases. Being a virologist leads to many opportunities, but no one virologist knows it all or can do all of these things.

I got involved with science because I was excited to learn that I could get paid for asking questions. The PhD project that I was assigned 49 years ago required work with viruses in cell cultures, so I had to learn how to make cell cultures and then how to use them in virology. We were studying how a newborn calf gets immunity from its mother in the first milk (called colostrum) that it drinks after birth. I earned my PhD and published a couple of papers from this work, after which I learned that I was more in demand as a virologist than as a dairy scientist. Viruses of cattle are very like viruses that infect people, so I wound up working with human viruses. I looked at some industry and government jobs but happened to get hired by a university. I am now working for the third university of my 45-year career and am about to retire.

If I had quit with a BS degree, I could have worked in government, industry, or university laboratories under someone else's direction. Depending on the area of the country and the state of the economy, I would probably start out earning $30 or $40 thousand per year. People with MS degrees earn a little more, but in most cases they are still fairly closely supervised and don't get to do much leading. With a PhD, you are expected to lead a laboratory group, doing research, development, or diagnostic work. If you work at a university, as I do, you are expected to generate research ideas, find grants to support your research, and publish the results in journals. Universities generally rank their faculty members as Instructors, Assistant Professors, Associate Professors, and full Professors, depending on how well you do and how long you hang around. They also expect you to teach classroom courses and to help students earn advanced degrees (MS & PhD). It is not always fun, but it is never dull.

Some of my former students are doing virology and other things in government laboratories and in industry, as well as at universities. I do not ask how much they are paid, but I have the sense that those with a new PhD probably start at no less than $50 thousand per year, and those who do quite well may earn more than $100 thousand per year. Everyone earns more than minimum wage, but few get rich. My house is paid for, and I have raised four kids without any of them having missed a meal. My wife and I have been married for 47 years now, and she looks forward to seeing more of me after I retire. I can't speak for other virologists, but for me it was never about money. I have gotten to meet many other scientists (not only virologists), work as an advisor to state and national agencies, help the World Health Organization, and travel to five continents. Considering that both my parents were in the work force full time at the age of 14, I feel enormously privileged to have gotten as much education as I did. I can only thank them by paying back in service to public health, and my virology training has made that possible. If you want to get a better idea of what I have been up to, you can visit my not-quite-up-to-date web site.

So you see, what you might do as a virologist has many possibilities. The earning power is good, but I like to think that most professional scientists are not in it for the money. I have even experienced unemployment, but not lately. I can assure you that there is no end of questions to be asked. Go for it!

Dean O. Cliver

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