In this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!

101 Careers in Public Health`Job Description

Vaccine researchers look at everything from how the immune system works to how to prevent specific diseases, like HIV/AIDS and malaria. Other issues include predicting who is likely to respond to a vaccine and figuring out how long the protection from a vaccine will last. There are
researchers working to improve upon existing vaccines, too—to deliver better protection or make immunity last longer. Some vaccine researchers examine immune responses on the cellular
or molecular level. Some test potential new vaccines in human populations. Some study the safety of vaccines. In general, vaccine researchers must have a strong understanding of the immune system, of the processes involved in infection, and of how vaccines are thought to work. In addition, researchers may write journal articles, present results at conferences, help write medical textbooks, and even give advice to policy makers.

Education and Certification

A researcher who wants to run a laboratory or be primarily responsible for designing and carrying out studies related to vaccines needs a doctoral degree, usually a PhD, followed by additional postdoctoral training. Typical fields for the PhD include molecular biology, immunology, microbiology, or biochemistry, although the name of the degree is less important than the actual topics studied. Some vaccine researchers are MDs who have additional training and experience in research.

Core Competencies and Skills

  • Understanding of the scientific method
  • Good attention to detail and an appreciation for precision
  • Strong sense of ethics, especially when human or animal subjects are involved
  • Ability to work as part of a team
  • Patience and the ability to accept that studies may not give hoped-for results
  • Knowledge specific to infectious diseases and the immune system
  • Practical skills for the design and implementation of clinical or laboratory studies.


According to national statistics, the median salary for a medical scientist, a job category that includes people involved in developing vaccines, is about $73,000. However, many researchers earn substantially more. A typical starting salary for the head of a laboratory at a federal agency is around $100,000, and people in senior positions can reach $200,000 per year or more. Research professors can expect similar compensation levels, although it varies from one university to another. PhDs in postdoctoral positions start at lower salaries, with a jump to higher salaries in their first jobs after this level.


Vaccine research is carried out at multiple places including NIH and university departments. The U.S. Army Research Institute on Infectious Diseases also develops vaccines, primarily to protect service members from potential biological warfare agents and dangerous endemic diseases.

Employment Outlook

The need for medical scientists with doctoral-level degrees is expected to increase over the next several years, and people with both an MD and PhD should be particularly in demand. However, competition for individual jobs is typical in research fields. In addition, a job will often require a very specific background, and it may be a challenge to find a position that matches one’s training and interests. The availability of federal funding will also influence the number of jobs available in both government and academic settings.

For Further Information

  • Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease
  • National Foundation for Infectious Diseases
  • The International Vaccine Institute