Careers in Vaccine Research
Scientist working in laboratory
A variety of careers are available in basic vaccine research and development, clinical trials, production, and distribution of vaccines to the public. These jobs are available in universities, industry, government laboratories and agencies, hospitals, and on the front line of vaccine distribution all over the world.
Typically, most people start their career in vaccines with an undergraduate degree such as a Bachelor of Science (BS) in fields such as cellular or molecular biology, chemistry, biochemistry, or microbiology. It is helpful, before earning these degrees, to have had a combined strong background in high school science classes and a natural sense of curiosity. Many vaccine development jobs require masters and/or doctorate degrees (MS and/or PhD) that require several years of additional study beyond the BS degree.
Where to Find Vaccine-Related Jobs
Vaccine development research takes place in university, industry, government, and not-for-profit organization laboratories, and is funded in several diverse ways.
University research projects usually rely on federal grants from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and this money comes from the federal budget. Industry, which includes pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, contract labs, and diagnostic testing facilities, has access to investor money, or in the case of successful companies, revenue from successful commercial products that can be put back into basic vaccine research.
The U.S. federal government funds research at many small startup companies that are often focused on specific projects such as those supporting the development of vaccines against potential biological warfare agents such as anthrax, or large public health issues such as the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Government vaccine development research jobs are also funded by the federal budget. The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases works to develop vaccines “to protect our military service members from biological threats.” Within the NIH, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) supports and conducts basic and applied research to develop new vaccines.
The U.S. government’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees all clinical trials assessing the safety and efficacy of vaccines; they have a staff of scientists and doctors that evaluates potential vaccines, approves, and monitors the clinical studies. These positions usually require advanced degrees.
Public health careers, which can be found at the city, state, or federal levels, focus on getting vaccines to the public and may require getting advanced degrees in public health. Two reliable sources on available jobs and networking in public health professions are the American Public Health Association and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.
Not-for-profit vaccine development is conducted by organizations such as Gavi and The World Health Organization (WHO) are focused on getting vaccines around the world to the people who need them. A large collection of vaccine-related jobs is available in these agencies, and they may range from laboratory research jobs to jobs in public policy and communications.
Basic Science Research
Basic research focuses on the biochemistry and physical properties that disease-causing microbes use to cause damage to the host. Such research also considers the biophysical characteristics of the microbes that might be used in vaccines or drugs to prevent or interrupt the disease process. This part of the vaccine development cycle is called basic or preclinical research.
Typically, a scientist with a doctorate degree in cellular and molecular biology, biochemistry, or microbiology leads these studies; however, a wide range of research functions are carried out by research assistants who might require only a BS degree in the same fields. In the case of vaccine development research, research associate jobs might involve growing cell lines in culture (a cell line is a clone or group of clones grown in a culture and derived from a single cell and which can proliferate indefinitely under strict lab conditions), cloning DNA, or performing assays (lab tests that look for, quantify, or measure some activity of proteins, viruses, and DNA). Basic research jobs might also offer opportunities to become an expert at operating specialized laboratory equipment such as flow cytometers that use lasers to evaluate cells.
All basic research requires a data analysis stage, which represents yet another field of expertise: data management and analysis. These are jobs that usually require a BS but not necessarily an advanced degree.
Most universities allow students to volunteer or be paid a small stipend to work in a lab—this provides valuable training and is excellent experience for getting a job after graduation. These student jobs can range from technician assistant, in which the student may be required to prepare chemical stock solutions, wash, and sterilize glassware, and care for research animals, to senior technician, who maintains cell line stocks, tracks and breeds research animals, orders laboratory supplies, and may conduct experiments.
Once a vaccine looks like it is a serious candidate for therapeutic use, the project team moves it into the development phase, or scale-up development phase. In development, scientists, who have advanced degrees in manufacturing engineering, and their assistants work out the best methods for producing the vaccine on a large scale. Again, a PhD level scientist typically heads these experiments, but there are numerous jobs for individuals with BS degrees.
A candidate vaccine that successfully makes it through the preclinical research and scale-up development is eligible to become an investigational vaccine. The FDA decides if the data on the vaccine warrant a clinical trial.
An investigational vaccine undergoes three phases of clinical trials before it can be licensed for public use. Phase I is a small trial to assess safety in humans; Phase II is slightly larger and monitors safety, immune response, and the desired protection; and Phase III involves testing the vaccine in a larger group of people to prove that the vaccine is still safe and effective.
The clinical trial area encompasses several different careers and jobs. The trials are usually run by medical doctors (MDs) and team leaders with PhDs; however, trials also involve many opportunities for people with BS or MS degrees. For example, clinical associates might work with the clinical sites to ensure that the correct protocols are followed; workers in regulatory positions make sure the trial follows government regulations; statisticians work on the trial data; and medical writers produce the documents that detail the trial for the doctors and patients, as well as many documents for the FDA.
Meet the Scientists
A vaccine scientist at Pfizer Animal Health, Paul Dominowski, PhD, has developed several vaccines that are used for immunizing cattle against various highly contagious viral and bacterial agents. Most recently, he developed a vaccine that contains antigens against five viruses, all of which can cause bovine respiratory disease (BRD). By creating a multi-agent vaccine, he has eliminated the need for separate vaccinations and is saving farmers and the cattle industry millions of dollars each year. Dominowski holds a BS in microbiology and public health, and an MS and a PhD in immunology.
Dominowski says, “Even as a little kid I knew I wanted to be a scientist. A good scientist needs to be curious and want to know about the details of how things work. You need to have good problem-solving skills and resiliency. Resilience is especially key: experiments rarely work the first time, and you must be prepared to go back to the drawing board, figure out the problem, and try it again. Every failure is really a learning and problem-solving experience.” Once an experiment does work, you must demonstrate that it can be repeated, not just by yourself, but by other scientists.
For the kind of research he does, Dominowski thinks it is essential, both in industry and academia, to have a PhD; in fact, he went back to school after working in industry for more than 10 years to get a PhD. He felt that the degree enabled him to delve into the science of vaccine development and express his creative, scientific side. He says, “It allowed me to get back to the roots of research.” His advice to all young scientists at any institution is that it is critical to invent innovative approaches and technologies, patent your work, and publish your research in journals.
Like Dominowski, Deborah Farson, BS, knew from an early age that she loved science. “In high school I stumbled onto a book in the school library that had pictures of a tobacco mosaic virus taken with an electron microscope. I must have checked that book out a dozen times to look at those photos. Little did I know then how much of my career would be spent working with viruses.”
Farson received her undergraduate degree in zoology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her first job was as a research associate at UCLA assisting a professor who was studying how cells repair damaged DNA. Farson continued doing basic research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where she learned cell culture and studied, among other things, how viruses transform cells.
Farson found that the lack of an advanced degree was a handicap in an academic setting but mattered less in a corporate setting. She explains that “without an advanced degree, research associates in academic settings are limited in their career options, so when I was recruited by a small biotechnology startup company, I decided to make the change. What I found was that small companies need you to do a little bit of everything, and pretty soon you are able to show that you can handle bigger projects and more responsibility. I worked on a number of different projects over the years and loved the challenge of always learning something new. I was eventually promoted to scientist.”
The company that hired Farson away from the academic sector was using cancer cells as vaccines to stimulate a cancer patient’s immune system to help fight the disease. Farson’s group was responsible for making and characterizing these cell lines for use in clinical trials. When the company closed in 2009, Farson was a Senior Director in Research and Development. She now works as a freelance consultant.
Both Farson and Dominowski worked in academic and industry labs and had similar observations about the experience. They point out that whereas basic vaccine research can be done at university, government, or industry sites, there are some differences in approach in each setting. In industry, teams can rely on large budgets, but they may have to adhere to strict timelines; for example, rather than spending the time to develop and set up an assay, the tendency in industry would be to spend the money on an already developed assay kit. In a university lab, money tends to be more restrictive, the timelines less strict, and so the lab might develop an in-house assay rather than purchase one.
The research demands of a company are more focused—if the vaccine does not work, a scientist moves on to another project, whereas an academic lab may have the time to look at the problem in more detail. Dominowski thinks that a university setting might provide more freedom to think creatively—that innovative creativity is almost expected of university scientists.
More teamwork is usually required in industry, in which different parts of a project are handled by different groups simultaneously, whereas a scientist in an academic lab could be a solitary worker handling all parts of a project. The challenge in either setting is the balance between creative science and all the business management that goes with getting funding, managing a budget, and supervising other scientists or assistants.
Vaccine research offers scientists the opportunity to work on a project that could directly impact public health, whether it is working directly at the lab bench, on a production line, or to support a clinical trial. Farson loved working on projects that had the potential to prevent or cure diseases. As a scientist, Dominowski thinks his greatest achievement so far was helping to define and develop a drug that enhances the immune system in humans. This drug has proven to be clinically relevant and has helped thousands of people lead healthier lives.
Gavi. Accessed 01/10/2018.
Global Vaccines. Accessed 01/10/2018.
National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Accessed 01/10/2018.
U.S. Army Medical Department.U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Accessed 01/10/2018.
World Health Organization. About WHO. Accessed 01/10/2018.
Last update: 26 May 2021
True or false? Most vaccine research jobs require a BS (bachelor of science degree) and no further education.
Money from the federal government is most likely to be the source of funding for research in ___________.
- a large pharmaceutical company
- a small pharmaceutical company
- a university
- none of the above
Which federal agency is responsible for funding a great deal of basic research on pathogens and vaccines?
- National Science Foundation
- National Institutes of Health
- Food and Drug Administration
- None of the above
Which federal agency is responsible for regulating vaccine trials?
- National Science Foundation
- National Institutes of Health
- Food and Drug Administration
- None of the above