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Careers in immunology

Supporting our members throughout their careers is one of the key aims of the British Society for Immunology.  Following feedback from our 2015 membership survey, which showed the need for more careers support, we undertook a landscape review of immunology careers to both inform our own work and to provide guidance to the sector as a whole. 

This project, the most comprehensive of its kind to date in immunology, aimed to capture data from individuals working across different sectors and industries.  The project fell into three distinct sections:

  1. Track the career destinations of people who have completed an immunology PhD in the UK
  2. Analyse the current UK workforce in academia
  3. Conduct a survey of people who currently/used to work in immunology to better understand the career progression of immunologists, how they built their careers and the challenges they faced.

With immunology underpinning so many scientific concepts, the subject is now an essential part of healthcare research. Through this work, the BSI hopes to provide targeted support and guidance to our members at all career stages, helping them to fulfil their potential and ensuring the UK continues to be a world-leader in immunological science for many years to come.  In this article, we highlight a summary of some of our key findings. The full report and all background data can be found on our website.

“The BSI wants to understand what the pace of innovation within the immunology sector means for the varied and complex patterns of immunologists’ careers and the skills they need to succeed. “The challenges raised in this report are applicable to many organisations in the bioscience sector, and it is only by working together that we will achieve meaningful and positive change for immunology to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of research.”

Peter Openshaw, President, British Society for Immunology

Funding

Fig 1. The source of basic salary for academic staff working in
immunology compared to all academic disciplines

Reflecting the innovative nature of the discipline, the immunology sector employs a high proportion of junior workers. The UK currently ranks first amongst the G7 for the quality of our research on immunity and infectious diseases. To ensure this remains the case, the sector needs a ‘jobs pipeline’ to filter this growth through to more senior posts. As the sector grows, we need to continue to attract young researchers through exposure to immunology at different career stages. Good training, education, mentoring and a supportive, collaborative environment are key to inspiring a love of the subject amongst students.

Immunology receives a relatively high proportion of its funding from grant agencies (Figure 1). It is gratifying that a wide variety of funding bodies support the discipline and the current growth that immunology is experiencing. However, the difficulties immunologists face in obtaining continued funding is reflected by poor job security and a lack of tenured positions. As immunology extends its reach into other disciplines, the sector needs to engage with current and new funders to guarantee future funding streams and to advocate for the creation of more permanent appointments.

Skills

Fig 2. Which skills were most important during your career?

As our knowledge of the immune system expands, we need a workforce with a range of skills and knowledge who have the flexibility to adapt and make the most of the opportunities afforded by innovations. Immunological societies can work with members across boundaries to assess future research needs and build capacity in specific areas of demand, such as veterinary immunology, to ensure we have a workforce capable of meeting future needs.

Immunologists realise that they increasingly need a mixture of skills for their careers, both competencies directly related to the quality of the science and ‘softer’ skills that allow individuals to succeed in the wider environment (Figure 2). Networking is a key skill which immunologists identify as important, but also as a skill they lack. This is clearly an area of need that the BSI can help meet through our networks of groups across the UK, Europe and globally.

Immunology research in the industrial sector is a key component of the future health of the discipline in the UK. Many working in pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have completed PhDs in immunology. Indeed, those in academia and industry share remarkably similar views on the factors affecting the sector as a whole. More needs to be done to build bridges between the industrial and academic communities at all career stages, both in terms of offering career advice and work experience to early career researchers and providing networking and funding opportunities to encourage joint collaborations.

Culture

Figure 3. What are the biggest barriers you have faced during your career?

The report shows a number of barriers to a good career. Survey respondents made it clear that personal resilience and a degree of self- confidence are important for dealing with challenges, both in the lab and outside it.

Working abroad can be a key part of an immunologist’s career. The UK benefits from attracting the brightest and best from around the world, with 42% of immunologists working in our academic institutions being from overseas (Figure 5). Likewise, an important career step for British immunologists is the ability to work abroad. The immunology community reports significant concerns around the effects of Brexit, with 89% stating that this will have a negative effect on the recruitment and retention of the UK immunology workforce. When defining our future relationship with Europe, we need to promote an agile immigration system that encourages bidirectional movement of highly skilled researchers, promoting collaboration and support for UK immunology.

Immunology employs a high overall percentage of women.  However, they are disproportionally numerous at junior levels and less likely to hold senior positions than in other similar disciplines. The sector must investigate the reasons behind this significant loss of talent. A clue is possibly found in our survey results, which highlight several discrepancies between the concerns and experiences of women in immunology compared with men. The sector as whole needs to intensify efforts to achieve a fair and equal working environment, accessible to all and free from discrimination regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, sexuality or socio-economic background.

 

Conclusions

Immunology’s greatest strength is its engaged and dynamic workforce. We should not lose sight of the fact that it is the people who make the discipline what it is. Although this report mainly focuses on sector statistics, careers are all about individuals and any future strategy to tackle careers in immunology needs to place the individual at its heart.

Although this report cannot provide a complete picture of the many diverse areas in which immunology is practised, it is the most comprehensive piece of work carried out on the sector’s workforce to date and provides a snapshot of which areas immunology is excelling in, as well as some pivotal challenges facing the discipline.

The findings of this report will not come as a surprise to many currently working in immunology. Although the BSI is ideally placed to address some of the issues raised, others have wide-ranging implications that the BSI cannot tackle alone. We see this report as the first step in a much bigger process of building collaborative partnerships across the sector to start to address the issues raised.  Over the coming months, we will be obtaining feedback from our members and the wider sectors on the findings and developing a plan for our future activities.

 

Please contact our Education & Careers Officer, Glyn Jones with your feedback and thoughts on the report.

The full report and all background data can be found in the careers section of our website.