Microbiologists study microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, algae, fungi, and some types of parasites. They try to understand how these organisms live, grow, and interact with their environments.
Microbiologists typically do the following:
- Plan and conduct complex research projects, such as developing new drugs to combat infectious diseases
- Supervise the work of biological technicians and other workers and evaluate the accuracy of their results
- Isolate and maintain cultures of bacteria or other microorganisms for study
- Identify and classify microorganisms found in specimens collected from humans, plants, animals, or the environment
- Monitor the effect of microorganisms on plants, animals, other microorganisms, or the environment
- Keep up with current knowledge by reviewing the findings of other researchers and by attending conferences
- Prepare technical reports, publish research papers, and make recommendations based on their research findings
- Present research findings to scientists, non-scientist executives, engineers, other colleagues, and the public
Most microbiologists work in research and development. Many conduct basic research with the aim of increasing scientific knowledge. This may include growing strains of bacteria in various conditions to learn how they react to those conditions. Other microbiologists conduct applied research and develop new products or solve particular problems. Microbiologists who apply basic research to such problems may be developing genetically engineered crops or better biofuels.
Microbiologists use computers and a wide variety of sophisticated laboratory instruments to do their experiments. Electron microscopes are used to study bacteria and advanced computer software is used to analyze the growth of microorganisms found in samples.
It is increasingly common for microbiologists to work on teams with technicians and scientists in other fields, because many scientific research projects involve multiple disciplines. Microbiologists may work with medical scientists or biochemists while researching new drugs, or they may work in medical diagnostic laboratories alongside physicians and nurses to help prevent, treat, and cure diseases. For more information, see the profiles on biochemists and biophysicists, physicians and surgeons, and registered nurses.
The following are examples of types of microbiologists:
Bacteriologists study the growth, development, and other properties of bacteria, including the positive and negative effects that bacteria have on plants, animals, and humans.
Clinical microbiologists study how microorganisms live and interact with their environments so that they can later be used to cause, cure, or treat diseases in humans, plants, or animals. Clinical and medical microbiologists whose work is directly researching human health may be classified as medical scientists.
Environmental microbiologists study the ways in which microorganisms interact with the environment. They may study the use of microbes to clean up areas contaminated by heavy metals or study how microbes could aid crop growth.
Immunologists study how plant and animal immune systems react to and defend against pathogens or germs.
Industrial microbiologists work in industry and study and solve problems related to production. They may study microbial growth found in the pipes of a chemical factory, monitor the impact industrial waste has on the local ecosystem, or oversee the microbial activities used in cheese production.
Mycologists study the properties of fungi such as yeast and mold, as well as the ways fungi can be used (for example, in food or the environment) to benefit society.
Virologists study the structure, development, and other properties of viruses and any effects viruses have on infected organisms.
Microbiologists held about 20,100 jobs in 2012. They typically work in laboratories and offices, where they conduct experiments and analyze the results. Microbiologists who work with dangerous organisms must follow strict safety procedures to avoid contamination. Some microbiologists collect samples from lakes, streams, and oceans, and spend some time outside as a result. Most microbiologists work full time and keep regular hours.
Basic researchers who work in academia usually choose the focus of their research and run their own laboratories. Applied researchers who work for companies study the products that the company will sell or suggest modifications to the production process so that it is more efficient. Basic researchers often need to fund their research by winning grants. These grants often put pressure on researchers to meet deadlines and other specifications. Research grants are generally awarded through a competitive selection process.
The industries that employed the most microbiologists in 2012 were as follows:
|Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing||23%|
|Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences||23|
|Federal government, excluding postal service||14|
|State and local government, excluding education and hospitals||11|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state||9|
Most microbiologists work full time and keep regular hours.
A bachelor’s degree in microbiology or a closely related field is needed for entry-level microbiologist jobs. A Ph.D. is needed to carry out independent research and to work in universities.
Microbiologists need at least a bachelor’s degree in microbiology or a closely related field such as biochemistry or cell biology. Many colleges and universities offer degree programs in biological sciences, including microbiology.
Most microbiology majors take introductory courses in microbial genetics and microbial physiology before taking classes in more advanced topics such as environmental microbiology and virology. Students also must take classes in other sciences, such as biochemistry, chemistry, and physics, because it is important for microbiologists to have a broad understanding of the sciences. Courses in statistics, mathematics, and computer science are important for microbiologists because they must be able to do complex data analysis.
It is important for prospective microbiologists to have laboratory experience before entering the workforce. Most undergraduate microbiology programs include a mandatory laboratory requirement, but additional laboratory coursework is recommended. Students also can gain valuable laboratory experience through internships with prospective employers such as drug manufacturers.
Microbiologists typically need a Ph.D. to carry out independent research and work in colleges and universities. Graduate students studying microbiology commonly specialize in a subfield such as bacteriology or immunology. Ph.D. programs usually include class work, laboratory research, and completing a thesis or dissertation.
Many microbiology Ph.D. holders begin their careers in temporary postdoctoral research positions. During their postdoctoral appointment, they work with experienced scientists as they continue to learn about their specialties or develop a broader understanding of related areas of research.
Postdoctoral positions typically offer the opportunity to publish research findings. A solid record of published research is essential to get a permanent position in basic research, especially a permanent faculty position at a college or university.
Communication skills. Microbiologists should be able to effectively communicate their research processes and findings so that knowledge may be applied correctly.
Detail oriented. Microbiologists must be able to conduct scientific experiments and analyses with accuracy and precision.
Interpersonal skills. Microbiologists typically work on research teams and thus must work well with others toward a common goal. Many also lead research teams and must be able to motivate and direct other team members.
Logical-thinking skills. Microbiologists draw conclusions from experimental results through sound reasoning and judgment.
Math skills. Microbiologists regularly use complex mathematical equations and formulas in their work. Therefore, they need a broad understanding of mathematics, including calculus and statistics.
Observation skills. Microbiologists must constantly monitor their experiments. They need to keep a complete, accurate record of their work, noting conditions, procedures, and results.
Perseverance. Microbiological research involves substantial trial and error, and microbiologists must not become discouraged in their work.
Problem-solving skills. Microbiologists use scientific experiments and analysis to find solutions to complex scientific problems.
Microbiologists typically receive greater responsibility and independence in their work as they gain experience. They also gain greater responsibility through more education. Ph.D. microbiologists usually lead research teams and control the direction and content of projects.
Some microbiologists move into managerial positions, often as natural sciences managers. Those who pursue management careers spend much of their time on administrative tasks such as preparing budgets and schedules.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Certifications are available for clinical microbiologists. They may help workers gain employment in the occupation or advance to new positions of responsibility. Certifications are not mandatory for the majority of work done by microbiologists.
The median annual wage for microbiologists was $66,260 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $39,720, and the top 10 percent earned more than $117,690.
In May 2012, the median annual wages for microbiologists in the top five industries in which these microbiologists worked were as follows:
|Federal government, excluding postal service||$96,520|
|Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing||67,070|
|Research and development in the physical, engineering,
and life sciences
|State and local government, excluding education and
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state||52,790|
Most microbiologists work full time and keep regular hours.
Employment of microbiologists is projected to grow 7 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations. More microbiologists will be needed to contribute to basic research, solve problems encountered in industrial production processes, and monitor environmental conditions to help ensure the public’s health and safety.
The development of new medicines and treatments is expected to increase the demand for microbiologists in pharmaceutical and biotechnology research. Microbiologists will be needed to research and develop new medicines and treatments, such as vaccines and antibiotics that are used to fight infectious diseases. In addition, microbiologists will be needed to help pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies develop biological drugs that are produced with the aid of microorganisms.
Aside from improving our health, other areas of research and development in biotechnology are expected to provide employment growth for microbiologists. Many companies, from food producers to chemical companies, will need microbiologists to ensure product quality and production efficiency. Increasing demand for clean energy should drive the need for microbiologists who research and develop alternative energy sources such as biofuels and biomass. In agriculture, more microbiologists will be needed to help develop genetically engineered crops that provide greater yields and require less pesticide and fertilizer. Finally, efforts to discover new and improved ways to preserve the environment and safeguard the public’s health also will increase demand for microbiologists.
Microbiology is a thriving field that should provide good prospects for qualified workers. Most of the applied research projects that microbiologists are involved in require the expertise of scientists in multiple fields such as biophysics, chemistry, and medicine. Microbiologists who have a solid understanding of microbiology and some familiarity with other disciplines should have the best opportunities.
Much of basic research depends on funding from the federal government through the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and private venture capitalists. Federal budgetary decisions and venture capital availability will affect job prospects in basic research from year to year. There is strong competition among microbiologists for research funding. However, many opportunities for microbiologists should continue to be available.
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