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.

Duties

Microbiologists typically do the following:

  • Plan and conduct complex research projects, such as improving sterilization procedures or developing new drugs to combat infectious diseases
  • Perform laboratory experiments that are used in the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses
  • 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
  • Review literature and the findings of other researchers and attend conferences
  • Prepare technical reports, publish research papers, and make recommendations based on their research findings
  • Present research findings to scientists, nonscientist executives, engineers, other colleagues, and the public

Many microbiologists work in research and development conducting basic research or applied research. The aim of basic research is to increase scientific knowledge. An example is growing strains of bacteria in various conditions to learn how they react to those conditions. Other microbiologists conduct applied research and develop new products to solve particular problems. For example, microbiologists may aid in the development of genetically engineered crops, better biofuels, or new vaccines.

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 molecular biologists while researching new drugs, or they may work in medical diagnostic laboratories alongside physicians and nurses to help prevent, treat, and cure diseases.

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 perform a wide range of clinical laboratory tests on specimens collected from plants, humans, and animals to aid in detection of disease. Clinical and medical microbiologists whose work involves directly researching human health may be classified as medical scientists.

Environmental microbiologists study how microorganisms interact with the environment and each other. They may study the use of microbes to clean up areas contaminated by heavy metals or study how microbes could aid crop growth.

Industrial microbiologists study and solve problems related to industrial production processes. They may examine 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 to ensure quality.

Mycologists study the properties of fungi such as yeast and mold. They also study the ways fungi can be used to benefit society (for example, in food or the environment) and the risks fungi may pose.

Parasitologists study the life cycle of parasites, the parasite-host relationship, and how parasites adapt to different environments. They may investigate the outbreak and control of parasitic diseases such as malaria.

Public health microbiologists examine specimens to track, control, and prevent communicable diseases and other health hazards. They typically provide laboratory services for local health departments and community health programs.

Virologists study the structure, development, and other properties of viruses and any effects viruses have on infected organisms.

Many people with a microbiology background become high school teachers or postsecondary teachers.

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Work Environment

Microbiologists held about 21,700 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of microbiologists were as follows:

Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences                           24%
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing 15
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 14
Federal government, excluding postal service 11
State government, excluding education and hospitals 7

Microbiologists typically work in laboratories, offices, and industrial settings where they conduct experiments and analyze the results. Microbiologists who work with dangerous organisms must follow strict safety procedures to avoid contamination. Some microbiologists may conduct onsite visits or collect samples from the environment or worksites, and, as a result, may travel occasionally and spend some time outside.

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 the company can become 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.

Work Schedules

Most microbiologists work full time and keep regular hours.

Education and Training

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.

Education

Microbiologists need at least a bachelor’s degree in microbiology or a closely related program that offers substantial coursework in microbiology, such as biochemistry or cell biology. Many colleges and universities offer degree programs in biological sciences, including microbiology.

Most microbiology majors take core courses in microbial genetics and microbial physiology and elective classes such as environmental microbiology and virology. Students also should 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, math, and computer science are important for microbiologists because they may need 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.

Training

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 and 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 getting a permanent college or university faculty position.

Advancement

Microbiologists typically receive greater responsibility and independence in their work as they gain experience. They also gain greater responsibility through certification and higher 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 not mandatory for the majority of work done by microbiologists. However, certifications are available for clinical microbiologists and for those who specialize in the fields of food safety and quality and pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Certification may help workers gain employment in the occupation or advance to new positions of responsibility.

Personality and Interests

Microbiologists typically have an interest in the Building and Thinking interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Thinking interest which might fit with a career as a microbiologist, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Microbiologists should also possess the following specific qualities:

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.

Pay

The median annual wage for microbiologists was $75,650 in May 2019. 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 $43,500, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $133,280.

In May 2019, the median annual wages for microbiologists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Federal government, excluding postal service $106,670
Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences                          101,100
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing 67,990
State government, excluding education and hospitals 57,770
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 56,850

Most microbiologists work full time and keep regular hours.

Job Outlook

Employment of microbiologists is projected to grow 5 percent from 2018 to 2028, about as fast as the average for all occupations. More microbiologists will be needed to contribute to basic research and solve problems of industrial production.

Microbiologists will be needed to research and develop new medicines and treatments, such as vaccines and antibiotics. In addition, microbiologists will be needed to help pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies develop drugs that are produced with the aid of microorganisms.

Aside from improving health, other areas of research and development 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. Efforts to find more clean sources of energy will involve microbiologists, such as mycologists and industrial microbiologists, who research and develop alternative energy sources such as biofuels and biomass. In agriculture, microbiologists will be needed to help develop genetically engineered crops that provide greater yields or require less pesticide and fertilizer. Finally, efforts to discover new and improved ways to preserve the environment and safeguard public health also will make use of microbiologists.

Job Prospects

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 geology, chemistry, and medicine. Microbiologists with some familiarity of other disciplines should have the best opportunities.

Much of basic research depends on funding from the federal government through the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Federal budgetary decisions and private 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 are likely to be available.

For More Information

For more information about microbiologists, visit

American Society for Microbiology

International Union of Microbiological Societies

Society for Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology

To find job openings for microbiologists in the federal government, visit

USAJOBS

For general information about careers and specialties in biological sciences, visit

American Institute of Biological Sciences

The American Society for Cell Biology

American Society for Clinical Pathology

Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

For information about microbiologists’ tools and activities, visit

Virtual Urchin

For more information about microbiological topics, visit

Microbiological Garden

Tree of Life Web Project

 

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