Careers in Microbiology and the Microbial Sciences

Nov. 12, 2019

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What Is a Microbiologist?

microbiologist
\ ˌmī-​krō-​bī-​ˈä-​lə-​jist \ noun
a scientist who studies living organisms and infectious particles, such as bacteria and viruses, that can only be seen with a microscope 
 
Members of the American Society for Microbiology share their stories of how they discovered microbiology.
In decades past, microbiologists worked mainly in laboratory research settings. With our new appreciation of the role of microbes in our world, microbiologists now work in a variety of contexts, including food production, environmental science, medicine and basic research. They work in hospitals, universities, private companies, non-profit organizations and government, and have many different job titles, from Biosafety Officer to Professor. You can work as a microbiologist with as little training as an Associate Degree (A.S.) or as much training as a medical doctor (M.D.) or doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.). Wages depend on education, job sector and experience, and range from $40,000/year to well over $100,000/year. 

What Do Microbiologists Do?
     Research
     Teaching
     Diagnostics
     Biosafety
     Hybrid Career Paths
​How Do I Prepare for a Career in Microbiology?
What Level of Education Do I Need?
     Associate Degree
     Bachelor's Degree
     Master's Degree
     Doctoral or Medical Degree

What Do Microbiologists Do?

Research

Microbiology researchers try to answer scientific questions that no one else has answered before by doing experiments – they are explorers, making discoveries, developing new knowledge and applying it to real-world problems. Here are examples of questions a microbiology researcher might ask:
  • Which microbes help keep the human body healthy?
  • Can this microbe be used to clean up pollution?
  • What microbe made these animals sick?
  • How can we keep this food product from spoiling?
In microbiology, "research" includes the following tasks: Microbiologists whose jobs involve research work in many different places, from colleges and universities, to government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to private companies and non-profit organizations. At higher levels, microbiology researchers have the added responsibilities of managing a lab or research group and mentoring graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and others working in their labs.
 
Microbiology research job titles include laboratory technician, research associate, laboratory manager, research scientist, professor (colleges and universities), lead scientist (private company) and principal investigator (government lab, non-profit organizations). 

Teaching

Teaching at a college or university involves several tasks:
  • designing classes
  • teaching classes and leading laboratory activities
  • writing and grading exams
  • advising students 
Educators at colleges and universities are typically professors, lecturers or laboratory instructors. Professors do a mix of research (see previous section) and teaching, while lecturers and laboratory instructors only teach. Professors and lecturers teach the classroom portions of large undergraduate courses, such as Biology 101, and small, graduate-level electives, such as Environmental Microbiology. Laboratory instructors teach the laboratory sections of a variety of courses, guiding students through experiments and keeping the teaching laboratory in good working order.
 
At schools that offer professional degrees in nursing, dentistry, pharmacy or medicine, microbiology educators may also guest teach certain parts of courses for professional students.

Diagnostics

Microbiologists focused on diagnostics are clinical laboratory professionals in hospitals, public health laboratories, private medical or veterinary diagnostic laboratories and private companies. In hospitals and laboratories, they run tests on patient or animal samples sent in by doctors or vets. These tests help identify the microbe making a patient/animal sick and can help the doctor/vet with treatment decisions by determining if the microbe is sensitive or resistant to antimicrobial medicines like antibiotics.
 
In public health laboratories, clinical microbiologists also track and determine the source of disease outbreaks. At private companies, clinical microbiologists perform research (see first career section) to develop new diagnostic tests and procedures. At higher career levels, these professionals may manage an entire clinical laboratory and its staff.

Biosafety

Biosafety professionals make sure that the work in clinical and research laboratories is done safely using the appropriate equipment and procedures and that all Federal, State and Local regulations and guidelines are being followed. Their job is to prevent employees from being injured or infected and to prevent microbes and other biological agents from getting outside of the lab. They do this by training researchers and clinical laboratory professionals, putting safety policies and procedures in place and consulting on laboratory design. Biosafety professionals work in many different job sectors, including colleges and universities, private companies, hospitals and government agencies.

Hybrid Career Paths

Some microbiologists combine their scientific expertise with skills and interests in other fields. These careers typically require a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, plus a degree or additional training in a second field.

Business analysts help companies and investment firms evaluate a particular scientific or medical market to guide their strategies and decisions. For example, a business analyst with a background in microbiology may help an investment firm decide whether or not to financially support a biotechnology startup. Some business analysts work directly for a particular company, while others work at consulting firms or as freelance consultants. They frequently have Masters of Business Administration (M.B.A.) degrees.

Infectious disease physicians or veterinarians train first as doctors (M.D. or D.O.) or vets (D.V.M.) and then specialize in patient care for people/animals suffering from infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis or Q-fever. Some infectious disease specialists not only see patients, but also do microbiology research.

Patent lawyers work at law firms or private companies. They protect intellectual property by writing and filing patents on new scientific devices, processes or products. They also pursue or defend lawsuits related to patent infringement. Patent lawyers have a law degree (J.D.) as well as scientific expertise. 

Public policy and regulatory affairs professionals work at government agencies, non-profit organizations and private companies. In government, these professionals develop policies, legislation, and regulations related to biomedical products, healthcare and laboratory research. At non-profits and private companies, these professionals help their organizations understand and advocate for specific policies and regulations.

Science education or outreach professionals work at colleges and universities, non-profit organizations, museums and government agencies. Some also work for the corporate responsibility arms of private companies. These professionals design and organize programs and events that engage public or K-12 audiences with science.

Science writers work for newspapers, magazines and other media companies, as well as for government institutions. They also frequently work as freelancers. They research stories and write articles on technical subjects and must keep up on current events and new research being published.
 

How Do I Prepare for a Career in Microbiology?

In high school, take these classes: In college, take these classes:
4 years of math Biology or Life Science
Biology Calculus
Chemistry Chemistry
Physics General Microbiology
Other science or math electives, such as AP Biology or Microbiology Organic Chemistry
  Biochemistry
  Physics
  Statistics
  Other science or math electives, such as Computer Science or Immunology

Additional activities that can help you prepare for a career in microbiology include participating in school science fairs and extracurricular science clubs, joining local and national scientific societies (like ASM), pursuing internships and student research experiences and participating in activities that develop technical, communication and leadership skills.

What Level of Education Do I Need?

This infographic shows microbiology jobs by minimum education level (from High School Diploma up to Postdoctoral Fellowship). Icons indicate the focus of a particular job, from Research to Biosafety, as explained in the "What Do Microbiologists Do?" section.
Source: ASM's "Explore Microbiology" booklet

Associate Degree (or other 2-year technical training degree)

After high school, one option is to earn an Associate of Arts (A.A.) or an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree from a community or 2-year technical college. With this level of education, you can work in a variety of clinical and research laboratories as a laboratory technician. Graduates of accredited associate degree programs may be eligible for certifications, such as the American Society for Clinical Pathology's Medical Laboratory Technician (ASCP MLT) certification. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, the 2015 median salary for laboratory technician positions was around $40,000/year. In addition, ASCP's 2013 Wage Survey of U.S. Clinical Laboratories found that certified laboratory professionals earn more than their non-certified counterparts.  

Bachelor's Degree

You can enter a Bachelor's of Science (B.S.) or Bachelor's of the Arts (B.A.) degree program straight out of high school or after completing an Associate Degree (many Bachelor's programs will accept transfer students and course credits from an Associate degree program at an affiliated 2-year college). Bachelor's degree programs typically take 4 years of full-time study. With a Bachelor's Degree, you can work as a microbiologist in many different contexts. 
  • Food, agricultural or environmental laboratory scientist/technologist - Performs established, well-validated tests on water, food, agricultural and environmental samples to detect different types of microbes. These professionals have to be precise and pay attention to detail so that test results are accurate. They may also participate in reporting test results to others outside of the lab.
  • Public health, clinical or veterinary laboratory scientist/technologist - Performs established, well-validated tests on human and animal samples to detect disease-causing microbes. Certifications, such as the American Society for Clinical Pathology's Medical Laboratory Scientist (ASCP MLS) certification, may be required or preferred.
  • Research associate - A key player on research teams, who provides technical support to ongoing research projects. A research associate executes experiments designed by more senior researchers. He/she may be assigned to a single research project or to a set of related techniques that are used across projects in the lab. For example, in research laboratories that use live cell cultures, it is common to have a research associate who's job is to maintain all of the lab's the cultures.
  • Quality assurance/control scientist - Performs tests on products, such as measuring microbe contaminants, to ensure the products meet safety and quality standards.
  • Biosafety specialist - Inspects laboratories and related facilities to ensure that both the space and the practices of those using the space adhere to state and federal regulations for safety, occupational and environmental health. For example, he/she might inspect a laboratory and issue a citation if there is evidence of food in the laboratory space. Acts as a resource for colleagues seeking guidance on occupational or environmental health concerns. Provides safety training to laboratory personnel.
These positions can be found across many different sectors, including at colleges and universities, hospitals, government agencies and commercial companies. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, the 2015 median salary for these positions was around $65,000/year.

Master's Degree

A Master's of the Arts (M.A.) or a Master's of Science (M.S.) degree can be earned after successfully earning a Bachelor's Degree. Master's degree programs typically take 1-2 years to complete, and some are designed to allow students to work full-time while enrolled in the program.  
  • Clinical or research laboratory manager - Manages day-to-day activities in a variety of laboratories. Trains laboratory personnel in experimental techniques, maintains lab inventories and equipment, supervises junior staff (technicians, technologists and assistants/associates). Clinical laboratory manager positions typically require certification.
  • Biosafety officer - Plans, develops and manages biosafety programs. These programs typically include providing appropriate training for laboratory personnel, assessing biosafety risks of particular projects, inspecting laboratories for compliance with biosafety standards, responding to biosafety emergencies and making recommendations to improve safety and environmental and occupational health.
  • Instructor/laboratory coordinator - Teaches classroom and/or laboratory courses at community colleges or 4-year colleges and universities. Participates in course development, faculty meetings, accreditation processes and advises students.

Doctoral or Medical Degree

Note that at U.S. institutions, you do NOT need to complete a Master's Degree before pursuing a Doctoral Degree or a Medical Degree. However, you do need to complete a Bachelor's Degree.

Microbiologists typically pursue Doctor of Medicine (M.D.), Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or combined M.D.-Ph.D. degrees. An M.D. requires completion of 4 years of medical school (full time), as well as passing licensing exams. Practicing doctors must complete at least 1 additional year of internship training (also known as the 1st year of residency) and pass a final licensing exam. At this point in training, a medical doctor is considered a general practitioner (GP). Many medical doctors go on to complete additional years of residency in a specialty (for example, pediatrics) and sit for board exams to become licensed in that specialty.

A Ph.D. typically requires 1-2 years of coursework, followed by the completion of a thesis project based on original scientific research. Total time to completion can range from 3-8 years (full time). Unlike medical students, Ph.D. students typically do not pay tuition and in fact, most earn a stipend based on research or teaching responsibilities. After completing a Ph.D., some people, especially those who want to pursue a research career, work as a Postdoctoral Fellow (aka Postdoctoral Research Associate) for 2-5 years for additional training. Postdocs develop original scientific research under the mentorship of a Principal Investigator or Professor.

A Doctoral or Medical Degree is almost always required for higher-level positions in microbiology. With these degrees, you will be able to perform independent research, teach undergraduate and graduate students and assume executive-level responsibilities. 
  • Research scientist - A senior member of a research laboratory who helps write grant proposals, designs and carries out experiments, analyzes data and publishes the results. Also trains students and laboratory personnel.
  • University/college professor - Heads a research laboratory, teaches undergraduate and/or graduate students, trains and mentors students and postdocs who are doing research, serves on faculty committees.
  • Principal investigator - Equivalent of a professor, but at a government agency or non-profit research institution and does not typically teach students. 
  • Consultant - Works either freelance or as part of a consulting firm. Prepares reports on the state of scientific fields, companies in a particular market or emerging issues in science and advises client organizations, such as businesses or foundations.
  • Clinical laboratory director - Head of a clinical laboratory. Consults with healthcare providers, evaluates and implements new diagnostic tests or testing procedures, maintains laboratory accreditation, oversees overall laboratory operation.
  • Research director - Leads a research program either at a company or at a government agency. Determines direction and priorities of the program and directs efforts of research personnel and laboratories.
  • Administrator at a university/college - Has responsibility for a particular set of academic departments (dean) or an aspect of the administration, such as admissions (vice president). Typically, administrators act as executive officers and do not teach or conduct research.
  • Corporate executive - Oversees part or all of a company. Typically no longer does research, but guides overall company strategy and determines what products are brought to market.
  • Science advisor/administrator in government - Leads regulatory and surveillance programs concerned with product safety and public health. Makes recommendations that influence laws, regulations and public policy.


Author: Katherine Lontok

Katherine Lontok
Dr. Katherine Lontok joined the American Society for Microbiology as the Public Outreach Manager in January 2016. At ASM, she works to bring the microbial sciences to adult and youth audiences, as well as enable ASM members to effectively engage in their own public outreach.