Traditionally, microbiologists worked mainly in laboratory research settings. With the new appreciation of the role of microbes in human and environmental health, as well as their potential in biotechnology, microbiologists now work as integral members of interdisciplinary teams in hospitals, clinics, universities, industry, and government. They are on the cutting edge of science.
What is a microbiologist?
Microbiologists are scientists who study living organisms and infectious agents, such as bacteria and viruses, that can only be seen with a microscope. They work in a variety of contexts, including food production, environmental science, medicine, and basic research, and can have many different job titles, from Biosafety Officer to Professor. There are opportunities to work as a microbiologist with as little training as an Associate's Degree (AS) or as much training as a medical doctor (MD) or doctor of philosophy (PhD). Wages depend on education, job sector, and experience, and range from $40,000/year to well over $100,000/year.
Where do microbiologists work and what do they do?
Microbiologists of all specialties work at colleges or universities as professors, research scientists, or lecturers. Typically, professors do a mix of research and teaching, while research scientists only do research and lecturers only teach. In science, "research" includes writing grant proposals to get funding for experiments, designing and doing experiments, analyzing data, and publishing the results in scientific journals. Professors have the added responsibilities of managing their labs and mentoring others working in their labs. Teaching at a college or university involves designing classes, giving lectures and leading labs, writing exams, and mentoring students. Professors and lecturers can teach large undergraduate courses, such as Biology 101, or small, graduate level electives, such as Environmental Microbiology. At schools that offer professional degrees in nursing, dentistry, pharmacy, or medicine, professors and lecturers may also guest teach certain parts of courses for professional students.
Visit our Academic Career Paths page for additional information.
Clinical microbiologists typically work in hospitals, as well as public health, medical, or veterinary laboratories. They run various tests on patient or animal samples sent to the lab 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 common antimicrobial medications. Clinical microbiologists also work with public health officials to track outbreaks. At higher career levels, they develop new diagnostic tests and procedures and may manage an entire clinical laboratory.
Visit our Clinical Microbiology Career Paths page for additional information.
Microbiologists can also work for commercial or industrial companies. Like microbiologists at colleges and universities, some of these microbiologists do research to help their companies develop new products and improve existing products or industrial processes. "Products" can be anything from plants that are resistant to infections (agricultural biotech companies) to probiotic yogurt (food companies). "Industrial processes" can include using microbes to extract minerals (mining companies), clean up pollutants (sewage companies), and make medicines (pharmaceutical companies). Other microbiologists work in quality control to make sure that products are safe and do not deteriorate from microbiological activity over time.
View our Industrial Microbiology Career Paths page for additional information.
Finally, some microbiologists combine their technical expertise with interests in other fields. Hybrid careers include patent law, public policy, science writing, education, infectious disease medicine, and business analysis. Most of these hybrid careers require additional education or experience in a field outside of microbiology.
How do I prepare for a career in microbiology?
Recommended High School Courses:
- Four years of math
- Other science or math electives, such as AP Biology or Microbiology
Recommended Undergraduate Courses:
- Biology or Life Science
- General Microbiology
- Organic Chemistry
- 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 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?
Associate Degree (or other two-year technical training degree)
After high school, one option is to earn an Associate of Arts (AA) or an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree from a community or two-year technical college. With this level of education, you can work in a variety of clinical and research laboratories as a microbiology 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.
You can enter a Bachelor's of Science (BS) or Bachelor's of the Arts (BA) degree program straight out of high school or after completing an Associate's Degree (many Bachelor's degree programs will accept transfer students and course credits from an Associate's degree program at an affiliated two-year college). Bachelor's degree programs typically take four 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, medical, or veterinary laboratory scientist/technologist - Performs established, well-validated tests on human and animal samples to detect disease-causing microbes. Technologist 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 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, at hospitals, at government agencies, and at commercial companies. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, the 2015 median salary for these positions was around $65,000/year.
A Master's of the Arts (MA) or a Master's of Science (MS) degree can be earned after successfully earning a Bachelor's degree. Master's degree programs typically take one to two 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 primarily undergraduate colleges and universities. Participates in course development, faculty meetings, accreditation processes, and advises student
Note that in the life sciences at U.S. institutions, you do NOT need to complete a Master's degree before pursuing a Doctoral degree. The most common Doctoral degrees pursued by microbiologists are Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), and combined MD-PhD degrees. An MD requires completion of four years of medical school (full time), as well as passing licensing exams. Practicing doctors must complete at least one additional year of internship training and pass a final licensing exam. A PhD typically requires one to two years of coursework, followed by the completion of thesis project based on original scientific research. Total time to completion can range from three to eight years (full time). Unlike medical students, PhD students typically do not pay tuition and in fact, most earn a stipend based on research or teaching responsibilities. After completing a PhD, some people, especially those who want to pursue a research career, work as a postdoctoral fellow (aka postdoctoral research associate) for two to five years for additional training.
A Doctoral degree is almost always required for higher-level positions in microbiology and other sciences. With this degree, 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 postdoctoral fellows who are doing research, serves on university/college committees.
- 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 or research & development team either at a company or at a government agency. Determines direction of the program and directs efforts of research personnel.
- 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.