Microbiologists


Quick Facts: Microbiologists
2017 Median Pay $69,960 per year 
$33.64 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education Bachelor's degree
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training None
Number of Jobs, 2016 23,200
Job Outlook, 2016-26 8% (As fast as average)
Employment Change, 2016-26 1,900
 

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Microbiologist Career, Salary, and Education Information

What Microbiologists Do

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.

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microbiologists

Duties of Microbiologists

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.


Work Environment for Microbiologists

Microbiologists held about 23,200 jobs in 2016. The largest employers of microbiologists were as follows:

Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences: 26%

Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing: 16%

Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private: 12%

Federal government, excluding postal service: 11%

State government, excluding education and hospitals: 6%

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.


How to Become a Microbiologist

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.

Important 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 math, 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.

Time-management skills. Microbiologists usually need to meet deadlines when conducting research and laboratory tests. They must be able to manage time and prioritize tasks efficiently while maintaining their quality of work.

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.


Salaries for Microbiologists

The median annual wage for microbiologists was $69,960 in May 2017. 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 $40,540, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $129,560.

 

In May 2017, the median annual wages for microbiologists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Federal government, excluding postal service: $103,640

Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences: $86,830

Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing: $61,800

State government, excluding education and hospitals: $55,130

Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private: $51,730

Most microbiologists work full time and keep regular hours.


Job Outlook for microbiologists

Employment of microbiologists is projected to grow 8 percent from 2016 to 2026, 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.

Employment projections data for Microbiologists, 2016-26

Employment, 2016: 23,800

Projected Employment, 2026: 24,500

Change, 2016-2026: +3%, +700


Careers Related to microbiologists

Agricultural and Food Scientists

Agricultural and food scientists research ways to improve the efficiency and safety of agricultural establishments and products.

Biochemists and Biophysicists

Biochemists and biophysicists study the chemical and physical principles of living things and of biological processes, such as cell development, growth, heredity, and disease.

Biological Technicians

Biological technicians help biological and medical scientists conduct laboratory tests and experiments.

Conservation Scientists and Foresters

Conservation scientists and foresters manage the overall land quality of forests, parks, rangelands, and other natural resources.

Environmental Scientists and Specialists

Environmental scientists and specialists use their knowledge of the natural sciences to protect the environment and human health. They may clean up polluted areas, advise policymakers, or work with industry to reduce waste.

Geoscientists

Geoscientists study the physical aspects of the Earth, such as its composition, structure, and processes, to learn about its past, present, and future.

Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians

Medical laboratory technologists (commonly known as medical laboratory scientists) and medical laboratory technicians collect samples and perform tests to analyze body fluids, tissue, and other substances.

Medical Scientists

Medical scientists conduct research aimed at improving overall human health. They often use clinical trials and other investigative methods to reach their findings.

Natural Sciences Managers

Natural sciences managers supervise the work of scientists, including chemists, physicists, and biologists. They direct activities related to research and development, and coordinate activities such as testing, quality control, and production.

Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists

Zoologists and wildlife biologists study animals and other wildlife and how they interact with their ecosystems. They study the physical characteristics of animals, animal behaviors, and the impacts humans have on wildlife and natural habitats.

Occupation ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION 2017 MEDIAN PAY
Agricultural and Food Scientists Bachelor's degree $62,910
Biochemists and Biophysicists Doctoral or professional degree $91,190
Biological Technicians Bachelor's degree $43,800
Conservation Scientists and Foresters Bachelor's degree $60,970
Environmental Scientists and Specialists Bachelor's degree $69,400
Geoscientists Bachelor's degree $89,850
Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians $51,770
Medical Scientists Doctoral or professional degree $82,090
Natural Sciences Managers Bachelor's degree $118,970
Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists Bachelor's degree $62,290

Citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Microbiologists,
on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/microbiologists.htm