Careers in the Microbiological Sciences

What is a Microbiologist?

Although known by many different titles, a microbiologist is a scientist who studies living organisms and infectious agents many of whom can only be seen with a microscope.  They also study the interaction of microorganisms with people.  Every day microbiologists around the world explore, investigate, and discover how these organisms, called microbes, exist and affect our lives.

Where Does a Microbiologist Work and With Whom?

As a microbiologist, you will work with many other scientists and have a vast range of opportunities.  Microbiologists work in almost every industry and have many different responsibilities. You will collaborate with many other scientists.  Depending on your specific situation, you may perform more than one function or role.

Can I Specialize?

Microbiologists can specialize in a variety of areas.  Bacteriologist study how bacteria infect humans, animals and plants, reproduce and cause disease.  Biochemist study how organisms derive energy, use nutrients and reproduce.  Microbial physiologist and biochemist study life processes of microbes and how organisms use nutrients and divide. Mycologist study fungi, molds, and yeast to discover how they infect living matter, reproduce and cause disease.  Parasitologist study parasitic organisms to find out how they infect living hosts, reproduce and cause disease.  Virologist study viruses or pieces of genetic material that are only active inside living cells.

What Kinds of Career Paths Are There?

Depending on your experience and education , there are a number of options and opportunities to choose from in  your career as a microbiologist.

Two-Year Technical Training Degree:

One option is obtaining a associate of arts or an associate of applied science degree, from a community college or technical institution.  There are increasing opportunities for laboratory assistants and this training will give you the necessary qualifications.  The curriculum covers a two year program and includes courses in biology, life sciences, chemistry, physics, math, and computer sciences.

Baccalaureate Degree:

Graduation with a B.S. in biology or microbiology will  help you qualify for many technical, research environmental, and clinical positions.  Some include:

  • Research  Assistant – A key player to research teams, providing technical support to conduct research.  A research assistant participates in a team with a director and a scientists as well as marketing, administrative, and sales professionals.
  • Food, Industrial, or environmental microbiologists, quality assurance technologists –  Identifies disease or harmful causing microorganisms in water, food, dairy, pharmaceutical , and environmental products.  In addition, they check for the quality and safety of vitamins, vaccines, antibiotics, antiseptics, and disinfectants.
  • Clinical and veterinary microbiologist, medical technologists – Identifies disease causing microorganism in humans and animals.

Masters Degree:

A masters degree will broaden your career choices in marketing, sales, administrative, teaching, and technical support positions.  Opportunities include:

  • Supervisor or laboratory manager – Supervises day to day activities in a variety of  laboratories.
    Research manager or associate – Performs experiments and provides technical support to the research teams.
  • Instructor – Teaches courses at the community and junior college levels.

Doctoral Degree:

A Ph.D. or M.D. is almost always required for higher level positions in microbiology and other sciences.  Achieving your doctoral degree will greatly enhance your opportunities.  You will be able to perform independent research, teach undergraduate and graduate students, and assume executive level responsibilities in government and industry.  Specific jobs include:

  • Scientist – Formulates hypotheses for experimental investigation, conducts research, and trains students and laboratory personnel.
  • University or college professor –  Teaches in the classroom or laboratory, trains students, conducts research, and performs community service.
    Academic science administrator – Serves as college or university dean or in other administrative positions such as vice president or president.
  • Research director – Leads a research team that explores and tries to understand unanswered questions and unproven theories.
  • Corporate executive – Oversees part, or all of, a company such as a biotechnology, pharmaceutical, agricultural. or environmental agency.
  • Science advisor or administrator – Leads programs concerned with safety of new devices, food, drugs and chemicals, and helps influence laws, regulations, and research for government agencies

Combining a Science Education with Another Discipline

You  may choose to combine your undergraduate degree in a science related field with a graduate degree in another area such as business, marketing, or journalism.  This enable you to pursue opportunities in scientific sales, technical support, writing, public relations, communications, regulatory affairs or management.  Completing a B.S. degree in microbiology also gives you the necessary foundation to continue an education in medical, veterinary, dental, or legal fields.

How Much Does a Microbiologist Make?

Salaries among microbiologist vary a great deal depending on education, experience, type of job, and education.  Listed below is a general guide to what you could expect to earn given the indicated educational level of achievement and type of company or institution.  The lower end of the salary scale represents salaries for people starting a career in microbiology and the higher end represents a microbiologist with many years experience.

  • Educational Institution:  Doctorate – $30,000 – $200,000+, Masters – $20,000 – $60,000+, Baccalaureate – $16,000 – $30,000+
  • Industry:  Doctorate – $35,000 – $200,000+, Masters – $25,000 – $80,000+, Baccalaureate – $18,000 – $50,000+
  • Public Sector Government:  Doctorate – $35,000 – $100,000+, Masters – $25,000 – $60,000, Baccalaureate – $17,000 – $40,000+

How Can I Prepare to Become a Microbiologist?

In your quest to become a microbiologist, you must build a solid foundation with emphasis in reading, writing, math, computer science, and communication.  As a microbiologist, you will probably specialize in one area.  In order to do that, you will need to be familiar with many scientific disciplines.  Your course work in high school provides a basic foundation.  Four years of college gives breadth to that knowledge and post-graduate studies enable you to probe into your selected area.

Here are specific actions to take as you continue your education:

High School:

Your course work should include biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, and math.  English courses are also important because microbiologist spend much of their time communicating results through speeches, articles, and manuscripts.  Foreign languages are also critical for exchanging information with scientists around the world.  You should participate in extracurricular activities such as science fairs, and clubs.  If possible, work in a research laboratory  of a university or science related company part-time during the summers.  These activities provide valuable insight and actual experience in a scientific environment.

Undergraduate:

You should major in microbiology and if there is none available, you should major in biological or life sciences, or chemistry and take all offered courses in microbiology.  These include microbiology, microbial or molecular genetics, cell biology, immunology, virology, pathogens, and parasitology.  Your other course work should include general biology, qualitative and quantitative chemistry, organic and biochemistry, calculus, physics, computer science, statistics, and technical writing.  To receive the greatest benefit of your undergraduate program, work in a laboratory and participate in extracurricular programs such as microbiology or biology clubs and honor societies.  Join local and national scientific professional societies and take advantage of student events.  To develop necessary hand-eye coordination and group interaction skills, participate in activities that develop manipulative precision, and team building skills.