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Bioscience Careers

Microbiologist

  • Photo: NASA

Microbiology is the study of living organisms that are invisible to the naked eye, such as bacteria and fungi. Though not living organisms, viruses also are studied by microbiologists.

Though many people tend to group them together, there are many different types of microbiology. Medical microbiology is perhaps the most well-known because it deals with the roles that microbes have in human illness. Other types include veterinary microbiology, environmental microbiology, food microbiology and pharmaceutical microbiology. All these deal with the way microbes or microorganisms affect animals, the environment, the food supply and the health care industry.

Career Opportunities

Hospital/Clinical Laboratories

Microbiologists in this field typically work to identify disease-causing bacteria that may have affected a patient or potentially could affect the human body. This type of microbiologist can assist in preventing the spread of disease by containing and treating it.

Food Industry

This type of microbiologist works with the food supply that later is distributed to grocery stores and other vendors and also may work with organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture. These microbiologists ensure the food supply is free of pathogenic organisms that may be harmful to the health of those who consume it. Food microbiologists are very important and provide a way to guarantee the food is safe to distribute to the public.

Environmental

Microbiologists who work with the environment study how organisms such as bacteria function and react in the environment. This field deals not only with how organisms react to themselves but also with how they react to other processes in the environment, such as pollution, living things like plants and animals, simple seasonal changes and the changing and evolving world in general.

Research Laboratories

Many microbiologists work as research scientists. They study and test bacteria and other organisms in controlled environments to better understand their breakdown and how they react when put through different tests. The fundamental discoveries these microbiologists make have a great impact on the way medications are distributed, illnesses are treated and health care systems are run, and important breakthroughs are not uncommon. Research can be a very rewarding field for microbiologists because it is where the practice of microbiology begins. The information and insight that research microbiologists gain can change the ways in which those in many other fields behave.

Teaching

Instructional microbiology is another very common subset of the field. Community colleges and universities are popular places for microbiologists to lecture about the systems and advances of microbiology. It is an ever-changing field, so instructors need to be constantly learning in order to pass that information on to their students. Many microbiologists are fascinated with the field they have chosen for their life’s work and decide teaching others is the best, most rewarding way to be involved with microbiology.

Education/Training

Most microbiologists work in one of the five aforementioned fields: hospitals/clinical laboratories, the food industry, the environment, research laboratories and teaching at community colleges or universities. A career as a microbiologist usually requires an education beyond the high school level. Some microbiologists practice with two-year associate degrees in a scientific field such as chemistry or biology, but most have at least a four-year bachelor’s degree from a college or university. Typically, these degrees are given in areas such as microbiology, chemistry or biology. Some microbiologists gain master’s degrees, which require research and usually lead to teaching positions in universities or colleges, while others seek doctoral degrees. A doctoral degree, or Ph.D., serves to give a microbiologist a great amount of research experience and extensive schooling in the field of microbiology.

Certification

To become a microbiologist, one must attain a bachelor’s degree in a related field such as biology, chemistry or physics. In most cases, a master’s degree, a Ph.D. or both can help give a microbiologist the upper hand in determining what he or she will do for a living and what his or her ultimate salary will be.

Salary

Because microbiologists can choose to enter numerous fields and can have varying degrees of education, their salaries range greatly. The highest salaries typically are awarded to those working in industries such as research, while those working in educational settings such as colleges or universities usually make less. What’s more, those with advanced degrees such as a Ph.D. can command higher salaries because of their extensive knowledge and schooling in the subject area.

Salaries for microbiologists can range from $20,000 per year to more than $100,000 per year. Beginning microbiologists with bachelor’s degrees can expect to be closer to the $20,000 range, while those with doctoral degrees can expect to earn about $40,000 per year until they have gained experience in practice. The salaries for microbiologists usually increase quickly with time, but those with higher degrees have a better chance of earning a higher salary. The median salary for a beginning microbiologist with a Ph.D. in 2006 was $38,392 per year, while the median salary for a microbiologist with five to eight years of experience was $70,567. The median salary for those with more than eight years’ experience was $79,952.