The need for qualified microbiologists continues to grow, both for basic research and practical applications. Many microbes have yet to be discovered. In addition, microbiologists are still studying how the known microbes function. As a result, the field of microbiology has virtually unlimited potential. Microbiologists are needed across many industries, including in academic, technology, industrial and environmental organizations.
Several career paths exist for individuals interested in studying microbes, or using microbiology techniques in their daily job activities. Much depends upon the chosen career path, including the degree and training required, the positions available, salary and job outlook, and work environment. Those considering a career in a microbiology, or a related field, will benefit from investigating the options before committing to a specific degree program.
Microbiologists are scientists who study microbes, organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye. They also study how microbes interact with their environment. This includes examining how they cause disease and affect the health of plants, humans and other animals. Immunology — the study of how human health is affected by microbes — is an example of this type of specialization. Some microbiologists may focus on studying one specific type of microbe. For example, bacteriologists study bacteria, and virologists study viruses. Or they may study practical applications of microbiology, such as biotechnology, medical microbiology or industrial microbiology.
A degree in microbiology does not always mean that you have to work in a laboratory. Some microbiologists teach at universities and other schools. Those with an interest in journalism can obtain a job as a science writer. Microbiologists can also combine their education and experience with other degrees, such as law or business. They may find mostly office-based positions in legal, legislative or corporate environments.
Microbiology Job Activities
In spite of the broad range of specialities available in microbiology, many positions have similar job activities. Microbiologists, in general, examine microbes using a variety of tools, such as microscopes. They may use other equipment, including gas chromatographs, electrophoresis gels, fluorescent cell sorters and various incubators. Some laboratories may use toxic chemicals or dyes when working with microbes.
Microbiologists collect samples from the environment, including people, plants, animals and field locations. They also grow the microbes from the samples, and use standard laboratory techniques to isolate specific microbes. Microbiologists may also observe the effect of microbes on their environment or other organisms. This is especially true of medical microbiology, which examines the role of microbes in human health.
Microbiology Employers and Microbiology Work Environment
Microbiologists work for a variety of employers, including the federal government, state and county health departments, and academic institutions. They may also be employed by pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology firms, food and beverage industries, and manufacturing companies. Many microbiologists conduct research in laboratories, as well as work in offices, where they write up the results of their experiments. Academic microbiologists often teach classes, in addition to conducting their own research.
Microbiologists, especially those who carry out research, collaborate with other scientists. They sometimes supervise more inexperienced scientists and students working in their laboratory. Environmental and medical microbiologists, as well as other kinds, may collect samples in the field. Because microbes are found throughout the world, this fieldwork can be carried out in challenging and remote locations. Microbiologists working in the field have to be able to survive with difficult living conditions.
The education required to work as a microbiologist depends upon the position. Degrees range from a high school education to a doctorate degree. Most microbiologists have at least a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, or a related science. Some microbiology laboratory technician positions, especially in medical laboratories, are open to individuals with a high school diploma or an associate’s degree. A higher degree, of course, will allow you to work in more challenging positions, with higher salaries.
Microbiologists who conduct independent research need to have at least a master’s degree, and often a doctorate degree for academic positions. As part of the degree, these programs offer students the opportunity to take part in research, either as part of an existing project, or their own unique study. The coursework provides a broad overview of science and microbiology topics. Students may specialize in one or more areas, both in their courses and in their laboratory research experiences.
Microbiology Salary and Job Outlook
The job outlook and salary for microbiologists varies with the degree and industry. The average salary for microbiologists was $64,350 in 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salaries ranged from $38,240 for those with bachelor’s degrees to more than $111,300 for those doctorate degrees. The average salary of microbiologists working for the federal government was $97,264 in 2009.
The number of positions available for microbiologists is expected to grow faster than average. This will vary with the degree and industry. Those with doctorate degrees will face competition for academic research positions. The number of available positions is partially affected by the amount of funding available for research, which often comes from the federal government.