Microbiologists

by Kate Williams

What Microbiologists Do

Microbiologists study microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, algae, fungi, and some types of parasites.

Work Environment

Microbiologists work in laboratories and offices, where they conduct scientific experiments and analyze the results. 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 typically needed to carry out independent research and to work in colleges and universities.

Pay

The median annual wage for microbiologists was $75,650 in May 2019.

Job Outlook

Employment of microbiologists is projected to grow 3 percent from 2019 to 2029, about as fast as the average for all occupations. More microbiologists will be needed to contribute to basic research, solve problems encountered in industrial production processes, and monitor environmental conditions to ensure public health and safety.

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.

Duties

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.

Microbiologists held about 20,200 jobs in 2019. The largest employers of microbiologists were as follows:

Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 23%
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 13
Federal government, excluding postal service 12
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing 11
State government, excluding education and hospitals 7

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.

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of microbiologists.

Occupation Job Duties Entry-Level Education Median Annual Pay, May 2019

Agricultural and Food Scientists

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

Bachelor’s degree $65,160

Biochemists and Biophysicists

Biochemists and biophysicists study the chemical and physical principles of living things and of biological processes.

Doctoral or professional degree $94,490

Biological Technicians

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

Bachelor’s degree $45,860

Conservation Scientists and Foresters

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

Bachelor’s degree $62,410

Environmental Scientists and Specialists

Environmental scientists and specialists use their knowledge of the natural sciences to protect the environment and human health.

Bachelor’s degree $71,360

Geoscientists

Geoscientists

Geoscientists study the physical aspects of the Earth.

Bachelor’s degree $92,040

Medical and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians

Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians

Clinical laboratory technologists and technicians collect samples and perform tests to analyze body fluids, tissue, and other substances.

Bachelor’s degree $53,120

Medical scientists

Medical Scientists

Medical scientists conduct research aimed at improving overall human health.

Doctoral or professional degree $88,790

Natural Sciences Managers

Natural sciences managers supervise the work of scientists, including chemists, physicists, and biologists.

Bachelor’s degree $129,100

Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists

Zoologists and wildlife biologists study animals and other wildlife and how they interact with their ecosystems.

Bachelor’s degree $63,270

For more information about microbiologists, visit

American Society for Microbiology

International Union of Microbiological Societies

Society for Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology

To find job openings for microbiologists in the federal government, visit

USAJOBS

For general information about careers and specialties in biological sciences, visit

American Institute of Biological Sciences

The American Society for Cell Biology

American Society for Clinical Pathology

Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

For information about microbiologists’ tools and activities, visit

Virtual Urchin

For more information about microbiological topics, visit

Microbiological Garden

Tree of Life Web Project

O*NET

Microbiologists


Suggested citation:

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


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