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Microbiologist Job Description, Career as a Microbiologist, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: Doctoral degree

Salary: Median—$54,840 per year

Employment Outlook: Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Microbiologists are biological scientists who study organisms so small that, generally, they can only be seen with a microscope. These microorganisms include bacteria, algae, yeasts, fungi, protozoa, viruses, and other microscopic forms of life. Microbiologists isolate and make cultures of microorganisms, identify their characteristics, and observe their reactions to chemicals and other kinds of stimuli. They also study how microorganisms develop and reproduce as well as their distribution in nature.

Many microbiologists work for universities, where they teach and do research. Others work at medical centers or in private industry. Some work for government agencies. Although their jobs have different aspects and responsibilities, most microbiologists do some research or laboratory work. They use special equipment to study microorganisms including light microscopes, electron microscopes, centrifuges, glass tubes, slides, and computers. They are often assisted by biological technicians.

Microbiology is a broad field that includes the study of viruses as well as microscopic organisms found in all kingdoms of life: plants, animals, protists, fungi, and bacteria. Some microbiologists specialize in one type of microorganism. For example, bacteriologists concentrate on bacteria and virologists study viruses.

Microbiologists work in several areas. Many do basic research to increase knowledge about the life processes common to microbes. Their work helps to answer basic questions such as those pertaining to the use of food and oxygen in cells. Other microbiologists are employed in medicine. Medical microbiologists study the relationship between microorganisms and disease. They isolate and identify disease-producing organisms and study their distribution. They also study the ways that the organisms enter the bodies of humans and animals, establish themselves, and cause disease. Immunologists, for example, study the body's defensive responses to microorganisms. Other medical microbiologists study the Microbiologists study microscopic forms of life such as bacteria, algae, yeast, fungi, protozoa, and viruses. (© CDC/PHIL/Corbis.) effects of antibiotics on bacteria. Some are concerned with the role of viruses in cancer. Others help to develop new ways to treat and prevent disease.

Microbiologists are also employed in the related field of public health. They work to combat problems such as outbreaks of epidemics, food poisoning, and the pollution of air and water. For example, public health microbiologists test blood samples sent in by physicians to see whether patients have a communicable disease. They also test drinking water, milk supplies, and other substances that can affect the health of the general public.

Other fields in which microbiologists work include agriculture, marine microbiology, and industry. Agricultural microbiologists study the microorganisms found in soil and their effects on plant growth. Marine microbiologists seek ways to control the growth of harmful bacteria in oceans and rivers. Industrial microbiologists work in a variety of industries, including food processing, chemicals, and drugs. They may work to control the activities of microorganisms in such processes as the tanning of leather and the fermentation of wine.

Education and Training Requirements

You generally need a doctoral degree to become a microbiologist. You can major in microbiology or any of the other biological sciences as an undergraduate. Although those who have bachelor's degrees can find jobs in the field, they are technicians and their opportunities for advancement are limited. They are usually assigned such tasks as doing diagnostic or quality control testing in laboratories or in industry. Those who have earned master's degrees in microbiology or in related fields such as bacteriology are qualified for many jobs in industry, teaching, and applied research. You need a doctoral degree to obtain most teaching and research positions in universities or to get a job as an administrator. It generally takes four years to earn a bachelor's degree and another one or two years to earn a master's degree. You need to study an additional three or four years to receive a doctoral degree. Some microbiologists have earned the degree of doctor of medicine (M.D.) in addition to a doctoral degree (Ph.D.).

A combination of academic courses and laboratory experience is required for a clinical laboratory license, which is a prerequisite for admission to the certification examinations for some state departments of health. Many employers encourage and assist microbiologists who want to further their education in this field. In order to keep up with new findings in their field, microbiologists must continue studying throughout their careers.

Getting the Job

Your college instructors or placement office may be able to help you find a job in the field of microbiology. Some companies send recruiters to college job fairs. You may find job openings in newspaper classifieds, job banks on the Internet, or professional journals. You can also apply directly to colleges and universities, medical centers, private firms, and government agencies that hire microbiologists. You may need to pass a civil service examination to get a government job.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

There are many possible avenues of advancement for microbiologists, especially for those with a doctoral degree. Microbiologists can become directors of research in medical centers, private firms, or government agencies. Those who hold a teaching and research position in a university can advance to the rank of full professor. They can also make significant discoveries in their research and gain the recognition of other microbiologists. Many scientists consider this to be the highest form of advancement.

The number of job opportunities for microbiologists will increase at a rate as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2014. However, the federal government has recently increased its budget and increased the number of grants awarded to researchers. At the same time, the number of advanced degrees awarded has continued to increase. As a result, there will be considerable competition for research positions. Colleges and universities will add only a few positions each year. Nonetheless, increased public awareness in preserving the environment, providing sanitary food production and storage, and finding cures for such diseases as AIDS, cancer, and heart disease are likely to provide the stimulus for increased spending by private companies.

Opportunities for those with bachelor's or master's degrees in microbiology are expected to be better than the opportunities for those with doctoral degrees. These workers can fill jobs in science-related sales and marketing, and can take on technician roles. Some can become high school teachers.

Working Conditions

Working conditions for microbiologists vary. Most spend at least part of their time in clean, well-lighted laboratories. Some microbiologists have to collect samples of soil, seawater, and other substances that contain microorganisms. Some microbiologists spend part of their time in classrooms and offices. The workweek for many microbiologists in medical centers and private industry is generally forty hours. Those who work in universities and other research centers may have more flexible hours, but their workweeks generally total more than forty hours. Some overtime or shift work may be necessary when a project must be completed or when an experiment must be monitored around the clock. Microbiologists usually spend some time reading and studying to keep up with the newest findings of other scientists.

Microbiologists must take precautions to prevent specimens from being contaminated and to keep harmful microorganisms from reproducing uncontrollably. They should have skill in scientific experimentation and mathematics and be willing to do the precise, detailed work required in microbiology. Microbiologists should be able to work either independently or as part of a team. They must be able to keep careful records and to communicate their ideas and findings to others.

Where to Go for More Information

American Institute of Biological Sciences
1444 I St. NW, Ste. 200
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 628-1500

American Society for Microbiology
1752 N St. NW
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 737-3600

Earnings and Benefits

The earnings of microbiologists vary widely depending on their education and experience, the location, and the kind of job. The median annual salary of microbiologists was $54,840 in 2004. In 2005 those working for the federal government earned an average of $80,798 per year. Benefits generally include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans.

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