Even the most microscopic organism has a purpose – and it’s up to the microbiologists of the world to study these millions of tiny microbes and the impact they have on the environment. From studying how microbes can cure and cause disease to how they can help us make or digest food, there’s a lot going on under the microscope.
Microbiologists are scientists who study what cannot be seen with the naked eye: microbes. As a microbiologist, you may work with specimens collected from the environment, or you may also grow samples or isolate specific microbes using lab techniques. You will examine these specimens and their effect on the environment or on other organisms. Tools you are likely to use include microscopes, gels, chromatographs, cell sorters and incubators. Many microbiologists specialize; for example, you could choose to focus on medical microbiology, or even more specific -- bacteriologists study bacteria and virologists study viruses. Additional specialties include working with genetic engineering, which can aid in medical, agricultural and industrial fields.
Places of Employment
Microbiologists can work in a variety of settings. The Department of Labor reports that the largest percentage – that’s one quarter of microbiologists – work in research and development in the physical, life and engineering sciences. Coming in at a close second at 23 percent is in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing. Other industries include the federal government, colleges and universities, technology companies, food and beverage manufacturers, and industrial organizations.
The amount of schooling and training you need to work as a microbiologist depends upon your career goals. Entry-level microbiologists need a bachelor’s degree in microbiology or a closely related field, such as biochemistry; available programs and majors may vary between colleges. To work as a lab assistant in the field, sometimes a high school diploma is enough. However, if you are looking to perform independent research in the field in a college or university setting, a Ph.D. is required. Many Ph.D.-level microbiologists will specialize in a subfield; usually the dissertation is on this topic.
Compensation and Job Outlook
In 2012, the average annual salary of a microbiologist was about $65,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The top 10 percent in the field averaged about $115,000 per year, while the lowest 10 percent earned an average of $39,000 annually. The top-earning industry for microbiologists was the federal government, with an average of $94,000. The employment outlook for microbiologists will grow 13 percent through 2020; the Department of Labor attributes this to a growth in the field of pharmaceutical and biomedical research.
Since 2000 Donna T. Beerman has contributed to newspapers and magazines. Her expertise includes higher education, marketing and social media, and her presentations and writing have won industry awards. She has an MFA in creative writing, is the integrated marketing manager at a Pennsylvania college and founded "Hippocampus Magazine."