A scientist looking into a microscope

A microbiologist could...


Engineer a new strain of bacteria, used to make a tastier, healthier yogurt. A child eating a spoonful of yogurt Figure out how to prevent food from molding quickly. White mold growing on a pile of strawberries
Develop an acne medication that kills pimple-causing bacteria. A woman applying cream to her cheek Identify the virus responsible for a pandemic. A man in a hazard suit exacts samples under a tissue culture hood
Find out more...

Key Facts & Information

Overview Microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, algae, and fungi) are the most common life-forms on Earth. They help us digest nutrients; make foods like yogurt, bread, and olives; and create antibiotics. Some microbes also cause diseases. Microbiologists study the growth, structure, development, and general characteristics of microorganisms to promote health, industry, and a basic understanding of cellular functions.
Key Requirements Patience, creativity, attention to detail, and a passion for solving puzzles
Minimum Degree Master's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Biology, chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, calculus; if available, biotechnology
Median Salary
Microbiologist
  $66,850
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
  $49,630
Min Wage
  $15,080
$0
$10,000
$20,000
$30,000
$40,000
$50,000
$60,000
$70,000
$80,000
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) More Slowly than Average (3% to 6%)
Interview
  • Dr. Patricia Diaz, microbiologist at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
  • Meet Mary Burtnick, an Assistant Professor at Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of South Alabama.
Related Occupations
Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

A bachelor's degree is adequate for some non-research microbiology-related jobs, such as serving as a technician or an inspector in the food industry. However, the majority of microbiology jobs require at least a master's degree. A master's degree is sufficient for many jobs in applied research or product development, as well as for jobs in management, inspection, sales, and service. To conduct independent research, in either industry or in academia, or for advancement to administrative positions, a PhD is usually necessary.

Microbiologists interested in pursuing a career as lead scientist in the research division of a company, or as a professor, usually spend several years after earning a PhD in a postdoctoral position before they apply for permanent jobs. Postdoctoral work provides valuable laboratory experience, including experience in specific processes and techniques, such as gene splicing, which are transferable to other research projects. In some institutions, the postdoctoral position can lead to a permanent position.

Education and Training

A master's degree is necessary for the majority of microbiology jobs. For higher pay, increased responsibility, and the widest array of job opportunities a PhD is useful. Students specifically interested in medical microbiology should consider also earning a medical degree.

Other Qualifications

Microbiologists should be able to work independently or as part of a team and be able to communicate clearly and concisely, both orally and in writing. Those in private industry, especially those who aspire to management or administrative positions, should possess strong business and communication skills and be familiar with regulatory issues and marketing and management techniques. Those doing field research in remote areas must have physical stamina.

Nature of the Work

Microbiologists study the growth, structure, development, and general characteristics of bacteria and other microorganisms. They examine physiological, morphological, and cultural characteristics, using microscopes, to identify microorganisms. They may isolate and make cultures of bacteria or other microorganisms in prescribed media, controlling moisture, aeration, temperature, and nutrition; conduct chemical analyses of substances, such as acids, alcohols, and enzymes; and research the use of bacteria and microorganisms to develop vitamins, antibiotics, alcohol, foods, and plastics.

Watch this Extremophile Hunter video from Science Nation to see how microbiologists are learning more about Earth's microbes in the hopes of understanding what extraterrestrial life might look like. If there is life on other planets it may have to survive some pretty extreme conditions. But some microbes here on Earth are capable of that—they've been found in hydrothermal vents, the extreme cold of Antarctica, and among harsh chemicals.

Microbiologists may specialize in one of several areas: virology (the study of viruses); immunology (the study of mechanisms that fight infections); or bioinformatics (the use of computers to handle or characterize biological information, usually at the molecular level). Many microbiologists use biotechnology to advance knowledge of cell reproduction and human disease.

Work Environment

Microbiologists usually work regular hours in offices or laboratories and usually are not exposed to unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Those who work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances in the laboratory must follow strict safety procedures to avoid contamination.

Microbiologists in academia depend on grant money to support their research. They may be under pressure to meet deadlines and conform to rigid grant-writing specifications when preparing proposals to seek new or extended funding.

On the Job

  • Investigate the relationship between organisms and disease, including the control of epidemics and the effects of antibiotics on microorganisms.
  • Prepare technical reports and recommendations based upon research outcomes.
  • Supervise biological technologists and technicians, and other scientists.
  • Provide laboratory services for health departments, for community environmental health programs, and for physicians needing information for diagnosis and treatment.
  • Use a variety of specialized equipment, such as electron microscopes, gas chromatographs and high pressure liquid chromatographs, electrophoresis units, thermocyclers, fluorescence activated cell sorters and phosphoimagers.
  • Examine physiological, morphological, and cultural characteristics, using microscopes to identify and classify microorganisms in human, water, and food specimens.
  • Study growth, structure, development, and general characteristics of bacteria and other microorganisms to understand their relationship to human, plant, and animal health.
  • Isolate and maintain cultures of bacteria or other microorganisms in prescribed or developed media, controlling moisture, aeration, temperature, and nutrition.
  • Observe action of microorganisms upon living tissues of plants, higher animals, and other microorganisms, and on dead organic matter.
  • Study the structure and function of human, animal and plant tissues, cells, pathogens and toxins.
  • Conduct chemical analyses of substances such as acids, alcohols, and enzymes.
  • Monitor and perform tests on water, food, and the environment to detect harmful microorganisms or to obtain information about sources of pollution, contamination, or infection.
  • Develop new products and procedures for sterilization, food and pharmaceutical supply preservation, or microbial contamination detection.
  • Research use of bacteria and microorganisms to develop vitamins, antibiotics, amino acids, grain alcohol, sugars, and polymers.

Source: BLS

Companies That Hire Microbiologists

Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...

Science Fair Project Idea
Over time, viruses evolve. Their evolution is influenced by both neutral drift, the natural mutation rate of the virus, and selective pressure from the hosts' immune systems. Scientists study a virus's genomic evolution—the changes at the nucleotide and amino acid level—to better understand how the virus is spreading and the clinical implications. You can use public databases and tools to do the same type of tracking and analysis of COVID-19 that scientists around the world do. … Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Have you ever heard or read about GMO? GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. Scientists can deliberately modify the DNA of organisms, such as bacteria or plants, to change their properties for a specific purpose. For example, crops can be modified to become more drought- or pest-resistant. Genetic engineering is a very powerful tool in biotechnology that has already found many different applications in agriculture, medicine, and industry. In this project, you will engineer a… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Can you imagine a glowing loaf of bread? You might not be able to make the whole loaf glow, but you can get baker's yeast to fluoresce! The way to do this is to modify the genetic information of the yeast organism. The technology that is used to do this is called genetic engineering. With genetic engineering, you can insert a fluorescent protein gene from a jellyfish into yeast cells, so they start glowing under blue light! Do this project to see for yourself! Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
One strategy you may have heard suggested for dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic is to let nature take its course and let COVID-19 infect enough of the population for us to reach the herd immunity threshold. Does this make sense as a public health strategy? You can explore this question scientifically using SimPandemic, a free online tool for modeling infectious disease outbreaks. Before you begin, you will need to know a bit about herd immunity. Herd immunity, sometimes called community… Read more
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Stopping a viral outbreak like COVID-19 takes more than luck, it takes public health tools. Vaccines are considered to be one of the best public health tools, which is why there is often a rush to develop good vaccines for newly discovered viruses, particularly those that have the potential to infect lots of people. Recent examples include COVID-19, Zika virus, and Ebola. If enough people are vaccinated, an effective vaccine can help stop outbreaks or even eradicate (completely get rid of) a… Read more
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Germs are everywhere! We try and clean our home with disinfectants, but do we really get rid of all the germs? Find out with this "hands-on" experiment. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Even during a global pandemic like COVID-19, there are differences in how the epidemic unfolds within communities. Some communities see early, large waves of infected individuals, while others see smaller numbers of infections over a longer period of time, and others may not appear to have an epidemic at all. Could R₀ (pronounced R naught), account for some of this variation? R₀, the basic reproduction number of a disease, quantifies how many people, on average, an infected… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
This is a straightforward project on glucose metabolism in yeast. You will grow yeast under aerobic and anaerobic conditions and measure carbon dioxide output to assess metabolic efficiency. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Many scientists are currently very excited about CRISPR, as it has the potential to revolutionize gene editing. But what exactly is CRISPR and what does it do? CRISPR is a novel tool in gene editing that allows the modification of genetic DNA at specific target sites in many different organisms. Researchers have high hopes that this technology can, one day, cure genetic diseases, as mutated DNA sequences can easily be corrected. In this project, you will use CRISPR to mutate a DNA sequence… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Have you ever thought about how fortunate you are to have safe and clean water coming out of your faucet? Many people in undeveloped nations don't have this luxury. But does that mean they can't have clean water at all? Is there an inexpensive way they could use to make their own clean water? In this microbiology science fair project, you will investigate whether or not sunlight can disinfect contaminated water. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Ultraviolet light can damage DNA molecules. If a cell's DNA repair mechanisms can't keep up with the damage, mutations are the result. As harmful mutations accumulate, the cell eventually dies. How much ultraviolet light is too much for a bacterial cell? Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Remember going to the doctor and getting vaccine shots? It is no fun getting poked with a needle, but fortunately, a vaccine gives you protection against a serious illness for years to come. But what about the flu vaccine? How come there is a new one every year? This science fair project will show you why. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Fuzzy things are often cute, but not when that fuzziness is mold on your strawberry—yuck! Companies look for natural, plant-based ways to protect the berries from mold when they are in the store, waiting for you to purchase them. Would washing them in aloe vera juice protect strawberries from mold? Do this project and find out! Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
What can you do with a bucket of soil? You could use it to grow some beautiful plants and vegetables—or you could use it to produce electricity! Surprised about that? You actually can power electric devices with just mud! Are you curious about how this works? You need some little helpers in the soil—bacteria—that are able to turn their food sources within the soil into electricity in a device called a microbial fuel cell. But is this possible with any soil and does the soil… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
You're probably familiar with sauerkraut, a German dish of cabbage that is fermented in a brine made of its own juice and salt. Have you heard of another cabbage dish, called kimchi? Kimchi is a traditional fermented cabbage dish from Korea. Koreans eat kimchi year round, enjoying its spicy taste and the fact that it contains loads of vitamins B and C. In this cooking and food science fair project, you will make kimchi from scratch and investigate changes in pH and glucose as the kimchi… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Have you ever wondered where acne comes from and how you can treat it? One major cause of acne is the colonization and infection of clogged pores with bacteria. In this science project, you'll test different acne medications and treatments to determine their effectiveness at killing bacteria. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Bacteria are powerful little creatures. They can dispose of contaminants, make us sick and did you know they can even generate electricity? In devices, called microbial fuel cells (MFC) they can extract electrons from their food sources such as organic materials and feed them into an electrical circuit to generate power. This way they can even turn plain soil into a source of energy! Does it matter though what kind of food the bacteria "eat"? Find out how bacteria grow in a microbial fuel cell… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Have you ever eaten half an apple and saved the other half for later, only to find that, by time you were ready to eat it, the apple did not look as tasty anymore? It may have turned brown and shriveled, and, if left out long enough, it may have spoiled. Do you think you could have prevented the other half from spoiling, or made it spoil less, if you had stored it differently, such as in the refrigerator in a food wrapping? In this cooking and food science project, you will investigate which… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Have you ever noticed that most yogurt containers say they contain "live cultures"? What does that mean? The label is suggesting that the yogurt has living bacteria in it! While some types of bacteria can make you sick, some are actually important to keep you healthy. But individual bacteria are so tiny that you cannot see one with the naked eye, so how can you tell if bacteria are really living in your yogurt? In this science fair project, you will investigate whether yogurt actually… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Antibiotics work by destabilizing the metabolism or cellular structure of bacteria, preventing growth, and causing bacteria to die. Some strains of bacteria have mutated and found a way to resist the actions of antibiotics. These are called resistant strains because they resist the actions of available antibiotic treatments. There are many different types of antibiotics that are continually being developed to combat new strains of resistant bacteria. Some antibiotics work better on different… Read more

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Additional Information

Sources

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  • Bio-Rad
Free science fair projects.