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
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) More Slowly than Average (3% to 6%)
  • 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

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