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A microbiologist studies living organisms that are invisible to the naked eye. Microbiologists study bacteria, fungi, and other one-celled organisms (microbes), as well as viruses. A microbiologist may study a single molecule isolated from a bacterium, or a complex ecosystem with many microbial species.

In the course of their work, microbiologists do a variety of tasks. These include inoculating microbes using sterile techniques, viewing microbes under the microscope, purifying DNA or other molecules from microbes, counting microbes, preparing sterile media, and developing experiments to better understand these organisms, often using the techniques of genetic analysis. Many microbiologists supervise other employees, and they frequently work with a group of people to plan experiments or validate laboratory procedures. Some microbiologists teach or are engaged in sales, so their duties may include presenting information. As they gain experience, microbiologists working in a laboratory frequently assume more responsibility to supervise others and to plan a research program.

In most cases, microbiologists have training beyond high school. This training could consist of a two-year associate degree with coursework in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and microbiology. Many micro-biologists have a four-year bachelor's degree in microbiology, biology, or chemistry. This degree includes coursework in all the sciences, as well as several courses in microbiology. A master's degree usually requires an additional two years of coursework and research, and prepares individuals for additional supervisory or teaching positions. A doctoral degree (Ph.D.) typically requires an additional four to seven years of schooling, and opens up a wide range of teaching, research, and executive opportunities. In many cases, microbiologists who earn a Ph.D. do a further two to four years of postdoctoral research to gain additional research experience before they assume an independent position.

Some microbiologists work in hospital or clinical laboratories, where they identify disease-causing bacteria. Others work in the food industry, checking to make sure that food products do not contain pathogenic organisms. Environmental microbiologists study the role of bacteria and other organisms in ecological systems. Some microbiologists work in research laboratories, helping to make fundamental discoveries about microbes. Micro-biologists also teach about these organisms in community colleges and universities.

The rewards of a career in microbiology are many, and may vary depending upon the career path taken. Medical microbiologists gain satisfaction from the knowledge that they assist in helping to prevent and treat disease. Food microbiologists are critical for maintaining the safety of our food supply. Research microbiologists are rewarded by the knowledge that they may, in the course of their work, learn something that no one else has ever understood. Teaching microbiologists gain satisfaction in helping others learn about a discipline they find fascinating.

Starting salaries for microbiologists also vary a great deal, depending on whether a person is employed in industry or in the public sector. In general, positions in industry command higher salaries than positions in educational institutions, and individuals with many years of experience can command salaries at the high end of the range offered in their particular career path and at their educational level. Salaries for microbiologists with a bachelor's degree start at about $18,000 per year, and range up to $50,000 per year. For microbiologists with a master's degree, the starting salary is typically $25,000 per year, and can rise to $80,000. For microbiologists with a doctoral degree, the starting salary is about $35,000 per year, and can range up to $200,000 or more.

Patrick G. Guilfoile


American Society for Microbiology. Your Career in Microbiology: Unlocking the Secrets of Life. Washington, DC: Author, 1999.

Internet Resource

Careers in the Microbiological Sciences. American Society for Microbiology. http://www.asmusa.org/edusrc/edu21.htm>.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaGenetics in Medicine - Part 3