Guide to Microbiology Careers
Microbiologists study a world of living microorganisms invisible to the naked eye. Microbiology is changing the world at the microscopic level through an intersectional approach that incorporates mathematics, physics, chemistry, and genetics. The applications of microbiology affect the water we drink, the food we eat, the medicine we take, and the consumer products we use every day.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022) projects jobs for microbiologists to increase 9 percent between 2021 and 2031, on par with the national average. But that only paints a small part of the picture: the study of microbiology can lead to a plethora of diverse career paths, ranging from the environmental to the clinical to the industrial.
And microbiology has grown by leaps and bounds since the revolutionary discoveries of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. Merged with advances in modern technology, microbiology is now one of the fastest-moving disciplines in the life sciences, fueling new developments in drugs, vaccines, and industrial enzyme research.
The ten careers profiled below meet the following criteria:
- They all have active job listings across the United States
- They include a balanced mix of educational entry points (associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and PhD)
- They offer an earnings potential above the national mean of $58,260 per year (note that microbiology research associate falls just below this figure, on a median scale, due to a lack of specified salary data)
- They are supported by the American Society of Microbiology (note genetic counselors, due to their status as an emerging field, do not yet meet this criterion)
Become an Agricultural and Food Scientist
Agricultural and food scientists use microbiology to study the deterioration of food, soil degradation, the causation of plant and animal diseases, and possible methods of increasing soil fertility. They may inspect agricultural or food production sites for compliance with safety and sanitary regulations, develop food and crop processing policies that maximize safe outputs, and study methods for preference optimization in harvests and food products.
Jobs and Pay
The BLS (2022) projects that the need for agricultural and food scientists will grow 8 percent between 2021 and 2031, adding over 3,000 jobs. Salary data suggests that the 13,510 agricultural and food scientists make an average of $84,150 annually. The percentiles are as follow:
- 10th percentile: $45,010
- 25th percentile: $60,130
- 50th percentile (median): $78,340
- 75th percentile: $101,180
- 90th percentile: $130,540
According to a survey by O*NET (2023), 57 percent of agricultural and food scientists have a bachelor’s degree, while 13 percent have a doctoral degree. An undergraduate degree in microbiology, complemented with a master’s degree in agricultural science, can provide a well-rounded education for this industry.
- The master of science in agriculture program at Cal State Poly Pomona provides students with the interdisciplinary skills necessary to work in research, academia, or industry. Students may choose to concentrate in either food science, agricultural science, plant science, or animal science. Except for the plant science concentration, all degree paths consist of 45 credits and build upon a student’s strong scientific undergraduate background in microbiology. The WASC Senior College and University Commission accredit the school.
Become a Biosafety Specialist or Officer
Biosafety specialists inspect laboratories and other facilities to ensure the area and practices within that area follow all safety regulations. Those with a microbiology background are best equipped to determine what poses an unseen hazard in a specific setting.
In addition to inspection, biosafety specialists conduct training and run tests that can impact a facility’s policies and practices. Biosafety specialists may report to a biosafety officer responsible for planning, developing, and managing biosafety programs and policies. Biosafety officers may work for a single facility or may work for a larger organization, wherein they set wide-ranging policies for preventing and responding to biosafety emergencies.
Jobs and Pay
Specific job data for biosafety specialists and officers is scarce, but BusinessWire (a Berkshire Hathaway company) has reported that openings for biosafety testing will grow 12.4 percent between 2021 and 2026. The BLS classifies biosafety specialists as occupational health and safety specialists. The 106,340 professionals in this field earn $78,740 per year on average. The percentiles are:
- 10th percentile: $44,040
- 25th percentile: $59,490
- 50th percentile (median): $77,560
- 75th percentile: $98,650
- 90th percentile: $118,510
Biosafety specialists need a bachelor’s degree at a bare minimum, with certain advanced roles (like biosafety officer) requiring a master’s degree.
- Arizona State University offers a bachelor of science in microbiology at its Tempe, Arizona campus. Students may apply for the accelerated joint bachelor’s/master’s program, which consists of 138 credits and may be completed in five years. The program covers the background and current findings of microbiology, as well as the critical thinking skills and hands-on laboratory skills necessary to take on leadership roles within the discipline. The school is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
Become a Clinical Microbiology Laboratory Director
A clinical microbiology laboratory director is responsible for the operation and administration of a microbiology laboratory. They hire and mentor staff, plan and direct experiments, raise funds through research grants, find new avenues for revenue enhancement, and in some cases, fulfill the expectations or objectives of a corporate entity. They may work in a hospital, academic, or private laboratory setting.
Jobs and Pay
Precise job figures for clinical microbiology laboratory directors are not available,. However, they can be classified as natural sciences managers according to the BLS (2022). The 74,760 jobs in this field are expected to grow 6 percent by 2031. On average, natural sciences managers earn $156,110 per year. The percentiles are:
- 10th percentile: $75,040
- 25th percentile: $101,400
- 50th percentile (median): $137,900
- 75th percentile: $202,910
- 90th percentile: More than $208,000 per year
Clinical microbiology laboratory directors generally need a PhD and postdoctoral training.
- The University of Arizona offers a PhD program in microbiology that accommodates students’ research interests. Graduates demonstrate proficiency in research, experimental design, and scientific achievement within microbiology. There is no uniform study plan, but instead, one is tailored to each candidate with the assistance of a mentor. The program consists of 63 credits and takes place at the school’s Tucson campus. The Higher Learning Commission accredits the University of Arizona.
Become a Genetic Counselor
Genetic counseling is a young but rapidly growing profession. Genetic counselors work with patients and healthcare providers to diagnose genetic risks. They conduct informational sessions with patients and families, offer counseling on any genetic risks and conditions, recommend further testing, and support inpatient and outpatient care at satellite clinics. While this is primarily a patient-facing role, genetic counselors need to utilize a solid understanding of microbiology, microbial genetics, biology, and other life sciences to facilitate their assessments.
Jobs and Pay
According to data from BLS (2022), genetic counseling jobs are expected to grow by 18 percent by 2031. The average annual wage for the 2,740 genetic counselors in US is $86,640. The percentiles for wages are:
- 10th percentile: $49,120
- 25th percentile: $76,300
- 50th percentile (median): $80,150
- 75th percentile: $100,200
- 90th percentile: $121,070
Genetic counselors need to obtain a master’s degree and board certification in genetic counseling to secure employment. Still, many genetic counselors begin their educational journey with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology or a related life science discipline.
- Northwestern University has an 18-month master’s of genetic counseling program that blends scientific knowledge with the soft skills in counseling and psychology necessary for this profession. The program provides graduates with a mastery of genetic concepts, including the molecular basis of inheritance. Students begin clinical rotations in the winter quarter of their first year, allowing them to quickly apply what they’ve learned in the classroom. And the early (mid-March) graduation date gives students a head start on the job market for genetic counselors. Northwestern’s Chicago-based program is accredited by the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC).
- In just 22 months, students can complete the master’s of science in genetic counseling at the University of Arizona. Students must complete intensive classroom coursework followed by real work clinical experiences with genetic counselors and physicians. This combination of education ensures that graduates are ready to work one on one with clients providing high-quality genetic counseling. This program is accredited by the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC), which means graduates are eligible to sit for board certification.
Become an Industrial Microbiologist
Over 40 percent of all microbiologists work in a research and development setting, and that’s where industrial microbiologists thrive, applying their knowledge of microbiology to the creation of safe and effective products. They may work with medical devices, pharmaceutical drugs, cosmetics, or other consumer goods. Typical responsibilities include microbial testing, laboratory services, and investigative research under the direction of an industrial company.
Jobs and Pay
According to the BLS (2022), microbiology at large is expected to grow about 9 percent between 2021 and 2031, adding almost 1,900 jobs. The average salary for the 19,430 microbiologists working in the US is $87,820 per year. The percentiles for wages are:
- 10th percentile: $47,630
- 25th percentile: $59,860
- 50th percentile (median): $79,260
- 75th percentile: $110,010
- 90th percentile: $136,780
A bachelor’s degree and laboratory experience is a common requirement for employment as an industrial microbiologist.
- Weber State University offers a bachelor’s in microbiology with an industrial microbiology emphasis at its Ogden, Utah campus. While the baseline curriculum provides an extensive education in the field of microbiology, the industrial microbiology emphasis focuses on how microorganisms impact human industry. The program consists of 120 credits and is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.
Become a Microbiology Consultant
Microbiology consultants are the hired guns of the microbiology world. They may work in several different settings, such as laboratories, industrial companies, pharmaceutical companies, think tanks, or environmental agencies. In each instance, they assess the microbiological impacts of their client’s work and share specialized expertise to finetune operations and meet desired outcomes. A consultant’s projects may be relatively short in duration (e.g., assisting in an environmental impact report) or long (e.g., bringing a particular pharmaceutical drug all the way from inception to production).
Jobs and Pay
Due to their freelance nature, which may take them to several employers for differing durations, official job data for microbiology consultants is scarce. However,
The BLS does list data for management analysts, who are often also called management consultants. According to the data, 31 percent of management analysts work in professional, scientific, and technical services, encompassing microbiology consultants. There are 768,450 consultants employed across all industries in the US, earning $100,530 per year on average. The percentiles for wages are:
- 10th percentile: $50,190
- 25th percentile: $64,150
- 50th percentile (median): $93,000
- 75th percentile: $124,430
- 90th percentile: $163,760
Microbiology consultants typically have a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and a master’s degree in their area of specialization, such as virology, parasitology, environmental microbiology, or microbial genetics. Some consultants may have a PhD instead of a master’s degree.
- West Virginia University offers a master’s degree in applied and environmental microbiology. It builds students’ expertise in a growing subdiscipline of microbiology and gives them foundational knowledge in associated fields like biochemistry, genetics, and biology. Courses cover food microbiology, sanitary microbiology, microbial biology, and several self-directed studies in advanced topics. The program consists of 30 credits and takes place at WVU’s Morgantown, West Virginia campus. The Higher Learning Commission accredits WVU.
Become a Microbiology Professor
Microbiology professors teach microbiology at the college level and above. Typical classroom responsibilities include designing lesson plans, hosting lectures, counseling students, and grading exams. In addition to their classroom duties, microbiology professors typically conduct research at their host university, apply for grants, write academic papers, and design self-directed studies into both the niche and frontier areas of the microbiology discipline.
Jobs and Pay
According to data collected by BLS (2022) for all postsecondary teachers, jobs in this field are expected to grow 12 percent by 2031, adding some 159,400 jobs. Salary figures vary widely based upon whether one is teaching at a junior college, state university, or private university. Data from the BLS puts the average salary for 47,690 postsecondary biological sciences teachers at $98,710 per year. The percentiles for wages are:
- 10th percentile: $48,720
- 25th percentile: $61,750
- 50th percentile (median): $81,440
- 75th percentile: $123,730
- 90th percentile: $169,410
Those who wish to teach microbiology at the postsecondary level typically need a PhD to do so.
The PhD in microbiology and immunology program at Georgetown University is designed to prepare students for research and academia careers. An emphasis is placed on the relationship of microorganisms to disease. Students work with a program advisor to determine their specific curriculum, complete with laboratory rotations and a final thesis. The program consists of a minimum of 34 credits and is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
Become a Microbiology Research Associate
Microbiology research associates assist in planning and conducting studies on microorganisms present in various substances, often in the aid of safe and effective industrial production. Pharmaceutical companies, agricultural companies, or industrial manufacturers may employ them. Some of their key responsibilities include microbial culture preparation, determining viable cell counts, and carrying out microbial challenge tests.
Jobs and Pay
There is no reliable data on job figures specifically for microbiology research associates. According to the BLS (2022), jobs for biological technicians (a closely related field) are expected to grow 9 percent between 2021 and 2031. The 76,150 biological technicians in the US earn $51,770 per year on average. The percentiles for wages are:
- 10th percentile: $31,170
- 25th percentile: $37,820
- 50th percentile (median): $48,140
- 75th percentile: $61,530
- 90th percentile: $78,090
Most microbiology research associates have a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and laboratory experience. Here is a sample program:
- The University of Florida has a hybrid bachelor’s in microbiology and cell science that gives students a strong background in basic science while also preparing them for future study if they wish to pursue it. Students can research in areas like molecular genetics, cell biology, immunology, parasitology, virology, pathogenesis, and bioinformatics. Online courses are supplemented by two in-person labs taught in accelerated five-day cycles. This degree completion program requires applicants to complete 60 credits of general education at an accredited institution. The school itself is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges.
Become a Microbiology Technician
Microbiology technicians work in laboratories and assist microbiologists in detecting bacteria and other microorganisms present in various substances. Under the direction of microbiologists, they perform tests, analyze results, and maintain and operate sophisticated laboratory equipment. In smaller laboratories, the type of tests may range widely, while in larger laboratories, tests (and the technicians they employ) may be more specialized.
Jobs and Pay
The need for clinical laboratory technologists and technicians of all kinds is expected to grow 7 percent between 2021 and 2031—a rate that’s on par with the national average—creating over 21,800 new jobs. According to the BLS, the average salary for the US for 318,780 clinical laboratory technologists and technicians is $56,910 per year. The percentiles for wages are:
- 10th percentile: $30,280
- 25th percentile: $37,990
- 50th percentile (median): $57,800
- 75th percentile: $74,530
- 90th percentile: $79,340
An associate’s degree is the minimum requirement for employment, with some laboratories preferring a bachelor’s degree instead. Other employers request their technicians be certified through the American Society for Clinical Pathology, which provides the MLT credential, and reward those who are certified with higher starting salaries. Here are two programs to prepare for this career:
- Columbus State Community College offers hybrid AAS in medical laboratory technology that prepares students to sit for the ASCP’s MLT certification. Courses in several life sciences, including microbiology, are covered in the five-semester program. The lectures are online, while the laboratories are conducted at the school’s laboratories in Columbus, Ohio. The National Accrediting Agency accredits the program for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS).
- SUNY Broome offers a hybrid AAS for clinical laboratory technicians that may be completed in as few as four semesters. The program mainly focuses on chemistry and life sciences fundamentals, but also includes courses in microbiology and a diagnostic microbiology laboratory. At the end of their studies, all students complete 360 hours of clinical training in hospital laboratories affiliated with SUNY. While many of the courses may be taken online, the school does require its students to live within the immediate geographic area. The National Accrediting Agency accredits the program for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS).
Become a Water Resource Specialist
Water resource specialists help safeguard one of the Earth’s most precious resources. Working for private companies, agricultural concerns, and local governments, they monitor water quality by conducting investigations into pollution, wastewater discharge, and water storage. Utilizing their microbiology background, water resource specialists locate causes of water pollution and develop strategies for water conservation, regulatory compliance, and watershed health and rehabilitation.
Jobs and Pay
Water resource specialists are classified as hydrologists by the BLS (2022). Between 2021 and 2031, it is estimated that there will be no change in the number of jobs in this field. The 6,390 hydrologists in the US earn $94,780 per year on average. The percentiles for wages are:
- 10th percentile: $51,120
- 25th percentile: $64,670
- 50th percentile (median): $84,030
- 75th percentile: $106,440
- 90th percentile: $135,170
Over 40 percent of surveyed water resource specialists had a master’s degree, while 55 percent had a bachelor’s degree, according to O*NET. Here’s a sample program to prepare for this career:
- Miami University offers an on-campus combined bachelor’s/master’s degree program in microbiology that can be completed in five years. Students may choose to emphasize environmental microbiology, and the school offers a wide range of laboratory experiences. The program consists of 120 credits for the bachelor’s degree and 30 for the master’s degree. Miami University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.