Guide to Microbiology Careers
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Microbiologists study a world invisible to the naked eye, a world of living microorganisms. Through an intersectional approach that incorporates mathematics, physics, chemistry, and genetics, microbiology is changing the world at the microscopic level. 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 projects jobs for microbiologists to increase 8 percent between 2016 and 2026, about as fast as 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 $50,620 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 that genetic counselors, due to their status as an emerging field, do not yet meet this criteria)
Agricultural and Food Scientist
Agricultural and food scientists use microbiology to study the deterioration of food, the degradation of soil, 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 projects that the need for agricultural and food scientists will grow 7 percent between 2016 and 2026, adding over 3,000 jobs. Salary data suggests that agricultural and food scientists make an average of $62,910 per year, but the spectrum of pay is wide, with the top 10 percent of agricultural and food scientists making over $116,000 per year.
According to a survey by O*NET, 69 percent of agricultural and food scientists have a bachelor’s degree, while 19 percent have a master’s 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 agricultural 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 school is accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission.
Biosafety Specialist or Officer
Biosafety specialists inspect laboratories and other facilities to make sure the area and the practices within that area are in accordance with 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 trainings and run tests that can impact a facility’s policies and practices. Biosafety specialists may report to a biosafety officer, who is 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 policy 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 provided a report that projects the need for biosafety testing to grow by 11 percent by 2021. According to Indeed, an employment data firm, biosafety specialists earn an average of $46,000 per year, while Payscale, a self-reported salary data aggregator, puts the average salary for biosafety officers at around $72,000 a year.
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’s 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.
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 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 is not available, but should follow trends for microbiologist jobs, which are projected by the BLS to grow 8 percent by 2026. Through a triangulation of data from ZipRecruiter, Payscale, and Salary.com (all employment data aggregators), the average salary for clinical laboratory directors falls between $110,000 and $125,000 per year.
Clinical microbiology laboratory directors generally need a PhD, in addition to postdoctoral training.
- The University of Arizona offers a PhD program in microbiology which accommodates students’ research interests. Graduates demonstrate proficiency in research, experimental design, and scientific achievement within microbiology. There is no uniform plan of study, 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 University of Arizona is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
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 in order to facilitate their assessments.
Jobs and Pay
According to data from O*NET, under sponsorship from the U.S. Department of Labor, genetic counseling is expected to grow by 15 percent by 2026. Data from the BLS puts the average annual wage for a genetic counselor at $78,130, with the top 10 percent earning over $104,000 per year.
Genetic counselors need to obtain a master’s degree and board certification in genetic counseling in order to secure employment, but 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 the chance 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).
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, microbiology at large is expected to grow about 8 percent between 2016 and 2026, adding almost 2,000 jobs. The average salary for a microbiologist is just under $70,000 per year, with those working in R&D specifically earning an average of $86,830. The top 10 percent of microbiologists earned almost $130,000 per year.
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 the ways in which microorganisms impact human industry. The program consists of 120 credits and is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.
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 project’s 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, according to ZipRecruiter, an employment data aggregator, life science consultants earn an average of $89,500 per year. The specific employer (such as a pharmaceutical company versus a community college) impacts the salary figure greatly, as will geographic location. The top end of life science consultants earn over $180,000 per year.
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 that builds students expertise in a growing subdiscipline of microbiology, and gives them a 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. WVU is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
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 O*NET, jobs for postsecondary biological sciences teachers are expected to grow 15 percent by 2026, adding some 6,000 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 postsecondary biological sciences teachers at $78,240 per year, with the top 10 percent earning $162,470 per year.
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 a career in research and academia. 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 final thesis. The program consists of a minimum of 34 credits and is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
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. They may be employed by pharmaceutical companies, agricultural companies, or industrial manufacturers. 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, but according to the BLS, jobs for biological technicians (a closely related field) are expected to grow 10 percent between 2016 and 2026. According to Indeed, an employment data firm, the average salary for research associates is just under $50,000 per year (2019).
Most microbiology research associates have a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, in addition to 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 have the option of 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 is a degree completion program which requires applicants to have completed 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.
Microbiology technicians work in laboratories and assist microbiologists in the detection of 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 medical technicians of all kinds is expected to grow 13 percent between 2016 and 2026—a rate that’s nearly double the national average—creating over 42,000 new jobs. According to the BLS, the average salary for medical, clinical, and laboratory technicians is $51,770 per year, with the top 10 percent earning just under $80,000 per year.
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 delivered in an online format, while the laboratories are conducted at the school’s laboratories in Columbus, Ohio. The program is accredited by the National Accrediting Agency 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 program is accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS).
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 perform water quality monitoring 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
According to date from O*NET, under sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Labor, jobs for water resource specialists are projected to grow by 10 to 14 percent between 2016 and 2026, adding 5,200 new jobs. The average salary of 57,000 water resource specialists was $118,907 per year, based on 2017 data.
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 in 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.