Microbial Engineering Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Class Info

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What kind of career can you pursue with a master's degree or Ph.D. in microbial engineering? Find out degree requirements and online course options and info on courses and microbial engineering degrees.
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Studying Microbial Engineering: Degrees at a Glance

Microbial engineers work with microscopic organisms to address challenges in medicine, biotechnology, genomics, chemical engineering, environmental engineering, pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Schools may coordinate university-wide microbial study through engineering schools or interdisciplinary research centers. Biological and environmental engineering programs and combined engineering, law or medical degree programs incorporating microbial engineering topics may also be available through engineering schools.

A master's program could prepare you for biomedical, bioprocess or environmental engineering careers or advanced study. You might substitute your advanced degree for some of the years of experience required for entry-level positions. Your prospects may be influenced by your subfield selection and your coursework. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), overall jobs were expected to increase 14% from 2010-2020. Opportunities for food scientists and microbiologists might grow 10% and 13%, respectively, but the BLS projected 22% growth for environmental engineers, 31% growth for biochemists and biophysicists and 36% for medical scientists.

Master's Ph.D.
Who is this degree for? Individuals who want an entry-level to intermediate position in a microbial engineering field Those interested in research, postsecondary teaching or research management
Common Career Paths (with approximate median salary) - Intermediate process engineer ($74,000 - 2-4 years of experience)*
- Environmental engineer ($79,000)**
- Intermediate clinical research associate - biotech ($80,000 - with 2-5 years of experience)*
- Biomedical engineer ($85,000)**
- Laboratory manager ($85,000 - with 7 years of experience)
- Post-doctorate scientist ($45,000 - with 10 years of experience)*
- Associate professor environmental engineering ($78,000 - with 7 years of experience)*
- Medical scientist ($76,000)**
- Clinical research manager ($92,000 - with 5 years of experience)*
- Clinical research director ($134,000 - with 10 years of experience)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years, full-time 4-7 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Typically 35-45 credits
- Internship at private laboratory or research institute
- Thesis or project
- Approximately 90 credits beyond the bachelor's degree
- Internship or research institute work
- Teaching responsibilities
- Production of academic papers
- Dissertation
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree; biology, biochemistry, chemistry or chemical engineering desirable Bachelor's or master's degree; biology, biochemistry, chemistry or chemical engineering background preferred
Online Availability Limited online coursework may be available Fully online programs may be rare to non-existent; courses may be available

Sources: *Salary.com (2012 median figures), **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011 median figures).

Master's Degrees Covering Microbial Engineering

You may not find many degree programs with this precise title, but related programs in biological or environmental engineering could train you to solve technical problems from the molecular to whole-organism to ecosystem level, depending on your focus. You will likely learn about immunologic agents and industrial applications of microorganisms.

To cap your 2-year program, you may be required to produce a thesis or design project that could include topics ranging from microbial fuel cells to micro-bioreactors. Your graduate research might focus on genetically engineered bacteria that convert biomass to clean energy, decompose waste or neutralize hazardous materials. Dual degree programs may combine an engineering graduate degree with a graduate degree in biology, life science, medicine or law. Schools may also offer bachelor's and master's co-terminal degrees.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Degree may qualify you for an entry-level position in medical or pharmaceutical research, biochemistry, biophysics or environmental engineering
  • Potentially good background for advanced studies in microbial engineering or other professional degrees in law or medicine
  • Relatively short time frame compared to possible benefits
  • Possible employment by both public and private organizations

Cons

  • Your preferred specialty may be in less demand than some others; you may need to make adjustments to enhance your employability
  • Rigorous curriculum with need to maintain high GPA may make outside employment or other commitments difficult
  • May be competing for positions with new Ph.D. graduates or candidates

Courses and Requirements

Programs may require understanding of principles of microbiology, molecular biology, chemical engineering and biochemistry. You'll probably study quantitative biology, biological systems analysis, basic microbiology and biological engineering, supplemented by supporting electives from these and related fields. Depending on your background, you may be required to take preliminary courses in calculus, biology, physics, physical chemistry or genetics.

You might take graduate courses like these:

  • Microbiology for environmental engineering
  • Mixed-culture engineered systems
  • Drug discovery and genomics
  • Chemistry, ecology and evolution
  • Biophysics
  • Structure of viruses and viral proteins
  • Immune systems and intestinal microbial communities

Online Courses

Online courses may be hard to find. The nature of this degree requires laboratory work. You might be able to take some quantitative courses virtually, but students should typically plan to be on campus for this program. You might check with your school about residency requirements. You may be able to complete your final project or thesis working from home after you have met other requirements.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Your school may have related research centers or institutes that are funded by federal agencies or corporations. You might attract attention working on real-world projects supported by sponsors. Programs may also offer special seminars and events that supplement your classwork. You might take advantage of special facilities, including laboratories and libraries to develop a final project or thesis that meets the needs of a prospective employer. You could join a student chapter of an organization like the Biomedical Engineering Society or meet requirements for an honorary society like Alpha Eta Mu Beta, the National Biomedical Engineering Honor Society.

Ph.D. Degrees Covering Microbial Engineering

Doctoral programs in microbial engineering may be hard to find, but degrees may be available in bioengineering, environmental engineering and similar disciplines that permit microbial engineering studies. Ph.D. candidates are often interested in academic or advanced research careers in the private or public sector. They may get 2-3 year research post-doctoral research appointments. You might matriculate in a doctoral program after completing a bachelor's degree or enter with a master's degree transferred from another school.

Lab rotations may be encouraged or required. Interdisciplinary programs may also connect you to related areas, like molecular biology, microbial science in a medical school, biogeochemistry or oceanography.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Opportunity to make contributions that will advance understanding of the microbial world
  • Potential commercial applications of studies could be lucrative
  • Ubiquitous nature of the microbial world and breadth of field could make you eligible for hire in multiple academic schools and departments (i.e., biology, engineering, medicine)

Cons

  • Completing this degree may require 4-7 years
  • Competition for academic and research positions may require seeking a temporary post-doctoral appointment at a relatively low wage until the pipeline ahead clears
  • Relative to time commitment, pay may not be high

Courses and Requirements

You may be required to demonstrate understanding of bioengineering, environmental engineering or biomedical fundamentals prior to being admitted. Your selection of advanced courses could depend on your interests. Qualifying oral examinations may be required after the master's degree, and you'll likely need to maintain a GPA above 3.0. Doctoral degrees will generally require examinations, a dissertation and an oral defense of the dissertation.

You might take courses like these:

  • Anaerobic microbiology and biotechnology
  • General virology
  • Molecular biology of gene expression
  • Comparative microbial genomics
  • Microbial cell structure and function
  • Microbial metabolism and energetics
  • Metabolic regulation

Online Courses

Microbial engineering studies may require significant lab time, with work that can't be completed virtually. You may need ongoing access to resources only available on campus. Ph.D. programs may require completing a defined number of residency credits. Though you may be able to complete some of the lower level requirements online, remote options could be increasingly scarce as you advance in your degree program.

Stand Out with This Degree

You might choose to attend a school based on exceptional center and research facilities and faculty connections in your proposed area of study. They might have affiliations with federal organizations, like the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, or corporate sponsors that could attract positive attention to your Ph.D. research. You may be able to attend special sessions or colloquies in areas of interest that could make you more visible to those interested in your subfield.

Students interested in academic careers may take advantage of opportunities for lab work, teaching, making conference presentations and authoring or co-authoring research papers. You may have opportunities to contribute to journals hosted by your university. Your school may have special organizations for Ph.D. students.

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