Becoming a Clinical Microbiologist: Salary & Job Description

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A microbiologist's mean annual salary is about $76,530, but is it worth the education requirements? Get the truth about the job descriptions and career outlook to decide if it's the right career for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Clinical Microbiologist

As a clinical microbiologist, you'll study diseases and bacteria and prevent possible outbreaks. Read on for pros and cons of becoming a clinical microbiologist and see if it's the right job for you.

Pros of Being a Clinical Microbiologist
Work contributes to identifying and preventing diseases and improving human health overall*
Can find work in a variety of industries, like research and development, biotechnology or public health*
Likely to work regular hours*
Certifications that can increase job opportunities (such as becoming a lab director) are available**

Cons of Being a Clinical Microbiologist
Advanced education is necessary for specialization and career advancement*
May require exposure to diseases, infections and hazardous materials*
Keen competition for obtaining research grants*
Slower employment growth than other similar biological fields: 7% increase in jobs expected from 2012-2022 (compared with 19% growth for biochemists and biophysicists)*
Many employers require multiple years of experience in addition to educational requirements***

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American College of Microbiology, ***Multiple online job postings from March 2012

Essential Career Information

Job Description

Microbiologists study the growth of bacteria and other microscopic organisms and how they interact with different environments, often with the aim of solving human health problems. Clinical microbiologists focus their work primarily on identifying and stopping the spread of diseases, like HIV, SARS and tuberculosis. You may incorporate biotechnology in your work to further the understanding of how cells reproduce and how disease spreads among humans and animals.

As a clinical microbiologist, you'll examine specimens and look at various types of infections. You might focus on diagnosing diseases and preventing the spread of infections. This can include keeping an eye on potential disease outbreaks and bioterrorism threats.

Work in a research lab might involve performing clinical trials and analyzing the evidence and results to form conclusions about various diseases. If you end up working in public health, you can help manage any outbreaks and communicate with public health labs, and you may be the first to detect a particular disease in a community. If you're working in a healthcare setting, duties could involve running tests, gathering data and reporting results so that doctors can give proper diagnoses and rehabilitative treatments to sick patients.

Career Outlook and Salary Info

Employment growth of microbiologists was predicted to be average from 2012-2022, at 7%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The increase in microbiology jobs was partially attributed to the fact that development of biological procedures and products that can benefit human health is in-demand.

Based on data from May 2014, the average annual salary for microbiologists was $76,530. The bottom 10% earned around $38,830 or less yearly, while the top 10% brought home $125,000 or more. The federal government is a top-paying industry - microbiologists working in this sector earned an average salary of $102,980.

What Are the Requirements?

The University of Arizona defines clinical microbiologists as scientists with doctoral degrees and medical board certification. However, other schools with clinical microbiology programs, as well as job postings, show that not all jobs titled 'clinical microbiologist' always require these two components.

To become a clinical microbiologist, you'll have to undergo postsecondary study. You'll have the best chances at a job with an advanced degree, and it's usually only possible to specialize in microbiology or clinical microbiology in a master's degree or Ph.D. program. Subjects you might study in a graduate program include immunology, virology, microbial pathogenicity, infectious disease epidemiology, food microbiology, bacteria physiology and mycology. Laboratory rotations and clinical practicums are also required.

With a graduate degree, you could find a research and development job, direct laboratories, or work in hospitals, public health centers and other healthcare facilities. To carry out independent research, you most often need a doctoral degree, and some positions require postdoctoral education. Board certification may be requested for some jobs directing labs.

With just a bachelor's degree in a related biological science, you can find microbiology lab jobs. A year or two of relevant experience is usually required.

Important Knowledge and Skills

Most lab positions will require that you are familiar with particular scientific testing procedures, sophisticated laboratory equipment, computer programs and federal regulations. Clinical microbiologists should have the following general skills, per multiple online job listings, the BLS and O*Net.

  • Patience and self-discipline
  • Attention to detail
  • Good communication (oral and written)
  • Strong critical thinking and analysis abilities

Job Postings from Real Employers

Jobs are available at universities, research organizations and medical labs, just to name a few places. Candidates with Ph.D.s and several years of laboratory experience are typically preferred. Keep reading for a sampling of online job postings available in March 2012:

  • An Iowa university posted to find a director for their clinical microbiology laboratory. Applicants should be graduates of accredited microbiology programs and be eligible to become medically licensed in the state. The position is tenure-track, and candidates with excellent teaching and scholarship skills were especially encouraged to apply.
  • A medical diagnostic company in Massachusetts advertised for a clinical microbiologist to supervise a microbiology group, design and carry out research on various pathogens, write scientific literature and give presentations, among other duties. Candidates should be well-versed in nucleic acid-based testing, and they should have either a Ph.D. or M.S. in microbiology, with 3-8 years of relevant work experience.
  • A Michigan pharmaceutical laboratory looked for a microbiologist to perform bacterial testing and identification. Candidates must hold a bachelor's degree in microbiology or a related degree and should have at least 1 year of lab experience.
  • A Richmond research organization sought a research scientist to join a vaccine testing team. A Ph.D. in a field such as immunology, virology or biochemistry with 2 years of experience is highly preferred, though lower degrees paired with longer amounts of work experience are also considered.

How to Get an Edge

Per the BLS, a wide-ranging knowledge base is advantageous in the microbiology job market. Understanding how fields like medicine and biochemistry are interrelated with microbiology could give you an edge over the competition for applied research jobs. Also, obtaining an internship and practicing laboratory skills with a prospective employer is suggested.

Get Certified

Becoming certified demonstrates to employers that you have a solid knowledge base and skill set, which can set you apart from other candidates in the job market. The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) offers 3 certification boards for different skill sets and education levels. All certifications require that you apply to take a computer-based exam, and they each have specific eligibility requirements based on education and work experience.

The American Board of Medical Microbiology (ABMM) and the American Board of Medical Laboratory Immunology (ABMLI) offer certifications for doctoral-level scientists specializing in either of these fields, and these certifications form part of the licensure requirements to direct a lab (which can vary by state). It's also possible to be certified by the National Registry of Certified Microbiologists (NRCM) if you have a postsecondary degree of any level and are trained in pharmaceutical and medical devices, biological safety or food safety.

Alternate Career Ideas

Maybe becoming a clinical microbiologist doesn't seem like the right step for you. If you're still interested in pursuing a science-oriented career but you're more interested in working with food and crops, consider a career as a food scientist. You'll research the biological components of food, and you might apply your research to product development or government food regulation work. A bachelor's degree is necessary for entry-level positions, though a Ph.D. is typically required for independent research jobs. Employment growth was predicted to be 10% from 2010-2020, about as fast as average for all jobs. Food scientists made a mean annual wage of about $64,000 in May 2011.

Maybe you do want to prevent diseases and illness but you'd rather work more with patients than in a lab. If that's the case, you could pursue a career as a physician. You'll have the chance to specialize in one of many types of medical practice; for example, you could become an anesthesiologist or a general internist. You can make a high average salary - general surgeons earned about $232,000 per year and family practitioners made near $177,000 annually as of May 2011. Employment growth was predicted to be 24%, which is a faster than average rate, from 2010-2020. Career outlook is positive, but keep in mind that you need to complete extensive and costly education (undergraduate education, medical school and residencies/internships) plus become licensed before you can start working.

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