Microbiologist Careers: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of a microbiologist career? Get real job duties, career outlook and salary info to see if becoming a microbiologist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Microbiologist Career

Microbiologists are scientists who study the properties of minute organisms, such as fungi and bacteria, and how they affect living species. Before deciding whether becoming a microbiologist is right for you, consider the pros and cons.

Pros of Being a Microbiologist
Good salary (median salary was about $67,790 in May 2014)*
Choice of multiple disciplines to specialize in (such as bacteriology and immunology)*
Microbiologists can work in variety of industries (research, education, food)**

Cons of Being a Microbiologist
Possible health risk through exposure to dangerous organisms*
Depending on your career goals, you may be in school for ten years (total years for undergraduate and doctorate studies)*
Graduate school costs and repayments may initially offset benefit of salary (Tuition and fees could exceed $20,000 for each year in a graduate program)***

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **North Carolina Association for Biomedical Research, ***University websites (tuition and fee listings).

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Microbiologists spend much of their time conducting research and experiments, although their level of education and experience typically determines their duties. As a microbiologist, you may use highly technical equipment and technology to study a variety of organisms, such as fungi, viruses and bacteria. Your findings can be used across multiple fields, such as pharmaceutical development, environmental initiatives and food product manufacturing. This will often cause you to work cooperatively with scientists in other fields. You may also perform administrative duties, such as coordinating and supervising projects, presenting research findings and preparing technical reports.

Specialization Options

Microbiologists categorize themselves into various types of microbiologists based on what they specialize in. If disease prevention and treatment is your passion, consider becoming a clinical microbiologist. As a bacteriologist, you would determine how bacteria affects humans, plants and animals. Immunologists study all aspects of living things' immune systems, and mycologists analyze fungi and their uses. If you work as a virologist, you would study viruses and how they affect different life forms.

Salary and Outlook Info

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in May 2014, the lowest 10% of microbiologists received a salary of approximately $38,830 or less, while the upper 10% earned about $125,000 or more each year. The federal branch of government was the top-paying industry, offering microbiologists a mean salary of just over $102,980.

Overall, employment for microbiologists was expected to grow slower than average at 7% during 2012-2022, according to BLS projections. Those in pharmaceutical and biotechnology fields may see the most growth as these fields continue to churn out new developments for the medical field. Additionally, microbiologists who specialize in biotechnology could see increased growth as the need for alternative energy sources grows.

What Are the Requirements?


The BLS stated that a bachelor's degree is the minimal educational requirement for entry-level work as a microbiologist. Relevant majors include cell biology, microbiology, biochemistry and other related biological science fields. These programs can help you develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, which are important for becoming a microbiologist. The lab requirements in a bachelor's degree program might improve your observation skills, since you'll be monitoring experiments and keeping records.

If you plan to conduct independent research or teach in a postsecondary school, you need to earn a doctorate, which typically takes 4-6 years. In a doctoral program, you can choose a microbiology specialty.


Transitory postdoctoral research opportunities are commonly sought after earning a Ph.D. in Microbiology. These positions generally last 2-3 years and provide you with guidance from an experienced microbiologist. By participating in temporary postdoctoral research, you can gain valuable experience and may have more opportunities to publish your research evaluations.

What Employers Are Looking for

You could work for many types of employers as a microbiologist, such as research groups, consulting firms, hospitals, agricultural companies, educational institutions, medical laboratories, government agencies and manufacturing firms. Employers commonly look for self-motivated individuals with experience. Below are a few jobs listings for microbiologists during April 2012:

  • A pharmaceutical company in New Jersey is looking for a microbiologist to work with microorganism cultures. Candidates need a bachelor's degree in microbiology, biology or a related discipline and 2-5 years of experience.
  • A university in Virginia would like to hire a microbiologist in its biodefense and infectious disease department. Applicants must have a Ph.D. or M.D. and postdoctoral and research experience that includes having published findings in peer-reviewed journals and success securing research funding.
  • A consulting firm in Pennsylvania is seeking a microbiologist with a bachelor's degree and at least eight years of work experience in the pharmaceutical field to assess environmental monitoring operations.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Although lab work is a common requirement in relevant bachelor's programs, the BLS advised aspiring microbiologists to gain additional lab experience. Acquiring internships is one way to gain this training. The BLS also reported gaining proficiency in other fields that relate to microbiology, such as chemistry and medicine, is advantageous in the job market. This could be acquired through degree program minors, double majors, supplemental coursework or graduate/professional studies. Additionally, joining a trade association, such as the American Society for Microbiologists, may increase your visibility and keep you updated on the industry's latest technologies and methodologies.

Alternative Career Paths

Biological Technician

If you want to work in the sciences, but don't want your opportunities limited by not having a graduate degree, consider becoming a biological technician. You would assist scientists in the lab, and a bachelor's degree in biology or a related field is typically the only educational requirement. The BLS reported an average growth rate of 14% was expected during 2010-2020 for these professionals. However, your salary won't likely be as high as a microbiologist's; as of May 2011, biological technicians earned a median salary of about $39,000, according to the BLS.


If you're particularly interested in studying infectious diseases and finding ways to prevent and cure them and would like better career prospects, consider becoming an epidemiologist. A master's degree in the field is the minimum required for this job, although those who work in universities usually have Ph.D. degrees. The BLS estimated a rapid growth rate for epidemiologists: 24% between 2010 and 2020. Furthermore, the BLS reported that most states are experiencing shortages for applied epidemiologists. According to May 2011 BLS data, epidemiologists earned slightly less than microbiologists with a median salary of about $64,000.

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