How to Become a Microbiologist in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for microbiologists. Get the facts about education and licensure requirements, salary, and potential job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Biology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Microbiologist Do?

A microbiologist is a scientist who studies the properties of fungi, algae, bacteria and other microscopic organisms. Areas of specialization include virology, immunology or bioinformatics. Microbiologists will study these microorganisms to learn about their life cycle and how they interact with their environment. This may include isolating bacteria to study, identifying microorganisms in specimens, and monitoring the effects of microorganisms on the environment or other living things. Their research can often be used to fight disease and develop new drugs and other treatments. They will conduct complex experiments, supervise other technicians and present their findings to the public and colleagues. The following chart provides an overview about this career.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree for career entry; doctorate for independent research positions
Field of Study Microbiology, biochemistry or cell biology
Key Responsibilities Identify, classify and monitor the effects of microorganisms on plants, animals and the environment; participate in research projects; prepare technical reports and papers and present findings
Certification Optional certification is available for clinical microbiologists
Job Growth (2014-2024) 4%*
Median Salary (2015) $67,550*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What is a Microbiologist?

If you become a microbiologist, you may isolate organism cultures and classify the types of organisms found in soil, water and living hosts. You might also observe how organisms interact with each other and with living plant and animal tissue, as well as analyze the relationship between organisms and disease. Some of your duties could include preparing technical reports and research papers detailing your findings and making recommendations based on your research. You might also supervise lab workers and technicians and perform lab experiments for government health departments and physicians.

Step 1: Earn a High School Diploma

If want to study microbiology, concentrate your high school course selections in the natural sciences, such as biology, chemistry and physics. Courses in English and mathematics are helpful as well. Admission to any bachelor's degree program requires a high school diploma or GED, and some recommend four years of science, three years of math and two years of composition classes.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor's degree in microbiology will provide you with a fundamental understanding of the internal structure of microorganisms, the functions of their organelles and the physical and chemical interactions that take place within cells and between cells. Possible courses topics include organic chemistry, microbial genetics, pathogenic microbiology, and cellular physiology. Programs may be structured to emphasize general math and science in the first two years and microbiology-specific content during the third and fourth years.

Step 3: Earn a Graduate Degree

According to the BLS, a doctorate is needed for microbiologist positions that involve independent research. Doctoral programs may be oriented towards preparing you to study medicine, work as a research scientist or teach. However, in all programs you will have to conduct original research on a narrowly focused topic. Some programs allow you to enroll with a bachelor's degree, but others require you to have a master's degree.

Your doctoral studies will develop your abilities to design lab experiments, achieve proficiency in their execution, effectively communicate the results of your research and comprehend the research other others. Elective courses and seminars enable you to focus on a specialization, which might lead to a career as a bacteriologist, biochemist, immunologist, mycologist, parasitologist, science writer or virologist.

Step 4: Obtain Certification

The American College of Microbiology administers the NCRM certification exam, which is composed of four separate exams. Two are for supervisors and cover biological safety and medical devices. Two are for lab technicians and cover medical devices and food safety. Each is computer-based and consists of 150 multiple-choice questions.

In addition, the American College of Microbiology and the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) jointly administer clinical microbiology certification exams for bench technicians and supervisors. Technicians may take the Technologist in Microbiology (M) test, while supervisors take the Specialist in Microbiology (SM) examination. To be eligible for the M exam, you need medical lab scientist (MLS) certification, at least a bachelor's degree in a biological science and clinical lab experience in four out of six areas - bacteriology, molecular microbiology, mycobacteriology, mycology, parasitology and virology. To be eligible for the SM exam, you need M certification, at least a bachelor's degree in microbiology and clinical lab experience in the four of the six areas.

Step 5: Find Employment

An education in microbiology has applications in medicine, biotechnology, environmental protection and food safety. Therefore, you may find employment opportunities with government agencies at all levels, as well as with pharmaceutical companies, colleges and universities and professional, scientific and technical services firms. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that as of 2014 about 22,400 people were employed as microbiologists (www.bls.gov). The BLS anticipated employment would grow 4% for the period from 2014 to 2024.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

A biological technician is a related career that requires a bachelor's degree. These technicians work under biological or medical scientists and perform various laboratory tests. Epidemiologists require a master's degree and work to reduce the risk of disease in humans by studying disease patterns and causes. Another related career is that of a medical scientist. These professionals need a doctoral or professional degree and try to improve human health by conducting clinical trials and research experiments.

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