How to become a microbiologist (with steps)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 30 September 2022

Published 19 July 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Contemporary research is increasingly pointing to the importance of microbes for life on earth, which is causing a growing interest in the field of microbiology. Events such as ineffective antibiotics, the threat of bioterrorism and the contamination of food on a large scale have also brought about a renewed focus on the field. For these reasons, microbiology is an exciting and dynamic field that offers a wide variety of career options. In this article, we explain what microbiologists do and also provide a step-by-step guide on how to become a microbiologist.

What does a microbiologist do?

Microbiologists are scientists who study microorganisms, or microbes, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, algae and parasites and their vectors. Since microorganisms are often too small to see with the human eye, microbiologists make use of microscopes and other specialised equipment to learn about the behaviour, biochemistry, physiology and evolution of microbes. The aim is to understand how microbes affect people's lives and to use them in ways that are beneficial to humans. Since many bacteria have already evolved to live off the pollution that humans have created, the research of microbiologists is contributing largely to the development of recycling efforts and sustainable practices.

The daily duties of microbiologists vary depending on the area in which they've specialised and also their role and level of experience. To provide you with an idea of what these specialists do, though, here are a few general tasks and responsibilities that microbiologists may encounter in their day-to-day activities:

  • Developing and testing new vaccines, antibiotics and medicine for the treatment of infections and resistant microbes

  • Studying the use of microbes in waste disposal and pollution control

  • Collecting and analysing data and samples and conducting experiments

  • Studying outbreaks of epidemics and searching for ways to control the spread of disease

  • Producing medicines such as insulin by using gene technology that modifies microbes

  • Developing and registering new molecular techniques and diagnostic tests

  • Evaluating new products by conducting clinical trails

  • Conducting research and analyses with the help of specialist software packages

  • Writing reports and making recommendations

How to become a microbiologist

Obtaining an entry-level job as a microbiologist requires a degree. Here's a step-by-step guide you can consult if you wish to pursue a career in this field:

1. Pass the necessary GCSEs and A levels

To gain entry into a relevant undergraduate course, you need to pass five GCSEs (A-C), including science, math and English. In addition, you typically need a minimum of two A levels in grades AB in at least two hard sciences, such as biology and chemistry.

2. Obtain a relevant degree

The next step you want to take is to complete a relevant undergraduate course. You can choose from a wide range of bioscience degrees in subjects such as microbiology, applied biology, biomedical sciences, microbial sciences and molecular biology. Undergraduate courses provide a broad introduction to biological sciences and also lab techniques used in biomedical research. A microbiology course offers modules such as biochemistry, molecular biology, biodiversity, immunology, parasitology, virology and immunology.

Related: How to become a cell biologist (with steps and skills)

3. Opt for a postgraduate qualification

Although it's not always a requirement, some employers may ask for a postgraduate qualification. Certain roles, such as research or lecturing roles and also more senior positions across the board, typically require a master's or PhD qualification.

You can either enrol for a postgraduate course upon completion of your undergraduate course, or you can opt for an integrated master's qualification from the onset of your studies. Relevant options include a master's in biology sciences (MBioSci), a master's in biology (MBiol) and a masters in sciences (MSci). These courses are ideal for candidates who want to progress to a PhD qualification or those who wish to stand out in the graduate market.

4. Complete the NHS Scientist Training Programme

Candidates who plan to practice as clinical microbiologists may also need to complete the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP), which is a three-year program of work-based training and learning. Once you've completed the STP, you can apply for a Certificate of Attainment from the Academy of Healthcare Science. Only then can you apply for registration with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and start working as a clinical microbiologist.

Specialisation in microbiology

Microbiologists can specialise in various areas. Here are a few of the specialist roles in the field:

Biotechnologist

Biotechnologists study and manipulate the biomolecular and cellular processes of microorganisms with the aim of developing new technologies and products that improve people's lives. These specialists work across a wide variety of industries, including agriculture, medicine, healthcare, biofuels and food production. Their work, for instance, can involve the development of renewable energy or the production of biodegradable materials. Biotechnologists can specialise in a variety of areas, including biochemistry, cancer studies, microbial sciences, molecular biology and genetics.

Mycologist

Mycologists study the genetic and biochemical properties of fungi, which include organisms and microorganisms such as yeast, mushrooms, mildew and mould. Research into this field involves the beneficial use of fungi as sources of food, medicine and biofuels. Since fungi can cause diseases and toxicity. Studies in this field also involve finding ways of protecting humans against poisonous and pathogenic fungi. Mycologists work in a wide variety of settings and have diverse roles. The work, for instance, can range from analysing indoor air in environmental laboratories for mould spores to working on the development of fungal bioproducts.

Parasitologist

Parasitologists study parasites, which are organisms and microorganisms that live off a host, such as a human, animal or plant. Parasites come in a variety of forms, including viruses, bacteria, worms and insects. Of vital interest to parasitologists is the relationship between parasites and their hosts, since the two parties are locked in a continuous struggle for survival. By gaining an understanding of the mechanisms that each side uses in its struggle for survival, parasitologists contribute greatly to the understanding of how the biological world functions.

There are many different career options in this field. Agricultural parasitologists, for instance, study the effect of parasites on food sources while ecological parasitologists evaluate the changes in patterns of parasite distributions and colonisations.

Aquatic microbiologist

Aquatic microbiologists study microbes in aquatic environments, such as freshwater, marine and estuarine ecosystems. A great variety of microbes, including microscopic plants, bacteria, fungi, viruses, parasites, protozoa and algae, live in fresh and saltwater, and they play an important role in these aquatic ecosystems.

The presence of some microbes in water can sometimes cause disease and can even be life-threatening. Aquatic microbiologists do sampling tests of the water from different ecosystems to identify various microbes and study their effects on these ecosystems.

Industrial microbiologist

Industrial microbiologists apply microbial sciences to industrial production processes in order to solve production problems. The manipulation of microorganisms, for instance, can increase yields and it can also yield specific products, such as amino acids, alcohol and solvents. In the medical field, industrial microbiologists are involved with the production of new drugs, such as antibiotics, whereas those who work in agricultural industries develop biopesticides and biofertilisers.

The work of industrial microbiologists may also not have anything to do with food or medicine production. Their work, for instance, may involve monitoring the impact of industrial waste on ecosystems or examining the microbes found in the pipes of factories.

FAQs about microbiologists

Here are a few common FAQs about microbiologists that you may find informative:

Who employs microbiologists?

Microbiologists work in a variety of industries. Typical employers include research institutions, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, government agencies and biochemical and biotechnical companies. Microbiologists also work for agricultural companies, food and drink manufacturers and water and waste management companies.

What is the average salary of a microbiologist?

Microbiologists earn an average salary of £71,598 per year. Salaries vary depending on factors such as location, employer and area of specialisation. Your level of experience may also affect your salary.

Can microbiologists be medical doctors?

Microbiologists typically study bioscience degrees. There are, however, medical doctors who specialise in microbiology. Their work entails diagnosing and treating patients with infectious diseases and they are also responsible for preventing or controlling the spread of such diseases in hospitals and communities.

What is the work environment of a microbiologist like?

Microbiologists work in many different settings, including factories, laboratories, hospitals and classrooms. Apart from clinical microbiologists, who may be on-call, most microbiologists have a regular 40-hour work schedule. Depending on their role, they may need to travel from time to time for conferences or to collect samples for analyses. Laboratory work tends to be quite structured and requires protective clothing to prevent contamination.

Related:

  • How much does a microbiologist make? (With qualifications)

  • What does a microbiologist do? (Plus job roles and salary)

  • 12 biotechnology careers (including duties and salaries)

  • 17 jobs for microbiologists with primary duties and salaries

  • 13 Biomedical Science Jobs (With Salaries and Duties)


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