CAREER DEVELOPMENT / MAY. 02, 2014
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How to Become a Microbiologist

A profession which demands only the most attuned logical and enquiring minds, not to mention a flawless and unflinching grasp of biological sciences and microbiology is primarily the laboratory-based, study of viruses, fungi, bacteria and algae. It is a job which requires excellent problem solving skills, a close attention to detail and prolonged accuracy.  

The Job

In a healthcare setting, the work of a clinical microbiologist centres upon the identification of pathogens and diseases- with the overall aim of protecting our species from the spread and development of infection, both understood and new. Every single bit as immersive and completely difficult as it sounds, on the other end of the spectrum to practical microbiology sits research. This field aids development in areas such as agriculture, food industries, pharmaceuticals, the environment, education and the fast emerging biotechnology industries.

Day-to-day, the work of a professional microbiologist may include:

  • The monitoring, identification and control of infectious disease
  • The development and testing of new medicines in said diseases treatment, through the use of molecular biology techniques
  • Investigating the potential of micro-organisms in the production of vaccines, hormones, antibodies and other related biotechnology products
  • Assessing the relevance of microbes in the production of food, protection of crops and increased fertility of crop soil
  • Monitoring the safety and quality of manufactured foods and pharmaceutical products
  • Controlling pollution by employing micro-organisms to break down toxic substances

On top of carrying out duties within this mile-wide spectrum of tasks, microbiologists must also present their findings to superiors on a regular basis. This requires a mastery of various administrative tasks, not to mention the supervision of lower level lab employees and in many cases even students. 

Hours and Salary

As is common within the scientific professions, there is a great deal of variation when it comes to a microbiologists working schedule. Whilst some roles may require commitment to a typical structure (9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday) – others require that you work to an on-call rota.

As mentioned previously, much of the work a professional in this field carries out is confined to the laboratory, though it is likely that a microbiologist’s will see them travel semi-frequently to meetings, conferences and seminars. In terms of pay expectations, the National Careers Service estimates the following rates for UK-based practitioners:

Level of Experience

Typical Salary

Starting-out

£21,200 - £27,500

Experienced

Up to £35,000

Managerial 

£40,000+

Field Entry Requirements

Typically, employment as a microbiologist may only be sought by candidates holding a degree in microbiology or a related subject. On top of the top-level bachelors needed, it’s likely that an employer in the field will also request that candidates hold a postgraduate degree as well as some relevant in-field practical work experience.

Gaining entry onto a microbiology undergrad degree will require at least five GCSE’s of grades A, B or C (including English and maths) and at least two A levels of distinction (including biology and ideally also chemistry). Saying this, each higher education institution consulted is likely to hold an entirely different set of expectations for their candidates – so checking with course providers may reveal to you a route which does not require the aforementioned (entrance via foundation degrees, bridging courses etc.).

In terms of personal traits and strengths, those wishing to excel in microbiology will need:

  • The ability to keep up with and show interest in the latest scientific developments
  • The ability to think both clearly and logically
  • The ability to solve problems
  • The ability to lead a team of scientists
  • The ability to communicate concisely with others
  • The ability to work with and process statistics/relevant computer packages
  • The ability to process information with high levels of accuracy and an attention to detail

Career Prospects

It’s extremely common microbiologists working within the industry will receive on-the-job training regardless of their particular field of focus. Areas of development typically include lab techniques and technology, as well as management and supervisory skills. Encouragement of postgraduate qualifications (masters, PhD) and membership to relevant professional bodies is always suggested, though far from an obligation.

The professional gains afforded by membership to the likes of the Society for General Microbiology are unassailable, with few practitioners managing to progress past entry level positions without recognition. Generally, details of advancement and the routes is takes are dependant not only on the merits and expertise of the individual in question, but the industry they are active within and organisation to which they are affiliated.

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