Microbiologists held about 21,700 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of microbiologists were as follows:
|Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences||24%|
|Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing||15|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private||14|
|Federal government, excluding postal service||11|
|State government, excluding education and hospitals||7|
Microbiologists typically work in laboratories, offices, and industrial settings where they conduct experiments and analyze the results. Microbiologists who work with dangerous organisms must follow strict safety procedures to avoid contamination. Some microbiologists may conduct onsite visits or collect samples from the environment or worksites, and, as a result, may travel occasionally and spend some time outside.
Basic researchers who work in academia usually choose the focus of their research and run their own laboratories. Applied researchers who work for companies study the products that the company will sell or suggest modifications to the production process so that the company can become more efficient. Basic researchers often need to fund their research by winning grants. These grants often put pressure on researchers to meet deadlines and other specifications. Research grants are generally awarded through a competitive selection process.
Most microbiologists work full time and keep regular hours.
A bachelor’s degree in microbiology or a closely related field is needed for entry-level microbiologist jobs. A Ph.D. is needed to carry out independent research and to work in universities.
Microbiologists need at least a bachelor’s degree in microbiology or a closely related program that offers substantial coursework in microbiology, such as biochemistry or cell biology. Many colleges and universities offer degree programs in biological sciences, including microbiology.
Most microbiology majors take core courses in microbial genetics and microbial physiology and elective classes such as environmental microbiology and virology. Students also should take classes in other sciences, such as biochemistry, chemistry, and physics, because it is important for microbiologists to have a broad understanding of the sciences. Courses in statistics, math, and computer science are important for microbiologists because they may need to do complex data analysis.
It is important for prospective microbiologists to have laboratory experience before entering the workforce. Most undergraduate microbiology programs include a mandatory laboratory requirement, but additional laboratory coursework is recommended. Students also can gain valuable laboratory experience through internships with prospective employers, such as drug manufacturers.
Microbiologists typically need a Ph.D. to carry out independent research and work in colleges and universities. Graduate students studying microbiology commonly specialize in a subfield such as bacteriology or immunology. Ph.D. programs usually include class work, laboratory research, and completing a thesis or dissertation.
Many microbiology Ph.D. holders begin their careers in temporary postdoctoral research positions. During their postdoctoral appointment, they work with experienced scientists as they continue to learn about their specialties and develop a broader understanding of related areas of research.
Postdoctoral positions typically offer the opportunity to publish research findings. A solid record of published research is essential to getting a permanent college or university faculty position.
Microbiologists typically receive greater responsibility and independence in their work as they gain experience. They also gain greater responsibility through certification and higher education. Ph.D. microbiologists usually lead research teams and control the direction and content of projects.
Some microbiologists move into managerial positions, often as natural sciences managers. Those who pursue management careers spend much of their time on administrative tasks, such as preparing budgets and schedules.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Certifications are not mandatory for the majority of work done by microbiologists. However, certifications are available for clinical microbiologists and for those who specialize in the fields of food safety and quality and pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Certification may help workers gain employment in the occupation or advance to new positions of responsibility.
Microbiologists typically have an interest in the Building and Thinking interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws.
If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Thinking interest which might fit with a career as a microbiologist, you can take a career test to measure your interests.
Microbiologists should also possess the following specific qualities:
Communication skills. Microbiologists should be able to effectively communicate their research processes and findings so that knowledge may be applied correctly.
Detail oriented. Microbiologists must be able to conduct scientific experiments and analyses with accuracy and precision.
Interpersonal skills. Microbiologists typically work on research teams and thus must work well with others toward a common goal. Many also lead research teams and must be able to motivate and direct other team members.
Logical-thinking skills. Microbiologists draw conclusions from experimental results through sound reasoning and judgment.
Math skills. Microbiologists regularly use complex mathematical equations and formulas in their work. Therefore, they need a broad understanding of mathematics, including calculus and statistics.
Observation skills. Microbiologists must constantly monitor their experiments. They need to keep a complete, accurate record of their work, noting conditions, procedures, and results.
Perseverance. Microbiological research involves substantial trial and error, and microbiologists must not become discouraged in their work.
Problem-solving skills. Microbiologists use scientific experiments and analysis to find solutions to complex scientific problems.
The median annual wage for microbiologists was $75,650 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $43,500, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $133,280.
In May 2019, the median annual wages for microbiologists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
|Federal government, excluding postal service||$106,670|
|Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences||101,100|
|Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing||67,990|
|State government, excluding education and hospitals||57,770|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private||56,850|
Most microbiologists work full time and keep regular hours.
Employment of microbiologists is projected to grow 5 percent from 2018 to 2028, about as fast as the average for all occupations. More microbiologists will be needed to contribute to basic research and solve problems of industrial production.
Microbiologists will be needed to research and develop new medicines and treatments, such as vaccines and antibiotics. In addition, microbiologists will be needed to help pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies develop drugs that are produced with the aid of microorganisms.
Aside from improving health, other areas of research and development are expected to provide employment growth for microbiologists. Many companies, from food producers to chemical companies, will need microbiologists to ensure product quality and production efficiency. Efforts to find more clean sources of energy will involve microbiologists, such as mycologists and industrial microbiologists, who research and develop alternative energy sources such as biofuels and biomass. In agriculture, microbiologists will be needed to help develop genetically engineered crops that provide greater yields or require less pesticide and fertilizer. Finally, efforts to discover new and improved ways to preserve the environment and safeguard public health also will make use of microbiologists.
Microbiology is a thriving field that should provide good prospects for qualified workers. Most of the applied research projects that microbiologists are involved in require the expertise of scientists in multiple fields such as geology, chemistry, and medicine. Microbiologists with some familiarity of other disciplines should have the best opportunities.
Much of basic research depends on funding from the federal government through the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Federal budgetary decisions and private capital availability will affect job prospects in basic research from year to year. There is strong competition among microbiologists for research funding. However, many opportunities for microbiologists are likely to be available.
For more information about microbiologists, visit
American Society for Microbiology
International Union of Microbiological Societies
Society for Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology
To find job openings for microbiologists in the federal government, visit
For general information about careers and specialties in biological sciences, visit
American Institute of Biological Sciences
The American Society for Cell Biology
American Society for Clinical Pathology
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology
For information about microbiologists’ tools and activities, visit
For more information about microbiological topics, visit