What is the work like?
Microbiologists study micro-organisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Microbiology is central to many scientific developments, including genetic engineering and gene therapy, developing new antimicrobial agents (antibiotics) and understanding the process of disease.
Clinical microbiologists study all categories of micro-organisms that are clinically significant and have a potential impact on health. They have a wide knowledge of microbiology linked to clinical conditions, diseases, infections and infection control, and public health.
They may track the spread of a disease, such as bird flu, to help prevent an epidemic, or they may analyse samples of food or water to check for microbes that might cause food poisoning. Others may monitor the effect of microbes in breaking down sewage and other waste.
Research microbiologists usually specialise in one particular field of work after gaining a general knowledge of microbiology. The work involves:
- designing and conducting experiments
- making observations and drawing conclusions
- interpreting and analysing findings
- writing reports and scientific papers.
Industrial microbiologists study micro-organisms specific to their industry.
In general, microbiologists may carry out any of the following activities:
- isolating and identifying micro-organisms that cause disease, diagnosing disease and advising doctors on the treatment of patients
- monitoring, identifying and helping to control infectious diseases, and researching into the causes of disease
- running clinical trials of new antimicrobial agents in conjunction with pharmaceutical companies
- investigating potential uses of micro-organisms to produce antibodies, steroids, vaccines and other healthcare products
- working on the production of foods such as cheese or yoghurt, or food additives such as flavourings or vitamins
- quality assurance and control of research and clinical trials
- ensuring product safety in all commercial food and drink, and industrial processes such as petroleum, oil and beer making
- arranging safe disposal of waste produced as a result of research activities.
Research microbiologists generally work in a multidisciplinary team with other scientists, including geneticists, biochemists, molecular biologists and chemical engineers. They may also teach and train students and other scientists in research techniques.
Microbiologists in all fields of work often use a combination of manual techniques and sophisticated, computer-controlled equipment and procedures.
Microbiology is also an area of work for biomedical scientists.
Hours and environment
Research and industrial microbiologists usually work 37 hours a week, 9am to 5pm from Monday to Friday. Evenings and weekends may be required for fieldwork or long-running experiments.
Clinical microbiologists generally work around 37.5 hours a week, on a shift rota system covering 24 hours a day. These could be early, late or night shifts and may include weekends.
The work takes place in laboratories, which may be in hospitals or factories, or out in the field.
Microbiologists in laboratories must wear protective clothing such as approved laboratory coats, gloves, masks and eye protection, or an all-over protective suit.
Salary and other benefits
These figures are only a guide as actual rates of pay may vary, depending on the employer and where people live.
- Starting salaries for a laboratory assistant may be from around £13,000 to £19,000.
- Qualified microbiologists may earn from around £20,000 to £35,000 a year.
- Top salaries range from around £38,000 to £60,000 a year.
Skills and personal qualities
- have strong scientific ability
- be able to work methodically and to a high level of precision
- have patience and good concentration
- have an enquiring mind and good problem-solving skills
- be good at working with their hands
- be able to work well alone and as part of a team
- have good communication skills, and be able to write reports and give presentations
- have good IT skills.
It is important to be interested in:
- science in general
- research and development.
Microbiologists work for a wide range of employers, including:
- hospitals, universities, the National Blood Service and the Health Protection Agency
- industry, including pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, food and drink, consumer goods and the water industry
- biotechnology companies and food research associations
- government agencies and research establishments
- research councils
- local government.
There are opportunities throughout the UK, but industrial research and development tends to be more common in south-east England. There are clusters of bioscience companies in Oxford, Cambridge, London, Edinburgh and Nottingham. Demand for bacteriologists is increasing.
Vacancies may be advertised in local or national newspapers, on employers' websites, on science recruitment websites such as www.jobsinscience.co.uk and in specialised publications.
Entry is usually with a degree in a science subject, particularly microbiology. Other relevant subjects are biochemistry, biology, chemistry, physiology and medical laboratory sciences. Some have a postgraduate qualification.
Increasingly, employers expect graduates to have relevant work experience.
Entry to a degree is usually with a minimum of two A levels and five GCSEs (A*-C), or equivalent qualifications. Biology and chemistry are particularly useful for this field. Entry may also be possible by completing a foundation degree or Higher National Certificate/Diploma (HNC/HND) in a science subject. One or two A levels, or the equivalent are usually required for entry onto these courses.
It is also possible to enter the work as a laboratory assistant. Applicants usually need four GCSEs (A*-C), including two sciences (or a double award), maths and English at the very least, or equivalent qualifications. There is a BTEC National Certificate and Diploma in applied science.
Microbiologists are given regular on-the-job training to learn new laboratory techniques and keep up to date with IT developments and health and safety regulations. They may also receive training for personal development, management or supervisory responsibilities.
They may study towards postgraduate qualifications or membership of a professional body. The Institute of Biomedical Science offers a range of specialist diplomas and certificates of practice.
Those working at technician level may study part time towards NVQ Levels 2 to 4 in laboratory and associated technical activities, HNCs/HNDs or degrees.
In the NHS, clinical microbiologists train on the Clinical Scientist Training Programme. This includes study for postgraduate qualifications, leading to registration with the Health Professions Council (HPC), followed by exams for membership or Fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists.
Promotion prospects vary depending on the type of organisation. Some microbiologists may need to change employer to gain promotion. Microbiologists may work towards Chartered Scientist status.
Progression may involve taking on more responsibility for research tasks and projects, and eventually leading a research project. Microbiologists may progress to take on supervisory or management responsibilities.
In industry, scientists may become involved in the more commercial aspects of the work.
The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI). Website: www.abpi-careers.org.uk
Institute of Biomedical Science, 12 Coldbath Square, London EC1R 5HL. 020 7713 0214. Website: www.ibms.org
Royal College of Pathologists, 2 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AF. 020 7451 6700. Website: www.rcpath.org
The Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG. 020 7451 2500. http://royalsociety.org
Society for General Microbiology, Marlborough House, Basingstoke Road, Spencers Wood, Reading RG7 1AG. 0118 988 1800. Website: www.sgm.ac.uk
Leaflets and downloadable information from the organisations above.
Working in Science - VT Lifeskills
www.futuremorph.org - Science Council
Biomedical Scientist - IBMS
The International Journal of Food Science and Technology - IFST
Microbiologist - Society of Applied Microbiology
(Some may be priced)
Content provided by Jobs4U, author: Martin Webb. Original content: Microbiologist. Last update at 2009-04-20