STEM Career Spotlight: Microbiologist

Have you ever thought about who was the key to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and developing the vaccine — doctors? No, the real faces behind the operation are microbiologists, who worked quickly and meticulously to study the characteristics of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the outbreak.

Microbiologists — lying at the juncture of medicine, healthcare, and the physical sciences — work to study viruses, fungi, bacteria, and others to research more efficient production methods against them. They are essential in learning about newly discovered microorganisms and how they work to help or hurt us. Microbiologists often specialize in either bacteriology, immunology, parasitology, virology, or mycology. Within their specific organisms of specialization, microbiologists collect samples and bring them to a lab for testing. They might observe the interaction between the microbes they are studying and human or plant tissue. Based upon the results of these interactions, they will keep records and write papers about their findings and their real-world implications in terms of vaccines, antifungal, antiviral, and antibiotic treatments. Some microbiologists work in the medicine or the veterinary field to work on treatment for humans and animals, while industrial microbiologists might apply their work to creating food products. Agricultural and environmental microbiologists also study pesticidal treatments and how microbes could better the environment, respectively.

To join this workforce, prospective students need at least a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, with related degrees such as biology and biochemistry helping during the subsequent application phase as students move into working under existing microbiologists. To become a full-fledged research scientist, students must aspire to achieve a master’s degree, where they will find their specific field of interest (like immunology, mycology, and virology). In order to work in some positions, employers may require relevant certifications, such as food safety and pharmaceuticals. In addition, medical microbiologists may need relevant medical degrees to apply their knowledge.

Xello attaches the skills of Builder and Thinker to this career. Students who like creating new things, formulating new ideas and concepts while challenging pre-existing work, and working on cutting-edge research are good candidates for microbiology.

This career has an increasing demand in the United States — though the number of people employed by this profession is not very high, the need for workers is higher than the national average for the rest of the country’s workforce. A sample career path for many might begin as a research assistant to a more experienced lab manager or a research director. Career progression is highly dependent on more specialized education, as students aspiring to reach the pinnacle of this career should try to attain a Ph.D. in microbiology. Microbiologists may earn anywhere depending on their career success and the pace of their progression.

Microbiologists spend most of their working hours in offices and laboratories, analyzing samples and drafting reports and conclusions. However, their employers may range from colleges and governments to food manufacturers, mining companies, and health organizations. The equipment they often work with includes microscopes, Petri dishes, and other specialized machinery that works to accelerate the research process. Microbiologists must be careful to stay safe around toxic organisms and chemicals they may be working with — they should practice lab safety whenever working in such conditions.

Eric and Susan are experienced microbiologists who shared their voices on Xello about their experiences in the field of microbiology. Eric describes the “satisfaction that [he] get[s] both personally and professionally from finally making a big discovery” as one of the most rewarding aspects of the career. He describes the achievement and feeling of accomplishment that he gets from not expressing his “work in a written form, but also to share [his] findings with all of [his] colleagues” — exemplifying and capturing the collaborative spirit of science. However, it’s not all unicorns and rainbows — microbiology requires much input from the microbiologist, as Eric enlightens Xello on the “painstaking troubleshooting that [he has] to go through in the laboratory.” Still, he describes the career as an ultimately rewarding experience because of the setbacks he faces in developing a solution to the problem he works on. Susan delves into a different aspect of the career, describing the wonder of seeing what “micro-organisms look like and how their cells function.” She also describes the flexibility she has with her career, as she “can set [her] own schedule,” and that is a significant quality for many who are “trying to raise a family at the same time”. However, she describes time management as a struggle for a professor like her who works in the research lab and teaches. It can be repetitive for her to “spend days marking 70 or 80 papers on the exact same topic” and irritating when students “haggle over marks”. Her advice to everyone overall is that it is essential to “develop a broad range of skills” in your journey into microbiology.

Microbiology is a highly specialized field that employs only a select few. Though it is a trying career that requires a lot of input and innovative thinking from the side of the microbiologist, the outcome is rewarding and beneficial. In an age where S.T.E.M. careers are becoming highly competitive, microbiology remains a field for those who like to think on their feet and work outside their comfort zone.

Works Cited

“Microbiologist” Xello, Accessed 4 Jan. 2024.