Microbiologists study organisms that cause infections, including viruses, bacteria, archaea, fungi, algae and protozoa. They focus on the biology of microorganisms at both the molecular and cellular level, as well as their ecology.
The work of a microbiologist helps to prevent, diagnose and control infections as they identify and characterise organisms. They are able to comment on effective treatment and can help to develop tests to diagnose infectious diseases.
Microbiology is a vast subject which overlaps with other areas of life sciences, such as molecular biology, immunology and biochemistry. Specialist areas include basic research, medicine, healthcare and food.
Microbiologists also look at how microorganisms affect us and how we can exploit them. Their work can be relevant in a wide variety of settings including agriculture, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and the environment, although the majority of the work is carried out in hospitals.
Typical work activities
- Observing, monitoring and identifying microorganisms.
- Tracking of microorganisms in a range of environments.
- Monitoring and assessing samples from a range of sources.
- Using a variety of identification methods, including molecular techniques, to test samples.
- Developing new techniques, products and processes.
- Developing and planning methods to prevent the spread of disease.
- Developing and registering new medicines, vaccines, diagnostic tests and pharmaceutical products.
- Planning, implementing and evaluating new products in clinical trials.
- Developing products, such as enzymes, vitamins, hormones, and antimicrobials.
- Growing microbial cultures, e.g. for use in the food and beverage industry or in agriculture.
- Working with specialist computer software to undertake studies and research.
- Managing and overseeing laboratory work.
- Planning and organizing resources and activities.
- Following regular sampling schedules within a specific environment.
- Collecting samples from different types of environments, such as agricultural sites.
- Quality control in manufacturing processes, e.g. checking for signs of contamination.
- Maintaining accurate and up-to-date records.
- Writing up research findings and producing reports.
- Keeping up with new research and attending national and international conferences and other events.
- Liaising with colleagues from non-scientific departments.
- Providing information and advice to colleagues and external bodies.
- A good level of numeracy.
- IT skills.
- Accuracy and a methodical approach.
- Excellent written and oral communication.
- Extremely high standards of health and safety.
- Good laboratory practice (GLP).
Generally, there is a wide range of progression routes for microbiologists in most fields. It is possible to move from practitioner, to specialist, to team manager and then consultant. At the more senior levels, there is an increased involvement in staff management along with a supervisory role with fuller responsibility for the work of the laboratory. In some fields, mobility may be required in order to progress. It is worth noting that specialisation in your degree course or in your choice of first job may affect your future career options.
A qualification such as an MSc or PhD can make career progression easier. It is also beneficial to develop your own area of specialist knowledge, for example by getting involved in research projects and publications and keeping up to date with developing research.
Networking at all levels is part of successful career development in this role. Maintaining a professional profile by presenting research at meetings, undertaking work exchanges abroad and applying for research grants is also recommended. Experienced microbiologists may progress into other fields of work that benefit from their specialist knowledge, such as pharmaceutical sales and marketing, patent work, teaching, scientific publishing or the legal profession.
Original content at prospects.ac.uk