If you want to make a difference to people's lives through treating and preventing disease, making sure our food is safe or developing new green technologies, consider a career as a microbiologist

As a microbiologist you'll study microorganisms (microbes) in order to understand how they affect our lives and how we can exploit them. You'll focus on the biology of microorganisms at both the molecular and cellular level, as well as their ecology, including viruses, bacteria, archaea, fungi, algae and protozoa.

Your work is relevant in a variety of settings, including:

  • hospitals
  • agriculture
  • pharmaceuticals
  • biotechnology
  • education
  • the environment.

By understanding microbes, microbiologists aim to solve a range of problems affecting our health, the environment, climate and food and agriculture. This can include the prevention, diagnosis and control of infections and disease, as well as ensuring that food is safe, understanding the role that microbes play in climate change, and developing green technologies.

Types of microbiologist

Microbiology is a vast subject which overlaps with other areas of life sciences, such as molecular biology, immunology and biochemistry.

Specialist areas include:

  • medicine
  • healthcare
  • research
  • agriculture and food safety
  • environment and climate change.

Responsibilities

Tasks vary depending on your area of specialism. For example, healthcare scientists working in microbiology will be involved in preventing, diagnosing and controlling the spread of infections, whereas those working in manufacturing may be involved in quality control, checking for signs of contamination.

Depending on your areas of expertise, you'll typically need to:

  • monitor and identify microorganisms
  • track microorganisms in a range of environments
  • monitor and assess samples from a range of sources
  • follow regular sampling schedules within a specific environment
  • use a variety of identification methods, including molecular techniques, to test samples
  • develop new techniques, products and processes
  • develop and plan methods to prevent the spread of disease
  • develop and register new medicines, vaccines, diagnostic tests and pharmaceutical products
  • plan, implement and evaluate new products in clinical trials
  • collect samples from different types of environments, such as agricultural sites
  • develop products such as enzymes, vitamins, hormones and antimicrobials
  • grow microbial cultures, e.g. for use in the food and drink industry or in agriculture
  • work with specialist computer software to undertake studies and research
  • manage and oversee laboratory work.

You may also need to:

  • plan and organise resources and activities
  • maintain accurate and up-to-date records
  • write up research findings and produce reports
  • keep up with new research and attend national and international conferences and other events
  • liaise with colleagues from non-scientific departments
  • provide information and advice to colleagues and external bodies.

Salary

  • Jobs in the NHS for microbiologists working as healthcare scientists are usually covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) pay rates, consisting of nine pay bands. Trainee healthcare scientists are usually employed at band 6, on a starting salary of £26,565.
  • Once qualified, you're likely to be employed on band 7 (£31,696 to £41,787). Salaries for principal and consultant scientists range from £40,428 (band 8) to £100,431 (band 9), depending on your experience and training.
  • Salaries for higher education lecturers in microbiology usually follow a nationally agreed pay spine. See the University and College Union (UCU) website for details.
  • Research and development work in pharmaceutical firms, public health laboratories and medical research council units tends to attract higher salaries.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You'll usually work 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, although if you're working as a healthcare scientist in the NHS you may be on-call.

Larger employers may provide flexible working schemes.

Part-time work is possible.

What to expect

  • The work is generally laboratory-based in pathology departments or diagnostic laboratories in hospitals, although there are opportunities in other types of work environments. You'll usually need to wear protective clothing such as gloves, coat and safety glasses.
  • You'll often work as part of a small team on projects and will usually be responsible for managing your own workload.
  • Contract and temporary work is available at graduate and technician level within a number of sectors.
  • Research work can provide more variety than that of routine identification or monitoring, which may be more structured.
  • You may need to travel during the day for meetings or on-site visits, but won't usually be away overnight.

Qualifications

You'll need a good honours degree in a relevant subject to become a microbiologist. Relevant degrees include:

  • microbiology
  • microbial sciences
  • biomedical sciences
  • molecular biology
  • applied biology
  • biological sciences
  • biology (specialising in microbiology).

Courses such as biological sciences or applied biology provide a wide-ranging background prior to having to make choices about specialist areas.

Some employers look for a postgraduate qualification such as a Masters or PhD. To work as a microbiology researcher in a university, you'll need a PhD in a relevant area of microbiology.

To work as a healthcare scientist in microbiology, you need to successfully complete the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP). This leads to eligibility to apply for a Certificate of Attainment from the Academy for Healthcare Science, which allows registration as a clinical scientist with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). As part of the training, you'll complete an MSc in Clinical Science (Infection Sciences). For full details about applying for the STP, see the National School of Healthcare Science (NSHCS). There are separate scientist training schemes Scotland and Northern Ireland.

You can also train as a biomedical scientist.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • the ability to design and plan research investigations and experiments
  • interpersonal skills, as you may have contact with patients in some roles
  • communication skills, to liaise with colleagues and the wider community
  • the capacity to manage a laboratory project and liaise with a wide variety of technical colleagues
  • the ability to work well in a team and to manage your own workload
  • problem-solving skills
  • accuracy and a methodical approach to work
  • leadership qualities
  • a good level of numeracy and IT skills.

Work experience

Having experience in a laboratory is useful when applying for jobs. If your degree doesn't include a year out in industry or research, consider taking a research project over the summer. The Microbiology Society offers a limited number of grants to undergraduates to work on microbiological research projects during the summer vacation. The Society for Applied Microbiology (SFAM) provides a 'students into work' grant to give students and recent graduates the opportunity to gain a work placement.

Student membership of a professional body such as the Microbiology Society or the SFAM will show your commitment and provide valuable networking and career development opportunities.

ABPI Careers has a list of pharmaceutical recruiters on its site you can use to contact companies about work experience or work shadowing opportunities. You can also speak to hospital laboratories or your university careers service about getting some voluntary experience.

Employers

Microbiologists work in a range of fields. One of the largest is research and analysis, where employers include:

  • the NHS
  • Public Health England and other research institutions and publicly funded research establishments
  • universities
  • private companies.

You can also work in the manufacturing industry for employers such as:

  • pharmaceutical, biochemical, biotechnology and agri-chemical companies
  • food and beverage manufacturers
  • food safety organisations, including the Food Standards Agency
  • health, home and personal care product manufacturers.

Jobs can also be found in the environment sector where employers include:

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies such as Jobs in Science and SRG also advertise vacancies.

Professional development

Training opportunities will depend on your specialist area and on individual employers. In some jobs, salary increases may be available on completion of training. On-the-job training may be related to specific equipment or techniques within your specialist area. Training on new equipment may be delivered by the manufacturers.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is essential for keeping up to date with developing research, and all microbiologists are expected to gain further relevant qualifications. CPD activities can include attending events and conferences, mentoring, teaching and having papers published. Professional bodies such as the Microbiology Society and Society for Applied Microbiology (SFAM) offer training on topics related to your area of specialism.

Larger organisations, particularly those involved in research, may provide training and development opportunities for their staff. This may involve undertaking further qualifications such as a Masters degree or a PhD if you don't already have one.

If you're working as a healthcare scientist in microbiology, you may be able to train to become a consultant clinical scientist via the NHS Higher Specialist Scientific Training (HSST) programme. This five-year workplace-based training programme includes study at doctorate level and leads to the Certificate of Completion of Higher Specialist Scientist Training (CCHSST) issued by the NSHCS.

Career prospects

There are generally good opportunities for career progression. In the NHS, it's possible to move from practitioner, to specialist, to team manager and then consultant. At more senior levels, you'll be involved in staff management with more responsibility for the work of the laboratory.

In some fields, you may need to be geographically mobile in order to progress. Specialisation in your degree course or in your choice of first job may affect your future career options.

Research in specialist areas such as bacteriology, virology, mycology and parasitology is possible, working with clinical colleagues or microbiologists working in industry.

Networking at all levels is part of successful career development and will help increase your career prospects. It's important to maintain a professional profile by presenting research at meetings, undertaking work exchanges abroad and applying for research grants.

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.