Microbiologists study microorganisms (microbes) in order to understand how they affect our lives and how we can exploit them. They 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.

Their work can be relevant in a variety of settings including:

  • hospitals;
  • agriculture;
  • pharmaceuticals;
  • biotechnology;
  • 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.

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;
  • food;
  • 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. However, typical activities can include:

  • monitoring and identifying microorganisms;
  • tracking of microorganisms in a range of environments;
  • monitoring and assessing samples from a range of sources;
  • following regular sampling schedules within a specific environment;
  • 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;
  • collecting samples from different types of environments, such as agricultural sites;
  • developing products such as enzymes, vitamins, hormones and antimicrobials;
  • growing microbial cultures, e.g. for use in the food and drink industry or in agriculture;
  • working with specialist computer software to undertake studies and research;
  • managing and overseeing laboratory work.

Additional activities may include:

  • planning and organising resources and activities;
  • 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.

Salary

Jobs for microbiologists working as healthcare scientists in the National Health Service (NHS) usually consist of nine pay bands and are covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates.

  • Salaries for trainee healthcare scientists typically start at around £25,700, depending on the employer.
  • Salaries for qualified healthcare scientists usually start on Band 6 and range from £25,783 to £34,530.
  • Experienced healthcare scientists (Band 7) can earn between £30,764 and £40,558.
  • Salaries for principal scientists, the highest grade at which healthcare scientists work, range from £39,239 (Band 8) to £98,453 (Band 9).

Those working in London and the surrounding areas may receive a high-cost area supplement of between 5% and 20% of their basic salary. Research and development work in pharmaceutical firms, public health laboratories and medical research council units tend to earn higher salaries.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

The working day can be quite long, especially at the start of your career when you need to show commitment. Larger employers may provide flexible working schemes.

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.
  • As work generally takes place in a laboratory, protective clothing such as gloves, coat and safety glasses is often worn.
  • Microbiologists often work as part of a small team on projects. They are also usually responsible for managing their 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.
  • Travel within a working day may be required for meetings or on-site visits, but overnight absence from home is uncommon.

Qualifications

A good honours degree in a related subject is required for entry into the career of a microbiologist. Relevant degrees include:

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

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

To enter a career as a microbiologist in the NHS, 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 (AHCS) , which allows registration as a clinical scientist with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC).

The STP is a graduate-entry programme that leads to more senior scientist roles in the NHS that generally involve leadership and research. Successful candidates are employed by an NHS Trust as trainee healthcare scientists and join a salaried three-year, fixed-term training programme, which includes study for an approved and accredited Masters degree in your chosen area of specialism.

Entry on to the STP is competitive and you will need a first or 2:1 degree in a related discipline, or a 2:2 with a relevant Masters or PhD. Gaining good academic results and relevant work experience is helpful.

Training in Scotland involves either completion of the STP programme or an equivalent M-level programme. For more information on how and when to apply see NHS Education for Scotland: Clinical Scientists. There is a separate scientist training scheme for Northern Ireland - NI Direct Healthcare Scientist.

Entry is not possible without a degree or with a foundation degree only.

Skills

You will need to show evidence of the following:

  • excellent written and oral communication skills;
  • team working skills;
  • a good level of numeracy;
  • a confident and sympathetic approach to dealing with patients;
  • IT skills;
  • accuracy and a methodical approach to work;
  • leadership qualities.

Employers will usually expect you to have experience of good laboratory practice (GLP).

Work experience

Pre-entry work experience in a laboratory may be difficult to get, but will be advantageous when applying for roles. Relevant organisations and professional bodies may have funding opportunities or useful contacts:

  • ABPI Careers has a list of pharmaceutical recruiters on its site, which can be used to contact companies about potential work experience opportunities.
  • The Society for General Microbiology (SGM) offers a range of grants, including 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 graduates the opportunity to gain a work placement of up to ten weeks.

Alternatively, speak to hospital laboratories or your university careers service about gaining some voluntary experience.

Becoming a member of a professional body such as the SGM or the SFAM will show your commitment to the field and provide valuable networking and career development opportunities.

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.

Microbiologists 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:

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Professional development

If you join the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP) to qualify as a healthcare scientist working in microbiology (also known as a clinical scientist), you will undertake three years of training accredited by the National School of Healthcare Science (NSHCS). This involves spending the first year of training on rotation in a range of settings before specialising in years two and three.

Trainees also follow a period of structured part-time study alongside practical training. This includes an MSc in Clinical Science (Infection Sciences). On successful completion of the STP you are eligible to apply to the AHCS for a Certificate of Attainment, which allows registration as a clinical scientist with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC).

For those wanting to work as consultants, it is also possible to join the Higher Specialist Scientific Training (HSST) programme, a five-year workplace-based training programme with study towards doctoral-level qualifications.

Elsewhere, training opportunities will depend on individual employers and specialist areas. In some jobs, salary increases may be available on completion of training. On-the-job training may include training relating to specific equipment or techniques within your specialist area. The type of training offered depends on the department and the area of work. Training on new equipment may be delivered by the manufacturers.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of continued training, 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 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.

Training and development opportunities can vary between organisations, so find out about your options before accepting a job.

Career prospects

There are generally good opportunities for career progression. In the NHS, 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.

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

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.

A qualification such as an MSc or PhD can aid career progression. 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. 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.

For a range of information and resources for microbiologists at all stages of their careers see the SGM.