What is microbiology?

Microbiology is the study of microorganisms: living organisms that are too small to be observed by the naked eye. The discipline focuses on the structure, function, and classification of these organisms and looks for ways to exploit and control their activities.

Though it sounds niche, microbiology is actually one of the most important sub-sectors of biology. By analysing microorganisms up close, microbiologists play a crucial role in combating disease, creating chemical products for agriculture, and even helping to keep the planet healthy.

Whether you’re seeking work as a lead microbiologist with a pharmaceutical giant or want to work in infection control with the NHS, microbiology is a rewarding career with plenty of opportunities for professional growth.

But what is it, exactly? To help your job search, we’ve put together this quick guide to microbiology jobs — and what it’s like to develop a career as a microbiologist.

What is microbiology?

Microbiology is a branch of biological science that studies microorganisms (also known as microbes), which are microscopic unicellular or cell-cluster organisms and infectious agents. 

The different types of microbes studied by microbiologists include bacteria, archaea, viruses, eukaryotes, fungi, prions, protozoa and algae. These microbes can differ dramatically in terms of size and characteristics.

Though microbes often carry negative connotations due to the association of certain microbes with diseases, many other microbes carry several benefits. For example, microbes underpin processes such as industrial fermentation (which is used to make useful products such as alcohol, vinegar and dairy products) and antibiotic production. They also act as molecular vehicles to transfer DNA to complex organisms such as plants and animals.

Microbiology is a broad discipline, and microbiologists study microbes at the level of proteins and genes (molecular biology), at the cellular level (cell biology and physiology), and at community level (public health, ecology and epidemiology). Branches of microbiology include virology, parasitology, mycology, microbial genetics and bacteriology.

Did you know?

The so-called “father of microbiology” was Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a largely self-taught Dutch scientist who lived in the 17th century. He used single-lens microscopes to make the first observations of bacteria and protozoa, and his work with animals helped disprove the theory of spontaneous generation.

Why is microbiology important?

Microbes are vitally important to all life on Earth. As versatile organisms, they play a major role in various biochemical processes such as biodegradation, biodeterioration, climate change, food spoilage, epidemiology and biotechnology. 

By applying microbes in a range of controlled settings, microbiologists can harness their power for beneficial use in areas as diverse as healthcare, food production and agriculture. 

In medicine alone, microbiologists have contributed to some of history's most important scientific breakthroughs. Edward Jenner invented the world’s first smallpox vaccine. Robert Koch identified the causes of cholera, tuberculosis and anthrax. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. And, more recently, Barry Marshall identified the link between Helicobacter pylori infection and stomach ulcers. Microbiologists are pushing the envelope of science and helping to save lives in the process.

The Microbiology Society sum up the importance of the field:

“Microbiology research has been and continues to be, central to meeting many of the current global aspirations and challenges, such as maintaining food, water and energy security for a healthy population on a habitable earth. Microbiology research will also help to answer big questions such as 'how diverse is life on Earth?', and 'does life exist elsewhere in the Universe'?”

The essential ongoing work of microbiologists includes making agriculture more sustainable, cleaning up pollution, manufacturing biofuels, and processing food and drink. 

With the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and global pandemics on the rise, microbiologists are also helping to produce the vital life-saving drugs that many people around the world rely on for survival.

What do microbiologists do?

Microbiologists aim to solve a range of problems affecting our health, the environment, climate and food and agriculture. Depending on the employer, this can include:

  • Studying the prevention, diagnosis and control of infections and specific diseases
  • Ensuring food and drink is safe to consume
  • Understanding the role that microbes play in climate change
  • Developing green technologies

Work environment

Microbiologists typically spend most of their time in a hospital, office or laboratory environment, where they conduct specific experiments and analyse the results. Most microbiologists work on a full-time, 9-to-5 schedule.

Responsibilities

  • Preparing samples and tracking microbe development in a range of controlled environments
  • Planning and carrying out trials
  • Collecting, analysing and interpreting key data
  • Writing research papers, reports and reviews
  • Developing new therapeutic products such as drugs and vaccines
  • Managing laboratories and ensuring high health and safety standards

Day-to-day responsibilities can vary depending on the industry, employer or location.

Industries and employers

Microbiologists work in a number of sectors, from healthcare, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology to government, education and the environment. Key employers of microbiologists in the UK include:

  • Hospitals
  • Environmental organisations
  • Government agencies
  • The NHS
  • The pharmaceutical and water industries
  • Research institutions
  • Universities
  • Forensic science laboratories

What does a microbiologist do in a hospital?

Microbiologists based in a hospital environment support and oversee the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of the spread of infection. Through laboratory testing, they identify appropriate treatment for particular infectious diseases and monitor patients throughout their treatment. 

Hospital microbiologists also play a key advisory role. Firstly, they advise patients on medication adherence and produce treatment guidelines to make sure that antibiotics are prescribed and used appropriately. This helps to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance emerging and spreading in a hospital. 

Secondly, they advise on which samples — such as a swab, urine sample or blood test — should be collected to diagnose an infection. They then collaborate closely with scientists in the laboratory to identify the pathogens causing the infection. Once the pathogens have been identified, microbiologists provide guidance for treatment.

Finally, medical microbiologists promote measures to prevent and control the spread of diseases — both inside and outside the hospital.

Is microbiology a good career?

With the opportunity to make a real difference to society, as well as plenty of opportunities for continued professional development and travel both in the UK and abroad, microbiology is a good career choice.

What does a microbiologist earn?

The national average microbiologist salary in the UK is around £35,000. Starting salaries for entry-level microbiologist jobs are usually in the range of £20,000 to £30,000, depending on factors such as industry, employer and location. Salaries can rise to £60,000 with experience. Again, this depends on the level of expertise and the industry that you work in.

What can I do with a microbiology degree?

Microbiology is a valuable degree that can open up a number of career paths. Jobs related to a microbiology degree include:

  • Biomedical scientist
  • Biotechnologist
  • Clinical research associate
  • Food technologist
  • Medicinal chemist
  • Microbiologist
  • Pharmacologist
  • Research scientist
  • Technical brewer
  • Water quality scientist

How to become a microbiologist

Qualifications

To start out in the field, you’ll need an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in microbiology or a related discipline from a medical school.

As with most life-science degrees, gaining a PhD or postdoctoral qualification will improve your chances of landing a job in academia or research. In other industries, a PhD isn’t mandatory but many employers look for supplementary experience of working with specialised techniques. The Microbiology Society and the Society for Applied Microbiology offer grants to support students seeking work experience.

On top of a degree, employers look for qualifications such as the UK Foundation Training Programme or equivalent, Core Medical Training (CMT) and the Acute Care Common Stem (ACCS) pathway. It’s also possible to receive training in specialist areas such as infections and tropical medicine.

Skills and experience

Academic achievement alone will not be enough for most mid- to senior-level microbiologist positions. Requirements vary from depending on the setting, but most employers look for skills such as:

  • IT and numeracy skills
  • Analytical and problem-solving skills
  • Patience
  • Teamwork
  • Meticulous attention to detail
  • Independence
TIP: To enhance your employability, the best advice is to diversify your skill set, move beyond the laboratory, keep up to date with the latest trends, and learn as much about the field as possible.