The Job and What's Involved

Microbiologists study micro-organisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Microbiology is central to many new scientific developments, including genetic engineering and gene therapy, developing new antimicrobial agents (antibiotics) and understanding the process of disease.

Clinical microbiologists study all categories of micro-organisms that are clinically significant and have a potential impact on health. They have a wide knowledge of microbiology linked to clinical conditions, diseases, infections and infection control, and public health.

They may track the spread of a disease, such as bird flu, to help prevent an epidemic, or they may analyse samples of food or water to check for microbes that might cause food poisoning. Others may monitor the effect of microbes in breaking down sewage and other waste.

Research microbiologists usually specialise in one particular field of work after gaining a general knowledge of microbiology. The work involves:

- Designing and conducting experiments
- Making observations and drawing conclusions
- Interpreting and analysing findings
- Writing reports and scientific papers

Industrial microbiologists study micro-organisms specific to their industry.

In general, microbiologists may carry out any of the following activities:

  • Isolating and identifying micro-organisms that cause disease, diagnosing disease and advising doctors on the treatment of patients.
  • Monitoring, identifying and helping to control infectious diseases, and researching into the causes of disease.
  • Running clinical trials of new antimicrobial agents in conjunction with pharmaceutical companies.
  • Investigating potential uses of micro-organisms to produce antibodies, steroids, vaccines and other healthcare products.
  • Working on the production of foods such as cheese or yoghurt, or food additives such as flavourings or vitamins.
  • Quality assurance and control of research and clinical trials.
  • Ensuring product safety in all commercial food and drink, and industrial processes such as petroleum, oil and beer making.
  • Arranging safe disposal of waste produced as a result of research activities.

Research microbiologists generally work in a multidisciplinary team with other scientists, including geneticists, biochemists, molecular biologists and chemical engineers. They may also teach and train students and other scientists in research techniques.

Microbiologists in all fields of work often use a combination of manual techniques and sophisticated, computer-controlled equipment and procedures.

Microbiology is also an area of work for biomedical scientists.

Research and industrial microbiologists usually work 37 hours a week, 9am to 5pm from Monday to Friday. Evenings and weekends may be required for fieldwork or long-running experiments.

Clinical microbiologists generally work around 37.5 hours a week, on a shift rota system covering 24 hours a day. These could be early, late or night shifts and may include weekends.

The work takes place in laboratories, which may be in hospitals or factories, or out in the field.

Microbiologists in laboratories must wear protective clothing such as approved laboratory coats, gloves, masks and eye protection, or even an all-over protective suit.

Starting salaries may be around £22,800 a year. Salaries in the private sector may be higher.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Microbiologists work for a wide range of employers, including:

  • Hospitals, universities, the National Blood Service and the Health Protection Agency.
  • Industry, including pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, food and drink, consumer goods and the water industry.
  • Biotechnology companies and food research associations.
  • Government agencies and research establishments.
  • Research councils.
  • Local government.

Large numbers of microbiologists work in the UK.

Jobs are widespread, although industrial research and development work tends to be more common in South East England.

There are about 550 bioscience companies in the UK employing more than 40,000 people, many of whom are microbiologists. Clusters of bioscience companies are found in Oxford, Cambridge, London, Edinburgh and Nottingham. The demand for microbiologists is increasing.

Vacancies may be advertised in local or national newspapers, on employers' websites and in various sector publications.

Education and Training

A degree is often essential to become a microbiologist. Some have a postgraduate qualification, although an HNC/HND is acceptable for some jobs.

Increasingly, employers are looking for graduates to have relevant work experience.

For a degree in microbiology, applicants generally need at least three A levels/three or four H grades, including biology and preferably chemistry, and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), including two sciences (or a dual science GCSE), English and maths. Equivalent qualifications may be accepted.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Microbiologists are given regular on-the-job training to learn new laboratory techniques, and keep up to date with IT developments and health and safety regulations. They may also receive training for personal development, management or supervisory responsibilities.

In the NHS, clinical microbiologists train on the clinical scientist training programme. This includes study for postgraduate qualifications, leading to registration with the Health Professions Council (HPC), followed by exams for membership or fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Microbiologists should:

  • Be very good at science.
  • Have an enquiring mind.
  • Think clearly and logically.
  • Be good at problem solving.
  • Work accurately and pay close attention to detail.
  • Be able to work in or lead a team of professionals.
  • Have excellent spoken and written communication skills.
  • Keep up with advances in their field.
  • Have good IT skills.

Your Long Term Prospects

Promotion prospects vary depending on the type of organisation. Some microbiologists may need to change employer to gain promotion.

Progression may involve taking on more responsibility for research tasks and projects, and eventually leading a research project. Microbiologists may progress to take on supervisory or management responsibilities.

In industry, scientists may become involved in the more commercial aspects of the work.

Get Further Information

Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI),
12 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY
Tel: 0870 890 4333
Website: www.abpi.org.uk

Institute of Biomedical Science,
12 Coldbath Square, London EC1R 5HL
Tel: 020 7713 0214
Website: www.ibms.org

Health Professions Council (HPC),
Park House, 184 Kennington Park Road,
London SE11 4BU
Tel: 020 7582 0866
Website: www.hpc-uk.org

Health Protection Scotland, Clifton House,
Clifton Place, Glasgow G3 7LN
Tel: 0141 300 1100
Website: www.hps.scot.nhs.uk

Institute of Food Science and Technology,
5 Cambridge Court, 210 Shepherds Bush Road,
London W6 7NJ
Tel: 020 7603 6316
Website: www.ifst.org

NHS Careers, PO Box 2311, Bristol BS2 2ZX
Tel: 0845 6060 655
Website: www.nhscareers.nhs.uk

Royal College of Pathologists,
2 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AF
Tel: 020 7451 6700
Website: www.rcpath.org

The Science Council,
32-36 Loman Street, Southwark,
London SE1 0EH
Tel: 020 7922 7888
Website: www.sciencecouncil.org

Society for Applied Microbiology,
Bedford Heights, Brickhill Drive,
Bedford MK41 7PH
Tel: 01234 326661
Website: www.sfam.org.uk

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