If you like the idea of working in a laboratory with microscopes and are curious about creatures that can't be seen with the naked eye, you might want to consider a major in microbiology. Microbiology is the study of microorganisms, which include tiny living organisms like bacteria, fungi, algae, and protozoa, as well as non-living organisms like viruses. Students majoring in microbiology learn about how the study of these microscopic organisms applies to our understanding of disease, how disease spreads in people and animals, how bodies become immune to disease, and medical treatments for diseases caused by microorganisms. Students will also learn about single-celled organisms, cell clusters, how microbes grow, genetics, and the role of microorganisms in various ecosystems.
Students pursuing a degree in microbiology are introduced to how principles of microbiology are applied in medicine, agriculture, the food industry, biotechnology, and water/wastewater treatment, to name a few examples. From studying life at such a small scale, students also gain insights into principles that apply to larger living things when it comes to biological structure, physiology, metabolism, genetics, and development. Students will also examine microorganisms in light of current environmental concerns, such as how the activities of these tiny living things can both produce and remove certain greenhouse gases. Last but not least, students learn valuable lab skills and study the growth of microorganisms using laboratory tools.
Classes and Assignments of a Microbiology Major
Common courses include introduction to microbiology, microbiology labs, genetics, introduction to immunology, virology, microbial ecology, molecular biology, biochemistry, and microbial diversity. Other courses might include introduction to infectious disease, mechanisms of bacterial pathogenesis, biology of fungi, and general courses in physics, chemistry, and organic chemistry.
The assignments you receive in a microbiology program require students to do a lot of reading from scientific texts, commit scientific principles to memory, and conduct introductory-level research. Professors may require you to do projects and demonstrations individually or in groups. Students will also work hands-on in labs. You will find that even online microbiology degrees require students to report to campus for hands-on lab work where they can conduct experiments and become comfortable performing various laboratory exercises.
Degree Levels for a Microbiology Major
- Associate. Online associate microbiology degrees are set up to teach students the fundamentals of biology, life sciences, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and computer science. With this training, students can pursue jobs as lab assistants or technicians. Some Associate of Science programs are set up for students to get their basics out of the way before transferring their credits to a bachelor's degree program at a four-year institution.
- Bachelor's. Online bachelors microbiology degrees are designed to equip students with both introductory and in-depth knowledge of microbiology and its applications. This can serve as an excellent foundation for future graduate studies in the sciences or for professional programs like medicine or veterinary medicine. In a bachelor's program, students also take a full complement of general education courses in mathematics, writing, communication, and humanities to become well-rounded students.
- Master's. Online masters microbiology degrees hone your research skills and allow you to specialize and explore a specific area or application of microbiology in depth. Specialization options might include microbial genetics, microbial ecology, immunology, or microbial pathogenesis. Graduates who are prepared at the master's level may take up entry-level research or research assisting positions, and may be qualified to teach at the community college level.
- Doctoral. Doctoral degree programs in microbiology are designed to prepare scholars and scientists who are capable of conducting independent scientific research, directing research, and producing publishable research. Since most tenured faculty positions at universities require terminal degrees, a Ph.D. is the best college degree for future career faculty in the sciences.
A Future as a Microbiology Major
The majority of careers directly pertaining to microbiology will require an advanced degree. With an advanced degree in microbiology, graduates can pursue careers in research, teaching, and university departmental leadership. A sampling of career titles on the American Society for Microbiology's Career Connections page included senior scientist, assistant professor, microbiology lecturer, bioinformatics scientist, microbiologist, bacteriologist, quality control analyst, and mycologist.
The median yearly salary for microbiologists was $65,920 as of May 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, microbiologists who worked for the federal government commanded higher earnings, with yearly salaries averaging $97,264 as of March 2009, the BLS notes. However, keep in mind that these salaries are not guaranteed. In fact, your salary will likely vary from the published averages, reflecting your employer, your level of experience and education, and the general health of the economy.