Switching Careers from Public Health to Clinical Labs

Jan. 29, 2024

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There are many career opportunities for microbiologists in public health and clinical laboratories. Depending on training, qualifications and individual goals, a microbiologist may be able to easily change their career path from 1 type of laboratory to another. While there are many similarities in the test methods performed in clinical and public health laboratories, it may be useful for both new and experienced microbiologists to hear from laboratorians who have worked in both settings when considering available opportunities. 

In this episode of Career Conversations for the Medical and Public Health Laboratory Scientist, Zenda Berrada, Ph.D., D(ABMM), Chief of the Microbial Diseases Laboratory (MDL) Branch at the California Department of Public Health, chats with 2 former MDL microbiologists, Linda Truong, M.S., PHM, CLS(M), and Kara Lee, B.S., PHM, CLS(M), who now work as clinical laboratory scientists at the Northern California Kaiser Regional Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. Truong and Lee discuss their experiences and perspectives working as public health microbiologists compared to their current roles in a large regional clinical laboratory.


Considerations When Looking at Career Opportunities in a Clinical Laboratory 

Photo of Kara Lee, PHM, CLS (Microbiology)
Kara Lee, PHM, CLS (Microbiology)
Clinical and public health laboratories vary in their size, volume and test menus. In our conversation, Truong and Lee describe a few advantages for switching from a career in a public health environment to a clinical environment.  

In general, clinical laboratories are focused on patient care. There are more opportunities for employment in clinical laboratories because there are simply more clinical laboratories than there are public health laboratories. Additionally, the chances are higher that one might find employment in a preferred location, and there are more promotional opportunities for managerial positions than might be available in public health laboratories. Pay may also be a factor, with clinical laboratories generally paying more than public health laboratories.  

Other considerations are that there may be more flexibility with scheduling in clinical settings as some laboratories operate 7 days a week, 365 days a year. However, if there are staffing shortages, this may add additional challenges and burden for coverage. Depending on the laboratory and test menu, the workload is often much higher in a clinical laboratory, and the additional focus on short turnaround times may lead to a more stressful environment. Due to the volume and variety of testing, a microbiologist may encounter more interesting clinical cases than in a smaller clinical or public health laboratory (such as Lee’s experience working on different types of parasitic worms for identification).    

Advantages of Working in a Public Health Laboratory

Public health laboratories also perform testing that informs patient care and may have additional focus areas, including non-diagnostic testing, environmental/food testing and using diagnostic test data to support surveillance and outbreak investigations. Truong notes that she enjoyed working in a public health laboratory because of the larger impact the testing she performed had on the community. In addition, as a scientist working in a public health lab, there may be more opportunities to participate in research and to develop specialized laboratory developed tests. Smaller public health laboratories may require a microbiologist to cover a multitude of complex tests, such as those performed for virology, parasitology, tuberculosis, rabies, mycology and even environmental testing. If working in a larger reference laboratory, scientists may become very specialized in 1 area of microbiology.  

Finding the right “fit” may come from experience in both settings and multiple laboratories. Both Truong and Lee agree that there are several factors that might contribute to an individual’s decision to work or build a career in a clinical or public health laboratory. If you are not sure, there is nothing wrong with trying out both settings. Lee emphasized that “wherever you end up, you will have the opportunity to train with amazing people and to obtain knowledge and expertise from those who have come before you.”

Career Conversations for the Medical and Public Health Laboratory Scientist is a twice-quarterly discussion on career advancement in clinical and public health laboratories. Members of ASM’s Clinical Microbiology Mentoring Subcommittee (CMMS) will invite guests from clinical and public health microbiology laboratories to discuss topics specific to the laboratory. The CMMS’ goal is to help others learn more about the profession and advance their careers in the clinical or public health microbiology laboratory.

The CMMS provides career advancement activities for those new to the field of clinical or public health microbiology. Its roster of mentors is available to answer any career advancement questions you have.

Author: ASM Clinical Microbiology Mentoring Subcommittee

ASM Clinical Microbiology Mentoring Subcommittee
ASM's Clinical Microbiology Mentoring Subcommittee (CMMS) provides career and networking advice to those looking to advance in clinical and public health microbiology.

Author: Zenda Berrada, Ph.D., D(ABMM)

Zenda Berrada, Ph.D., D(ABMM)
Zenda Berrada, Ph.D., D(ABMM), is the Chief of the Microbial Diseases Laboratory Program at the California Department of Public Health.