Careers in Clinical and Public Health Microbiology

Sept. 24, 2020

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Careers within clinical and public health microbiology are challenging, yet rewarding. They offer an opportunity to participate in clinical decision making by providing critical information to healthcare teams. Microbiologists also contribute to public health by providing information important for the detection and characterization of pathogens that are of public health concern. 

What is the difference between clinical microbiology and public health microbiology? 

  • Clinical microbiology: investigates microorganisms that cause infectious diseases. Those who work in the clinical microbiology laboratory are referred to as medical microbiologists.
  • Public health microbiology: investigates microorganisms that pose threats to the public’s health.

Clinical Microbiology

Interested in learning more about what clinical microbiologists do? Take a tour of an automated lab, courtesy of the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Disclaimer: ASM does not endorse any products mentioned or shown in this video.

What do medical microbiologists do?

  • Recommend methods for obtaining and transporting clinical specimens that aid in diagnosing infectious diseases.
  • Select the most appropriate tests and identify bacterial, viral, fungal and parasitic agents that are likely to be contributing to infectious processes.
  • Determine the susceptibility of microorganisms to antimicrobial agents that could be used to treat infections caused by the microorganisms.
  • Report results to healthcare providers caring for patients in a clear, concise and clinically-relevant manner.
  • Work with healthcare teams, including public health officials, to improve processes to diagnose and control infectious diseases, with a strong emphasis on effective communication at all levels.
  • Work with pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers to develop new and improved technologies to confront emerging infectious diseases.
  • Use digital technology to interpret clinical cultures, perform identification of microorganisms and initiate appropriate antimicrobial susceptibility testing.
  • Develop/validate complex laboratory assays to complement public health goals in an outbreak setting like COVID-19.

Where do medical microbiologists work?

  • Hospital laboratories.
  • Commercial and reference laboratories (where more complex lab tests are often performed).
  • Federal and state government laboratories.
  • State and local public health laboratories.
  • Hospital laboratories affiliated with universities and medical schools.
  • Pharmaceutical and diagnostic instrument companies.

What positions are available in a clinical microbiology laboratory?


Education & Experience

Medical Laboratory Technician (MLT)

  • Associate degree.
  • Completion of an accredited MLT program.
  • ASCP certification (optional).

Medical Laboratory Scientist (MLS)

  • May advance to laboratory supervisor or manager.
  • Bachelor's degree in the biology/health-related sciences.
  • Completion of an accredited MLS program.
  • ASCP certification.

Medical Microbiology Laboratory Director

Salaries (based on education, job sector and experience) range from $65,000-$150,000/year or more. 

In most states in the U.S., the role of a MLT is to analyze specimens and report results. A MLS has added responsibility and performs more complex testing. A MLS can advance to a supervisorial or managerial position after several years of experience “on the bench.” An advanced degree is usually required to become the director of a clinical microbiology laboratory. In addition to assuming responsibility for testing performed in the laboratory, the clinical microbiology laboratory director advises clinicians on test selection and interpretation and serves as a resource for any microbe-related issues beyond the laboratory.

Individuals trained in clinical microbiology are generally qualified to work in public health laboratories as well.

Public Health Microbiology

What do public health microbiologists do?

Public health microbiologists have similar responsibilities as medical microbiologists, and may also do the following:

  • Develop and perform diagnostic, outbreak and surveillance testing for infectious diseases in humans.
  • Provide lab testing for a range of environmental and animal samples for pathogens of public health importance.

Where do public health microbiologists work?

  • Local, state or national public health laboratories (e.g., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH)).
  • Academic laboratories.
  • Newborn and genetic diseases laboratories.
  • Environmental laboratories.

What positions are available for public health microbiologists?


Education & Experience

Public Health Microbiologist

  • Bachelor’s degree in the biology/health-related sciences.
  • Completion of at least 6 months training in a clinical or public health laboratory.
  • Certification as medical microbiologist recognized by public health, but not mandatory for most laboratories. Requirements vary by state and by type of public health microbiology testing being performed.
Note: To perform testing regulated by CLIA in a public health laboratory, educational requirements are the same as for a medical microbiologist.

Director Level Public Health Microbiologist

  • Advanced Degree (Ph.D., M.D., DPH, D.O. or Sc.D.) in Microbiology/Molecular Biology.
  • Postdoc through ASM’s CPEP training (optional but desirable).
  • Certified through the American Board of Medical Microbiology (ABMM).

Salaries (based on education, job sector and experience) range from $40,000-$120,000/year or more. 

Is a career in clinical or public health microbiology for you?

  • Are you fascinated by all kinds of “germs” and their DNA/RNA?
  • Do you prefer to stay “behind the scenes” rather than work directly with patients?
  • Do you like to perform a variety of tasks?
  • Do you like to watch things (e.g., microbes) grow?
  • Do you want to see results soon (instead of several weeks/months)?
  • Are you interested in helping to determine the causes of infections?
  • Do you love to solve “mysteries”?
  • Do you want to help control spread of bad germs?

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.