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Significant Points
  • Biotechnological research and development should continue to drive much faster than average employment growth.
  • A Ph.D. is usually required for independent research, but a bachelor's degree is sufficient for some jobs in applied research or product development; temporary postdoctoral research positions are common.
  • Competition for independent research positions in academia is expected.
Nature of the Work

Biological scientists study living organisms and their relationship to the environment. They perform research to gain a better understanding of fundamental life processes and apply that understanding to developing new products or processes. Research can be broken down into two categories: basic and applied. Basic research is conducted without any intended aim; the goal is simply to expand on human knowledge. Applied research is directed towards solving a particular problem. Most biological scientists specialize in one area of biology, such as zoology (the study of animals) or microbiology (the study of microscopic organisms).

Basic research in biological sciences advances our knowledge of living organisms so that we can develop solutions to human health problems and improve the natural environment. These biological scientists mostly work in government, university, or private industry laboratories, often exploring new areas of research. Many expand on specialized research they started in graduate school.

Many biological scientists involved in basic research must submit grant proposals to obtain funding for their projects. Colleges and universities, private foundations, and Federal Government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, contribute to the support of scientists whose research proposals are determined to be financially feasible and to have the potential to advance new ideas or processes.

Biological scientists who work in applied research or product development apply knowledge gained through basic research to develop new drugs, treatments, and medical diagnostic tests; increase crop yields; and develop new biofuels. They usually have less freedom than basic researchers do to choose the emphasis of their research, and they spend more time working on marketable treatments to meet the business goals of their employers. Biological scientists doing applied research and product development often work in teams, interacting with engineers, scientists of other disciplines, business managers, and technicians. Those working in private industry may be required to describe their research plans or results to nonscientists who are in a position to veto or approve their ideas. These scientists must consider the business effects of their work. Some biological scientists also work with customers or suppliers and manage budgets.

Scientists usually conduct research in laboratories using a wide variety of other equipment. Some conduct experiments involving animals or plants. This is particularly true of botanists, physiologists, and zoologists. Some biological research also takes place outside the laboratory. For example, a botanist might do field research in tropical rain forests to see which plants grow there, or an ecologist might study how a forest area recovers after a fire. Some marine biologists also work outdoors, often on research vessels from which they study fish, plankton, or other marine organisms.

Swift advances in knowledge of genetics and organic molecules spurred growth in the field of biotechnology, transforming the industries in which biological scientists work. Biological scientists can now manipulate the genetic material of animals and plants, attempting to make organisms more productive or resistant to disease. Those working on various genome (chromosomes with their associated genes) projects isolate genes and determine their function. This work continues to lead to the discovery of genes associated with specific diseases and inherited health risks, such as sickle cell anemia. Advances in biotechnology have created research opportunities in almost all areas of biology, with commercial applications in areas such as medicine, agriculture, and environmental remediation.

Most biological scientists specialize in the study of a certain type of organism or in a specific activity, although recent advances have blurred some traditional classifications.

Microbiologists investigate the growth and characteristics of microscopic organisms such as bacteria, algae, or fungi. Most microbiologists specialize in environmental, food, agricultural, or industrial microbiology; virology (the study of viruses); immunology (the study of mechanisms that fight infections); or bioinformatics. Many microbiologists use biotechnology to advance knowledge of cell reproduction and human disease.

Work environment. Most biologists spend their time in laboratories conducting research and in offices writing up results and keeping up with the latest research discoveries. Some biological scientists, particularly botanists, ecologists, and zoologists, do field studies that involve strenuous physical activity and primitive living conditions for extended periods of time. Biological scientists in the field may work in warm or cold climates, in all kinds of weather. Biological scientists usually are not exposed to unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Those who work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances in the laboratory must follow strict safety procedures to avoid contamination.

Many biological scientists, particularly those employed in academic settings, depend on grant money to support their research. They may be under pressure to meet deadlines and to conform to rigid grant-writing specifications when preparing proposals to seek new or extended funding.

Biological scientists typically work regular hours. While the 40-hour workweek is common, some biological scientists work longer hours. Some researchers may be required to work odd hours in laboratories or other locations (especially while in the field), depending on the nature of their research.

Microbiologist, GS-0403-05

Major Duties

Typical, but not all-inclusive, duties are illustrated by performance of any combination of the following:

  • As a trainee microbiologist, performs duties that are designed to orient the incumbent in the mission and work of the laboratory.
  • Work is selected to provide experience and training in the application of basic professional knowledge and abilities and in the use of scientific methods, procedures, and techniques; to orient and indoctrinate the incumbent in agency programs, policies, and procedures; and to provide a basis for more responsible assignments in the field of microbiology.
  • Performs experiments which are designed to provide answers for specific research problem areas.
  • Conducts literature searches for information relevant to the research methods, techniques and procedures.
  • Uses microcomputers to control equipment, manipulate data, and generate reports.
  • Maintains cleanliness and general housekeeping in the laboratory including maintenance of supplies and materials.
  • Records and calculates results, tabulates data, and performs elementary statistics including calculations of means, standard deviations, standard errors, and coefficient of variations.
  • Maintains equipment and instrumentation in top working condition, performing routine preventative maintenance and minor repairs, and promptly reporting signs of malfunction or need for major repairs. Maintains inventory of laboratory equipment and chemicals, and assists in performing routine laboratory operations such as media preparation, housekeeping, maintenance of stock cultures, etc.
  • Maintains official laboratory notebooks (and computerized data base collection files where required), correctly entering results, performing calculations, noting procedural modifications and observations, etc.
  • Microbiologist, GS-0403-07

    Major Duties

    Typical, but not all-inclusive, duties are illustrated by performance of any combination of the following:

  • Performs experiments which are designed to provide answers for specific research problem areas.
  • Conducts limited research projects and assignments in the assigned areas. Selects the appropriate methods and procedures and/or devises and recommends alternative methods of standardized analysis to solve problems.
  • Performs the analyses and tests using a variety of laboratory equipment and instruments.
  • Assists in the preparation of scientific reports and manuscripts by reporting findings from experiments conducted.
  • Conducts literature searches for information relevant to research methodologies, procedures and techniques.
  • Records and calculates results, tabulates data, and performs elementary statistical calculations of means, standard deviations, standard errors, and coefficient of variations.
  • Maintains official laboratory notebook in accordance with good laboratory practices.
  • Maintains cleanliness and general housekeeping in the laboratory including maintenance of supplies and materials.
  • Maintains equipment and instrumentation in top working condition, performing routine preventative maintenance and minor repairs, and promptly reporting signs of malfunction or need for major repairs.
  • Prepares and maintains tissue culture collection. Identifies cultures; performs purification assays.
  • Microbiologist, GS-0403-11

    Major Duties

    Typical, but not all-inclusive, duties are illustrated by performance of any combination of the following:

    Performs a wide range of duties designed to solve complex microbiological research problems.

  • Determines proper experimental approach.
  • Independently selects and carries out measurements and analyses by applying established or modified methods; performs difficult nonstandard tests and assays.
  • Evaluates data and performs appropriate calculations and analyses.
  • Actively participates in the modification of existing methods of analysis or the development of new techniques in order to improve accuracy and efficiency or to overcome difficulties in dealing with specific systems or microorganisms.
  • Searches scientific literature for principles, methods, and procedures and selects the most appropriate for the research goals and fiscal resources.
  • Maintains official laboratory notebooks, recording methods and procedures used, any procedural modifications, observations, and results obtained.
  • Participates in the preparation of data for scientific technical reports and manuscripts.
  • Analyzes the results according to established principles.
  • Modifies methods, if necessary, to solve problems or make improvements.
  • Writes periodic laboratory reports including discussion on experimental design, principle, procedure, and results.
  • Evaluates the adequacy of the results for meeting objectives. Summarizes experimental results of completed projects in the form suitable as the basis for the first draft of written reports to scientific journals.
  • Organizes experimental progress in the form suitable for oral presentation or posters for scientific meetings.
  • Undertakes routine care, maintenance, and calibration of moderately complex laboratory instruments, e.g. centrifuges, HPLC instrument.
  • Provides proper technical advice, when needed, to lower level support personnel assigned to research programs in the unit.
  • Keeps abreast of current scientific advancement by reading literature, review articles, and attending supervisor approved meetings, workshops, and conferences.
  • Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

    Basic Requirements:

    1. Degree: microbiology; or biology, chemistry, or basic medical science that included at least 20 semester hours in microbiology and other subjects related to the study of microorganisms, and 20 semester hours in the physical and mathematical sciences combining course work in organic chemistry or biochemistry, physics, and college algebra, or their equivalent.


    2. Combination of education and experience -- courses equivalent to a major in microbiology, biology, chemistry, or basic medical science that included courses as shown in A above, plus appropriate experience or additional education.

    Graduate Education: Microbiology, or specific area of study such as bacteriology, virology, mycology, algology, protozoology, parasitology, immunology, serology, microbial genetics, or soil microbiology; or specific applied fields of microbiology such as clinical and public health microbiology, food tech-nology, production processes, industrial fermentation, pollution, etc. Graduate study in related fields such as experimental pathology, infectious diseases, epidemiology, biochemistry, animal or plant physiology, genetics, plant pathology, and insect disease control, may also be pertinent, provided it has direct application to microbiological work.

    Evaluation of Education: Microbiology is a broad field of science encompassing a number of scientific disciplines or areas of science, the fields in which this science is applied, and related fields where the work is concerned with or involves microbiology. The scientific disciplines or areas of this science include bacteriology, immunology, serology, algology, mycology, parasitology, protozoology, rickettsi-ology, tissue culture, virology, and similar disciplines or areas of science. The applied fields include environmental, food, dairy, soil, industrial, public health, clinical, and agricultural microbiology, and similar areas in which microbiology is applied. Related fields include taxonomy and systematics, plant, animal, or human physiology or pathology, infectious diseases, epidemiology, ecology, and similar areas of science where the work is directly related or applies to microbiology. Except where the course work deals with a limited and specific segment of the science, where it might be limited in usefulness, most of the work, including that dealing with the development and use of microbiological methods, procedures, and techniques, is qualifying. In interpreting the substantive value of the course work, credit may be given for courses in related fields, depending on the degree to which the courses are related to micro-biological work.

    Evaluation of Experience: For positions at GS-9 that involve a substantial amount of work in a specific specialized area or applied field of microbiology, at least 6 months of the experience must either have been in the appropriate area of specialization or applied field of microbiology, or have direct application in the area for which the applicant is being considered. For the GS-11 and higher grade levels of such specialized positions, the experience must have been sufficiently specialized to insure adequate familiarity with the area of specialization or applied field of microbiology, or have direct application in the area for which the applicant is being considered.

    Alternate requirement: For GS-14 clinical and public health microbiology positions, certification by the American Board of Medical Microbiology/American Board of Medical Laboratory Immunology, or election to Fellowship in the American Academy of Microbiology fully meets the experience requirement for such positions.


    Job Outlook

    Employment of biological scientists is expected to increase much faster than the average for all occupations although there will continue to be competition for some basic research positions.

    Employment change. Employment of biological scientists is projected to grow 21 percent over the 2008—18 decade, much faster than the average for all occupations, as biotechnological research and development continues to drive job growth. Biological scientists enjoyed very rapid employment gains over the past few decades—reflecting, in part, the growth of the biotechnology industry. Employment growth will moderate somewhat as the biotechnology industry matures, with fewer new firms being founded and existing firms merging or being absorbed by larger biotechnology or pharmaceutical firms. However, much of the basic biological research done in recent years has resulted in new knowledge, including the isolation and identification of genes. Biological scientists will be needed to take this knowledge to the next stage, understanding how certain genes function within an entire organism, so that medical treatments can be developed to treat various diseases. Even pharmaceutical and other firms not solely engaged in biotechnology use biotechnology techniques extensively, spurring employment for biological scientists. For example, biological scientists are continuing to help farmers increase crop yields by pinpointing genes that can help crops, such as wheat, grow in more extreme climate conditions.

    In addition, efforts to discover new and improved ways to clean up and preserve the environment will continue to add to job growth. More biological scientists will be needed to determine the environmental impact of industry and government actions and to prevent or correct environmental problems, such as the negative effects of pesticide use. Some biological scientists will find opportunities in environmental regulatory agencies, while others will use their expertise to advise lawmakers on legislation to save environmentally sensitive areas. New industrial applications of biotechnology, such as new methods for producing biofuels, also will spur demand for biological scientists.

    The Federal Government is a major source of funding for basic research and development, including many areas of medical research that relate to biological science. Large budget increases at the National Institutes of Health in the early part of the decade led to increases in Federal basic research and development expenditures, with research grants growing both in number and dollar amount. However, the increase in expenditures slowed substantially in recent years. Going forward, the level of Federal funding will continue to impact competition for winning and renewing research grants.

    There will continue to be demand for biological scientists specializing in botany, zoology, and marine biology, but opportunities will be limited because of the small size of these fields. Marine biology, despite its attractiveness as a career, is a very small specialty within biological science.

    Job prospects. Doctoral degree holders are expected to face competition for basic research positions in academia. Furthermore, should the number of advanced degrees awarded continue to grow, applicants for research grants are likely to face even more competition. Currently, about 1 in 4 grant proposals are approved for long-term research projects. In general, applied research positions in private industry are somewhat easier to obtain, but may become more competitive if increasing numbers of scientists seek jobs in private industry because of the difficulty finding positions in colleges and universities.

    Prospective marine biology students should be aware that those who would like to enter this specialty far outnumber the very few openings that occur each year for the type of glamorous research jobs that many would like to obtain. Almost all marine biologists who do basic research have a Ph.D.

    People with bachelor's and master's degrees are expected to have more opportunities in nonscientist jobs related to biology, in fields like sales, marketing, publishing, and research management. Non-Ph.D.s also may fill positions as science or engineering technicians or as medical health technologists and technicians. Some become high school biology teachers.

    Biological scientists are less likely to lose their jobs during recessions than those in other occupations, because many are employed on long-term research projects. However, an economic downturn could influence the amount of money allocated to new research and development efforts, particularly in areas of risky or innovative research. An economic downturn also could limit the possibility of extension or renewal of existing projects.


    In the Federal Government in March 2009, microbiologists earned an average annual salary of $97,264.

    Sources of Additional Information

    For information on careers in microbiology, contact:

    • American Society for Microbiology, Career Information—Education Department, 1752 N St. NW., Washington, DC 20036. Internet:

    Information on obtaining Microbiologist positions with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government's official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724–1850 or  (703) 724–1850  or TDD (978) 461–8404 and   (978) 461–8404. These numbers are not toll free, and charges may result. For advice on how to find and apply for Federal jobs, download the Insider's Guide to the Federal Hiring Process” online here.


    • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition; and
    • Office of Personnel Management, Position Classification Standards.

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