What Does a PhD in Microbiology Focus On?
The exact focus of a PhD in microbiology can vary greatly, reflecting the nature of the field of study as a whole. Microbiology is defined as the study of microbes. Microbes are living organisms that are too small to be visible to the naked eye, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
From diseases to the production of food, microorganisms such as these play a vital role in life as we know it. The role of microbiologists includes treating and preventing infections, tracking the role of microbes in climate changes, ensuring food is safe.
A microbiology PhD programme can include:
- Molecular bacteriology – which focuses on bacterial pathogens of humans. A PhD in this field could involve studying the cellular biology of bacteria and investigating how they interact with the human immune system.
- Virology – which is the study of viruses. A PhD in virology typically revolves around infectious diseases and developing our understanding of the way viruses function.
- Molecular biology – where a student could learn about the composition and processes of cells. Research into cell biology has a wide range of application such as gene therapy, and planning effective targeting for new disease treatments.
- Mycology – which is the study of fungi. Postgraduate research in mycology could see researchers looking at the genetic properties of fungi to develop new tools to monitor and control their toxicity.
- Environmental microbiology – which focuses on the role microbes play in the environment. A PhD programme in environmental microbiology could conduct research into biofuels and bioremediation of contaminated land. Alternatively, it could focus on the monitoring of diseases in algae or coral reefs.
- Biogeochemisty – which studies the chemical, geological and biological process within the natural environment. Doctoral students in this field could investigate the emission of methane from microbes and how they contribute to climate change.
These are just a few of the areas a PhD in microbiology can specialise in. There are many others with medical, agricultural, environmental and commercial applications. Research projects typically revolve around lab work, and involve coordinating with another faculty or school within the university, and working alongside microbiologists, immunologists, biologists, biomedical scientists, and chemists.
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Entry Requirements for A PhD in Microbiology
Basic requirements are typically a strong (2:1) Master’s degree in a relevant subject from an accredited university. Due to the scope of microbiology, relevant subjects can include biology, biochemistry, biomedical science, civil engineering, geoscience, medicine, agriculture, and earth sciences.
International students will also need to meet several minimum English language requirements set by the university, usually as part of a TOEFL or IELTS exam.
It is a good idea to think about your research interest before deciding to apply for a PhD in microbiology. For example, an undergraduate degree in medicine would be a good foundation ahead of a microbiology PhD programme focusing on the interaction of microbes and the human immune system. Alternatively, a graduate student of civil engineering would be suited for a research project investigating the degradation of crude oil in petroleum reserves.
Duration and Programme Types
The typical duration for a microbiology PhD programme is 3-4 years full-time, or 6 years part-time. In addition to the microbial research, most PhD programmes also include lectures and seminars which aim to equip postgraduates with transferable research skills such as project management, academic writing and commercial awareness.
A postgraduate microbiology course involves conducting original research in this area; therefore, applicants can expect to be involved in lab work. Most universities have the facilities for you to work on-campus, however some specialist subjects may require working at dedicated research centres. However, it is important to read the details of the research programme you are interested in. Though most programmes have a focus on lab work, other courses can be computational or statistical in nature. Therefore, the exact requirements for doing a PhD in microbiology depend greatly on the specific project.
Costs and Funding
The cost of doing a PhD in microbiology will depend on the university you study with, but average tuition fee is £4000-£6000 per academic year for UK/EU students and £20,000-£28,000 per academic year for international students.
A variety of scholarship and funding support options are available for postgraduate study. For microbiology in particular the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnerships oversee a number of PhDs, and provide tuition fees for postgraduate research students. Each university has their own funding sources, which are advertised on their websites.
Available Career Paths
A research degree in microbiology can lead to a variety of career paths and jobs, so microbiologists can be found in a wide range of industries. The lab work nature of most PhD programmes equips you with the necessary skills for the research and development industry. Options for R&D work include specialist research areas such as molecular microbiology, microbial physiology, microbial pathogenesis, molecular genetics and immunology. Generally, the typical microbiology salary is higher in R&D than in the public sector.
Many post doctorates work in clinical setting such as medical laboratories and hospitals, operating as biomedical scientists or clinical scientists. In this setting you could expect to test samples to diagnose infections or develop treatments and vaccines.
Another career path for microbiology doctorates includes environmental science. Microbes contribute greatly to global warming, and microbiologists investigate the way in which microbes affect the atmosphere. Microbes can also be used for biofuel and for land decontamination.
Some doctorates choose to pursue microbiology jobs in agriculture, investigating the role of microbes in soil, developing techniques to contain plant pests, and preventing infectious disease in cattle. Alternatively, food manufacturing factors often look for microbiologists to oversee manufacturing processes to ensure the quality and safety of their products.
Postgraduate research often leads to a career in academia. Being a lecturer at a university is a great way to share your knowledge with others, and allows you to propose research projects and supervise PhD students to continue your research.
As mentioned previously, most microbiology PhD courses include research skill modules which equip doctorates with transferable skills which can be applied outside of the career options described above. Effective communication, project management, and research skills allow PhD students to work in any field.
Due to the wide range of microbiology jobs available, microbiology doctorates can expect a generous salary. The salary of microbiologists working for the NHS is determined by a set of pay bands, which include around £40,000 upon qualification and can exceed £100,000 at the highest pay band.