What is the next step in your professional career? Often, we search for a more challenging job that will give us new skills and improve our marketability. One area of professional development which does not receive a lot of attention is certification. Certification is a third-party validation of an individual’s knowledge and/or competency. It is attractive to employers since it can be used during audits and inspections to attest the abilities of their staff. It is also a tool that employers use to differentiate between job candidates. Fortunately, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) offers certification for microbiologists through its National Registry of Certified Microbiologists (NRCM). NRCM certification is achieved by meeting education and experience requirements and passing an online, multiple-choice question exam.

History of NRCM Certification
The NRCM was established in 1958 and initially only certified individuals in clinical and public health microbiology. Over the past 55 years, the NRCM has added areas of certification while occasionally deleting others to reflect the changes in the laboratory and the needs of practicing microbiologists. For example, in the 1970s, certification was offered in food, dairy and sanitation microbiology, which over time was eliminated. Certification in consumer and industrial microbiology was developed, which still covered food, dairy and sanitation but was broadened in scope to also encompass pharmaceutical, medical devices and cosmetics. This expansion in the scope of an exam reflected an adaptation to certifying professionals in a changing workforce. Based on a 1983 survey from an ad hoc ASM committee, the NRCM began to offer certification exams in research and development (R&D) microbiology, and consumer products/quality assurance microbiology. Certification in R&D microbiology was suspended in 1993 when interest waned. In 1995, the NRCM added certification in biological safety microbiology to fill a request for certification from the American Biological Safety Association (ABSA). The NRCM Board strives to remain flexible to the changes in the practice of microbiology while maintaining certification that is meaningful and valuable.

Current Examinations
The NRCM offers four certification exams. The Registered Microbiologists’ (RM) exams are designed for those who are working at the bench; they test laboratory knowledge of comprehensive operations. The RM exams offered are Food Safety and Quality, and Pharmaceutical/Medical Devices. The NRCM also offers two exams for laboratory supervisors, referred to as Specialist Microbiologists (SM). SM exams test bench and supervisory knowledge and are offered in Biological Safety and Pharmaceutical/Medical Devices.

The main areas tested in Food Safety and Quality is knowledge of lab instruments/equipment, lab prep, isolation/identification of microorganisms and collection/handling of samples. Since the material covered in the exams reflects a broad spectrum of microbiology practices, fulfillment of education requirements and work experience required of prospective examinees does not guarantee passing an exam.

Exam Development
Exams administered by the NRCM vary every year and are constantly evolving. Each exam has a committee who oversees development of the exam content that reflects current microbiology practices. The chair of the Food Safety and Quality Exam convenes monthly conference calls with five committee members. For this committee, the chair selects certified NRCM microbiologists who are actively working as food microbiologists in government and industry. Committee members represent the different areas in the food industry so the exam is reflective of current practice. During their monthly conference calls, the exam development committee is continually evolving the pool of questions to ensure relevancy.
Partnership with the American Biological Safety Association (ABSA)
During the past 15 years, a great partnership has evolved between the NRCM and ABSA.

In 1995, the president of ABSA requested that the NRCM offer an exam in biological safety. It took a few years of intense examination development before the first exam was administered in October 1997 at ABSA’s annual meeting. This first exam had 46 examinees, which was a great start to an ongoing interest by biological safety professionals in the NRCM exam.

In 2012, ABSA requested that their NRCM Biosafety exam be offered following the date of the ABSA annual meeting in October to eliminate potential conflicts with this meeting. The ABSA membership also requested this date change postulating that this would improve examinee performance on the exam since this new test date would follow the dates that ABSA offered its comprehensive biosafety review course. This date change allowed interested participants an opportunity to take the exam within a few months of taking the review course. The ABSA Council requested that the exam administration window be shifted to April. Beginning in 2013, the NRCM Board approved administering all exams in April.

Biosafety professionals consider NRCM Biological Safety certification a valuable step in their professional development as NRCM certification is a required element of the ABSA Certified Biological Safety Professional (CBSP) certification. Recipients of the CBSP are internationally recognized as having sufficient knowledge and experience to qualify as a Specialist Microbiologist in Biological Safety Microbiology.

Value of Certified Microbiologists for Employer and Food Safety Professionals
The three main goals of the NRCM include minimizing risk to the public by identifying qualified microbiologists, encouraging mastery of microbiological knowledge and skills that contribute to improving the human condition and fostering professional pride and a sense of accomplishment in qualified microbiologists.

The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) is a business-driven initiative for the continuous improvement of food safety management systems to help assure the delivery of safe food to consumers around the world. GFSI was launched in 2000 following a number of crises that shook consumer confidence in the safety of the global food supply. The aim of GFSI is “Safe Food for Consumers Everywhere.” To meet that aim, GFSI has developed a framework for the harmonization of food safety standards and their supporting systems through the benchmarking of food safety schemes and standards. All food safety standards have a requirement that companies ensure that all personnel performing work that affects product safety are demonstrably competent to conduct that work through training, work experience or qualification. Certification of Food Safety Professionals through NRCM’s Food Safety and Quality examination is one of the strongest ways to document competency and qualification of the individual to conduct food safety work in accordance with GFSI requirements.

The majority of testimonials by new registrants view NRCM certification as a career advancement and credibility as a microbiologist. Certification affirms laboratory knowledge that is beneficial to employers and their customers. Certification is a voluntary process that is a third-party documentation of an individual’s laboratory knowledge and skills in a specialized area of microbiology. The knowledge and skills learned in the workplace go beyond a college degree in microbiology and can be validated through NRCM certification. New applicants learn about NRCM most often through certified co-workers. Whether certification is driven by individual advancement or upper management, a certified microbiologist is a great validation to an employer that they have a highly competent employee.   

David R. Martin, M.Sc., is currently quality manager at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Office of Public Health Science in Alameda, CA.  

Paul A. Hall, Ph.D. is currently the vice president of food safety and quality for the Flying Food Group.  He is also the president and chief operating officer for AIV Microbiology and Food Safety Consultants, LLC, and is on the Food Safety Magazine Editorial Advisory Board.  

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