Medicine vs Engineering – Which One is Harder?
In this article, I will be giving you a detailed breakdown of which one is harder: medicine or engineering. I’ll also give you some advice on which one you should be choosing for your career.
If you are in a rush, here is a quick answer to your question.
They are both hard degrees but for different reasons:
- Medicine has more content
- You need to be a good communicator in medicine which can be challenging for those more academically focused
- Engineering requires a deeper understanding of the material
- The concepts in engineering are harder to understand
This is just the tip of the iceberg! Read the rest of the article to get a true answer as to which degree is harder.
As a side note, if you are thinking of applying to medicine, then check Medmentor. It is a new site that has all the resources you need for applying to medicine.
Why It Is Hard to Compare Degrees
Before getting into the meat of the article, I just want to explain why it’s difficult to compare degrees like this.
Comparing degrees is a difficult game to play as there are very few people who have done more than one degree.
You only have your own experience to guide you, so if you only know about medicine, how can you talk about engineering?
It is also important to understand that different countries and even different universities, will result in different levels of difficultly for each degree. Even if you were to do both degrees, it wouldn’t necessarily be representative of the two degrees as it would depend on where and when you did them.
Another important factor to consider is how each individual is different.
Some people will find engineering harder due to the large amount of maths but others will find medicine harder due to the content.
All of this being said, I am going to try my best to answer the question of which one is best in this article. I have asked a few of my medicine and engineering colleagues to give their opinions on their respective degrees to ensure it’s not just me giving my biased opinion.
Which One Is Harder to Get Into?
Let’s start by discussing the first thing that everyone has to do before starting: get into university.
Which degree is more difficult doesn’t start in the first year of university. It starts many months and years before when you are preparing your application.
One way to easily compare the two degrees is by seeing which one has the lowest acceptance rates. I’ll be comparing the rates from different London universities and seeing whether medicine or engineering has lower acceptance rates.
Unfortunately, it is a bit difficult to get acceptance rates for US universities (you can get rates for the overall university but not for each individual degree). This is why US universities have not been included here.
All of the numbers are from Admission Report.
Comparing the Numbers
The most competitive undergraduate program at Imperial College London is MEng Computing, with only 5.2% of applicants being admitted. Coming in at a close second is MBBS Graduate Medicine with an acceptance rate of 7.8%. You can see all the numbers for Imperial here.
Below is a table which shows the most competitive undergraduate degrees at Imperial. The majority of the list is comprised of different forms of engineering.
Note that these are acceptance rates and not offer rates. The acceptance rate is the percentage of students who applied, got the offer and then fulfilled that criteria to get into that university. Offer rate is only the percentage who got the offer.
It would be biased to look at just one university and base our assumptions on that. Imperial is known for its engineering school and people apply from all over the world. Therefore it is likely that the best students across the world are applying there, thereby lowering their acceptance rates.
To compare, here are the acceptance rates for Kings College London.
As you can see, Kings doesn’t have any engineering on the list. It is not a world leader in engineering like Imperial so it doesn’t attract the same sorts of students. Rather, graduate entry medicine is the top of the list, with on 3% being accepted.
Lastly, let’s look at UCL.
UCL is again completely different. It doesn’t have any medicine or engineering degrees of the list.
This is all quite confusing.
At the very least, we can say that all universities have degrees which are more difficult to get into than others.
Let’s try and be a bit more specific now and look at medicine and engineering separately.
Engineering Acceptance Rates
Below you can see the acceptance rates at UCL for different types of engineering. It shows how mechanical engineering accepts 41% of the people who apply which chemical engineering accepts a massive 75% of people.
There is no data like this available for either Kings or Imperial and so it is difficult to compare the universities. However, when you look at the tables from earlier, you can work out that engineering at UCL is much easier to get into than at Imperial.
Medicine Acceptance Rates
I disagree with the people who say medicine is impossible to get into. Although it has a high applicant to place ratio, the acceptance rate is often over 33%. This is still a great number and means that if you keep on trying, you are likely to get in.
Below is a table which shows the different ratios of UK universities. This is different from the acceptance rates that we were talking about earlier. To calculate acceptance rates from these numbers, you can use the equation acceptance rate = (1/number) * 100. For example, the acceptance rate of Aberdeen University = (1/14.5) * 100 which equals 6.9%.
|Barts and The London||9.5||6.4|
|King’s College London||10.4||5.8|
The most difficult place to get into for medicine in the UK (according to this data) is Keele university, which has an acceptance rate of 6.4%. This compares to Oxford and Cambridge, famously two of the most difficult and prestigious universities in the world, which have an acceptance rate of 10.5% and 20.4% respectively.
These numbers are confusing and don’t make a lot of sense.
That’s because they don’t necessarily tell the full story.
Why These Numbers Don’t Tell the Whole Story
Looking at the numbers doesn’t tell you everything.
That’s because although the admission rates for medicine and engineering are high, the people who apply for both are not equal.
Engineering vs Medicine
To even think about applying to medicine, you need to have done hundreds of hours of preparation. You need to sit exams like UCAT and BMAT (in the US there is the MCAT), as well as get relevant work experience.
Then there are the interviews. They require you to deal with stress and communicate your thoughts effectively in a controlled and calm manner. Engineering doesn’t require a lot of these things (if you feel like I am being biased then check out the anecdotal experience below).
Those universities have top students applying to them as a backup, and below-average students aiming for them as their go-to university.
You also have to remember that engineering covers a large number of different degrees. There is electrical, mechanical, civil and aerospace just to name a few. All of these might have different acceptance rates depending on which university you are applying to.
That is why even if the acceptance rates for both might be similar in your country/university, don’t just take the numbers at face value.
Oxbridge vs Keele
When you compare Oxford and Cambridge, you are also not comparing equal students. Someone who is going to “scrape” into medicine is unlikely to apply to a top university. That is why universities in the middle of the league rankings get the most applications.
So when you see Keele having the most applications out of any medical school, you shouldn’t automatically think it is the most difficult to get into.
I asked some of my friends and colleagues of what they thought of applying to medicine and engineering, and here is what they said.
“I didn’t find the application process competitive. I only went to one interview as most places didn’t require one.”Anonymous – Mechanical Engineering – University of Bath
“I didn’t have to do any interviews and just felt the normal stress everyone feels when writing their personal statement”Anonymous – Mechanical Engineering – City, University of London
“A lot of work was involved. Preparing for every little aspect of the process from the entrance exams to the interviews made the process draining and not something I want to do again.”Husein Essaji (myself) – MBBS Medicine – Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry
“The experience of applying to medicine was one of the most stressful periods of my life. When applying, it felt like my life would end if I didn’t get in. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t as bad as I thought as there are plenty of other things I could have done. However, at the time, it felt like it was either medicine or be a complete failure.
Overall, it was quite an intense experience. After my UCAT and BMAT, I couldn’t tell if I got in or not. However, I just put my head down and thought to focus on getting good A-Levels and then worry about everything afterwards. Getting 3A* was my main concern. I am not sure if I had to go through it again if I would do it. Once you get into medical school and you realise that medicine isn’t what it says it is.
The NHS is falling apart, doctors don’t get paid as much as you think they do and they’re generally extremely overworked etc. You thought it would be rewarding and well paid so you try and defend it.
The environment that I had when applying to medicine wasn’t that competitive. I and my friends would work together. When one of my friends got their first interview I felt like “would I get mine?”.
We all use to work together for the interview. We would see how everyone is doing. If someone had an interview coming up then we would do mock interviews and grill them (to help prepare them!). Maybe this was due to our personality traits or simply due to the culture of the school we went to.”Anonymous – MBBS Medicine – UCL
Which One Is Harder at University?
Having looked at which degree is harder to get into, the next phase of the journey is the degree itself.
Let’s get this out of the way: both medicine and engineering are hard degrees.
There is no point arguing for or against that.
Therefore, I am going to try and give specific points as to what makes each degree difficult and discuss how that can be better for some students and worse for others.
Medicine is the content king. It has the most to learn out of any degree (in terms of pure facts) and requires hours of memorisation and route learning.
However, if you were to look at the content, you would realise it is not conceptually difficult.
That is where engineering takes the win.
There is a lot of maths that is involved, which inherently requires a certain level of understanding. Then having to use these mathematical models and apply it to real-life scenarios can result in hard-working students failing engineering exams (in medicine, if you work hard you are likely to at least pass).
Of course, I am generalising here. There are certainly times in medical school where the concepts are too difficult to grasp (e.g. neurology), and engineering is not just one complex maths calculation after another.
Something that engineers will rarely have to face is the difficulty of communicating with dozens of different people every single day.
However, in medicine, you are expected to perfect the art of body language and control your emotions such that you communicate exactly what is needed to all your patients.
This is challenging for many different reasons.
- Developing good body language skills takes a lot of time
- Some are naturally better than others
- Patients are at their worst in hospitals; they can easily get annoyed and angry
- Controlling emotions can be a mental burden
Of course, it’s not like engineers never talk to people. They will also have to be good communicators to their colleagues if they want to do well.
However, it is safe to say that medical school requires you to learn more communication skills than engineering school does.
As I have mentioned previously, each university and country is different.
However, engineering has a much wider range of difficulty across different countries and universities than medicine.
That’s because medicine is inherently a more regulated degree across the world. Nobody wants a doctor who doesn’t know his stuff.
Engineering schools, on the other hand, have more say in the content of their course. This results in some engineering school being much tougher than others (while medical schools tend to have similar content no matter where you are in the world).
If you were to go to Oxford, Cambridge, MIT or Harvard for engineering, it’s going to be demanding than some bottom-of-the-league-table university (I don’t want to name names so you can look for yourself which ones are the worst).
Therefore, medicine can be said to be challenging across the board, while engineering has more variable in its difficulty.
Having asked some of my colleagues for their experience of their respective degrees, this is what they had to say.
“First-year mostly began with covering A-Level and then building from there. It wasn’t too difficult but there was a lot to cover.
Second-year was probably the toughest; there was even more work to do and the content got a lot more challenging.
I found the third year to be the most enjoyable because there was less contact time and practically no 9 am lectures. The content was also quite engaging/interesting.
Fourth-year took it back to second-year vibes. It wasn’t as intense but the material was more conceptually difficult.
Overall, it wasn’t so much that subjects were impossible to get my head around (although understanding certain concepts wasn’t a walk in the park), but it was more about being able to manage my time and to keep on top of everything. The same goes for anything in life. In my opinion, if you had an infinite amount of time you could master the skills to be a surgeon, engineer, lawyer and accountant, but life is not so.
From the start of the year in to till the end, it’s 24/7 studying and completing assignments. It was challenging to learn how to use software like MATLAB, ANSYS and CAD/Solidworks etc. The most stressful part was juggling assignments (like lab reports etc.) which are thrown at you from every direction and working in group projects with people who couldn’t care less about how well they do. Although, this is mostly experienced in the first 2 years.”Anonymous – Mechanical Engineering – City, University of London
“The degree definitely got stressful at times.
In the first two years, there are a variety of topics to cover, each with their coursework. Not only do you have exams at the end of the year, but you have deadlines throughout the semester too.
It usually takes the first two years to adjust to the uni life, so you don’t have much free time. If you can manage time, you can get away with working from 9 am – 6 pm most days with more time needed when deadlines are close.”Anonymous – Mechanical Engineering – University of Bath
“The degree itself is as difficult as you want it to be. If your goal is to pass and just get by, then you don’t need to put in much work.
That being said, it is stressful just trying to pass. The final few months of every year always result in hours being spent in from of your computer, using question banks and Anki to learn all the material. If you let it get to you, then your mental health can be severely affected.
The clinical skills part of the degree is always fun. You learn challenging new skills and get the feeling of being a real doctor.
Everything being said, if you are capable of getting into medicine, then you can certainly get through the degree. It is not like you are learning brain surgery from day one and everything is life or death. You learn in a safe and supporting environment with friends and family to support you at every step.”Husein Essaji (myself) – MBBS Medicine – Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry
“The degree is very stressful. The stress doesn’t just come from studying medicine. It comes with when you realise all the other things you need to be doing to ‘climb the career ladder’. And when you add to that the work required of you to study medicine itself, it starts to get overwhelming. If I was able to just focus on the exams (so not worry about conferences, publications, posters, signing up to events and societies) then it would probably be a lot less stressful. However, if that were the case then you would probably be consumed by the academia side of things and learn a lot more than you need to.
Our exams were in the Easter holidays and we have a six week off period (exam season) and that is very intense. People go a bit crazy and I have heard of people getting 14 hours of work in a day (although I didn’t go that high, 10-12 hours would be my goal … as for most people). You would feel like a caveman after those 6 weeks, to be honest. You wouldn’t shave, go to the gym, or go for any social activities.
I remember during my first-year exams I had a friend who wanted to go out for some pizza. Since my exams were two weeks away I had to tell him “sorry I really can’t”. Even the phone call was stressing me out. In hindsight, I doubt whether going out would’ve impacted my grades. In reality, those grades didn’t count for much either! As medical students, we do tend to put more value on things than they deserve.
Despite how they portray medicine as a pass-fail degree (as in, once you are in, you are in), no one thinks like that. Everyone wants to be in the top decile so that they can get there preferred choice of Foundation Year placement. Even though our first couple of years didn’t have anything to do with FPAS points, people still wanted the top decile. It’s pretty crazy how hard people work just for their ego … having said that I was one of them. It is helpful to reflect on these things now and then but it’s really hard to disconnect yourself from this culture when everyone is thinking the same way.
In my first couple of years, I didn’t have much free time. It was early mornings and late evenings.
In third year I had a bit more because it was my intercalating year. There was more time to explore other interests.
Fourth-year was a long year – around 11 months – so I did I have some time throughout the year as it is more of a marathon rather than a sprint.
However, I am the sort person to eliminate any free time that I have with extra-curricular stuff.”Anonymous – MBBS Medicine – UCL
Which One Is Harder as a Career?
How hard are the jobs themselves? In this section, I’ll be discussing the difficulties of both career paths as well as how you can still have a chill life as both doctor and engineer.
While in the last section I talked about how both degrees are difficult, in this section I’ll be going a slightly different direction.
You might be surprised to hear that both engineers and doctors can have a more chilled life than you think.
However, before we get into that, let’s continue down the path we were taking. The next thing to think about after graduating is getting a job.
Getting a Job
Getting a job as a doctor anywhere in the world is almost guaranteed. They are always in demand and will probably be for many decades to come (I don’t think robots will be taking over anywhere near as quickly as people think).
Engineering is also in demand. It can be difficult to get a high paying job at a well-respected company, but that is the case for all career paths.
So for both degrees, getting a job is all but guaranteed as long as you are sensible about it.
Here is what some of my colleagues had to say.
“The career prospects are good as there’s always a need for engineers. There are also loads of fields in engineering that are up and coming.”Anonymous – Mechanical Engineering – University of Bath
“Getting a job as a doctor is easy. The only difficult thing is if you want to do a specific speciality. Some are in serious demand and require a tonne of work to get into. But other than that, you will always have a job if look hard enough”Husein Essaji (myself) – MBBS Medicine – Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry
“I am exploring a few different options. During my second year, I was thinking that I would get the intercalated degree and just leave. But then I thought no, it is worth staying to get the full degree. Now, I have changed my opinion. It’s mainly because I have started clinical years and I am enjoying my course a lot more.
I am thinking about doing a medical career part-time. However, this often limits your options. However, I think being GP is a good (provisional) choice for me. I enjoy that it is primary care, it has good contact with patients, and also links with my interest in MedTech and preventative medicine.
Medtech is shifting towards primary care anyway. I imagine that in the future people will have a lot of their treatment at the GP. There will be fewer referrals due to better equipment and better ways of assessing people ‘non-invasively’. ECHOs, ECGs, chest x rays would all be done at the GP. They would become mini hospitals in one sense.
There will be a vicious cycle of the more competitive specialities. It is becoming common to have a PhD as a consultant (60% of consultants have a PhD). So to be able to get a consultant job in London you will have to get a PhD. There is a myth that a medical degree is a reliable and stable job. Yes, you will almost certainly get a job. Everyone who finishes medical school gets a job. But the number of people who can get a job where they want AND in the speciality they want is much lower than 100%. It gives you stability but at what cost? You are going to have to accept you will be working hard until you’re a consultant (although it does depends on how much you do as a consultant).
It is all a bit off-putting. When do you get to settle down? At what time can you prioritise other things in life? People who become consultants at 35 have to sacrifice a lot. Increasingly, people are opting for F3’s, more locums, more years out before pursuing consultant level. People are also opting for GP for a better, balanced, life.
Unfortunately, there is also pressure for people who would otherwise choose to do GP or psychiatry for them to do a more competitive speciality. As a result, people often avoid primary care because of the perceived lack of prestige … which I think is silly.
It is difficult to get into a good speciality. Something like Ophthalmology, which ticks all the boxes, is extremely competitive.”Anonymous – MBBS Medicine – UCL
Now I will be discussing a couple of routes that an engineer can take in his life to give you an idea as to how broad the field is.
After earning your bachelors degree, you can go to a manufacturing company in a well-established industry and plug numbers into already developed formulas.
After enough years you can apply to start working part-time as you want to focus on your family. You and your partner make enough together that you can get by.
All in all, a rather easy path that anyone could go down if they wished.
On the other hand, you could earn a PhD, go off to a research institution, and try to solve new and fundamental problems in your field.
It would require you to make sacrifices at home because of the number of hours that are needed.
Eventually, you get promoted to be a manager and work tirelessly, leading your team to make the next breakthrough technology.
A much more arduous route that can only be taken by the most single-minded and determined engineer.
Now let me give two examples of different pathways that doctors could take.
After your intern year, you apply to be a Family Medicine resident (GP registrar). After a few years, you get into the routine of being a salaried doctor. You might find that it is too stressful and decide to start working part-time now that your children are older.
You can work a few days a week while still earning the minimum required to get by.
After graduating you know that you want to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. You work countless hours trying to publish several research papers in the field while also watching in the theatre room on your days off.
After several years of failed attempts, you finally get the training position you desire.
Balancing your relationship and the challenges of being a surgeon is difficult and your mental health is affected. However, you feel it is all worth it because you love your job.
Only those who are ambitious, level-headed and hard-working can get to this level of career success (if that is what you define as success).
The above examples hopefully help you understand why being a doctor or engineer is as difficult as you make it.
Just remember that the two go-to phrases to emphasize intelligence are ‘rocket science’ and ‘brain surgery’.
I suggest watching this Dr Mike video which includes special guest Dr Luis Espina who was previously a biomedical engineer and now a medical doctor. He discusses some of the differences between the two and is one of the few people who is both an engineer and a doctor. Certainly worth the watch.
Other Things to Know About Both Degrees
There are other ways the two degrees can be compared. They have differences in pay, job satisfaction and much more. I very briefly discuss these and give resources where you can learn more.
I have talked a lot about how both degrees are difficult. But there are plenty of other things that you should know about the degrees. I will talk briefly about a few of them now.
Both pay well.
Engineers can earn an average of £40k-50k in the UK while doctors can earn £50k-60k.
Both of these numbers vary hugely depending on experience, the field of work and country that you live in.
Therefore I recommend checking out these other articles if you want to learn more.
- See this article where I discuss the pay of UK and US doctors.
- See this article that discusses the pay of an engineer.
Interestingly, there is a lot of variation in medicine. Some doctors love their job, some hate it. Some are simply apathetic and use it as a way to pay the bills. However, this is just from my own anecdotal experience.
Surveys tell a different story.
This chart shows how 83% of doctors are happy that they become a doctor. Interestingly, only 41% would recommend that their kids become doctors.
Engineers seem to have a similar experience.
A lot of them seem to love their job. In one survey, 90% of engineers said they would recommend their career to a young person.
Therefore it seems that both engineering and medicine have similar job satisfaction. See the recommended resources below to learn more.
Speciality Choice and Variety
Both degrees have a huge amount of variety.
For example, in medicine, you can not only choose which speciality, like cardiology, but you can choose a subspecialty like arrhythmia cardiology or heart failure.
In mechanical engineering you have manufacturing, mechanical design etc.
Each subspecialty has its own sets of pros and cons, allowing an individual to find what is suited to him.
There are plenty of things I could talk about but this isn’t that article. If you would like another similar article to this, then put a comment in the comment section down below. I read every single one.
Now let’s discuss how to know which degree is best for you.
How to Know What Is Best for You
You might have read this entire article but still feel unsure about which career path you should go down. So let me try and give you some guidance.
People Who Will Prefer Engineering
Although there are many types of engineering you can choose from, here are some traits that might help decide in engineering is right for you.
- If you love maths
- Want to solve difficult and complex problems
- You are a creative person
- Have always been fascinated by buildings/cars/engines/planes
- Don’t like the sight of blood (although there are specialities in medicine which you don’t need to ever look at blood)
People Who Will Prefer Medicine
Here is a list of things to look out for if you are considering doing medicine.
- If you love biology
- Enjoy interacting with people
- Don’t want a typical “desk job”
- Want to constantly learn new things even in your 60s
- Become passionate when teaching someone (medicine has plenty of opportunities to teach)
Note that even if none of these things apply to you, it might still be the career for you! Go out and get some hospital experience and talk to other medical students and doctors to see what it is like.
If you can’t decide between the two, then maybe biomedical engineering is right for you. It is a great mix of integrating mechanical design with the human body.
I Want to Do [Medicine/Engineering], But I Am Scared It’s Too Hard!
So maybe you already know which degree is better for you but are too scared of doing it.
First thing is that it is almost certainly not as bad as you think.
When you look at medical students or engineers, you may think they are robots that work 10+ hours a day. However, that is simply not the case.
People who do these degrees are real people. Yes, they might work slightly harder than most people, but it’s easy to work hard when you are determined to do something.
As long as you have that grit and will power to do it, you will be fine.
So just give it a go! I am sure you won’t regret it.
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Have a lovely day!
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