Is Microbiology Hard? (Beginner Tips!)

Got a microbiology class coming up and have no clue what it’s all about? Perhaps you want to know just how much you’ll be studying…

So, is microbiology hard?

Microbiology is a hard subject to study. It’s very detail heavy; requiring you to remember a lot of facts about microscopic organisms, morphologies and modes of action. Without some basic knowledge of biology and chemistry, or the ability to memorize things easily, it’s likely you’ll struggle.

Personally speaking, it was one of the tougher subjects I’ve faced as a medical student. The final exam, at least at my school, at least didn’t have any written or oral sections though!

Whether the place you’re studying will be as kind to you? Only you’ll know for sure.

But here’s where I’ll explain a little more about microbio and what you can expect.

We’ll cover:

  • What microbiology class is about
  • The hard and easy parts about microbio
  • How it compares to other subjects
  • What you can do to best prepare

Ready to learn more? Let’s go!

What is Microbiology Class About?

It’s in the name ‘micro’ and ‘biology’.

It’s a subject that focuses on tiny organisms (mostly invisible to the naked eye), that are capable of a range of nasty infections. The types of things that can cause the common cold, flu, plague and lots of other horrible things you’ve most likely heard about in history.

The subject itself concentrates on these microorganisms; it covers:

  • What they look like
  • How they move
  • How they’re similar

Usually microbio class also looks at groupings (organisms with similar features) and how they cause infection. As well as how you test for them!

Finally you might also learn how to cultivate these organisms in a lab. Understanding what type of nutrients they need in order to grow and replicate.

There are several complicated parts to it!

What’s Hard About Microbiology

As for more on why microbiology is so hard? Here are 6 reasons:

  1. Intensive memorization: you’ll have to cover hundreds of individual organisms and their testing methods.
  2. Pharmacological concepts: you’ll need to know which drugs treat what as well as their modes of action.
  3. Difficult to visualize: the subject is lab-intensive and involves complex culture methods and microscope use.
  4. Very similar classifications and groupings: makes for a lot of potential knowledge pitfalls.
  5. Terminology is confusing: no familiar suffixes for easy identification (unlike pharmacology drug groupings for example).
  6. Volume: never-ending list of bacteria, viruses and fungi (not helped by strain mutations).

Obviously depending on your course, school or curriculum, all these things could vary. But I think it’s a pretty comprehensive list!

What’s Easy About Microbiology

A few things that can help make microbio easier:

  1. Lots of resources: choose (and learn) from something that best suits your learning style (more on this later).
  2. Rote-memorization: you won’t need to do any calculations or apply logic to many microbio-based questions.
  3. Systematic: learning bacteria first, then viruses and then parasites etc. builds on your knowledge systematically.

Do You Need to Take Biology Before Microbiology?

If you’re following a nursing or medical curriculum you will most likely have covered biology before moving on to microbiology. If you aren’t however than it’s a very good idea to take a biology class beforehand. Without the basics it will be tough to understand how and why microorganisms grow, replicate and mutate.

Things that are key to understanding the subject!

Another reason for taking biology before microbiology is so that you understand the basic differences between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, the typical organelles found in each and their functions. That way you focus more on the challenging areas of the subject; virulence factors, physiological impact etc.

Related: Microbiology Vs Molecular Biology (What’s The Difference?)

How To Best Prepare For Microbiology

I go into a lot of detail on what I think are the best ways to prepare for microbiology in my article how to survive microbiology.

Here are a few major recommendations from there:

  • Familiarise yourself with the syllabus and schedule
  • Select great resources
  • Use pre-made flashcard decks for memorization (3 Best Microbiology Anki Decks)
  • Do a ton of question practice

Best Resources

My favorite resources:

1 – Sketchy Micro

The big daddy. The gold standard microbiology learning resource. Mnemonic-based and super powerful.

A top alternative to Sketchy is Picmonic (check out my review).

2 – Clinical Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple

I love the Made Ridiculously Simple series because they cut down on the fluff and actually make science fun to read. The diagrams, mnemonics and metaphors in this book make learning microbiology highly memorable.

3 – Lippincott Microcards: Microbiology Flash Cards

An awesome resource for people who like to learn with old-fashioned flash cards. Based on the highly esteemed Lippincott Microbiology textbook, these will cover absolutely everything you need to know.

Final Thoughts

Microbiology is a challenging subject, make no mistake. But it’s in no way beyond the realms of mastery.

A solid work ethic, strong knowledge of memorization strategies and great resources can all help!

Related Questions

Is Maths Needed for Microbiology?

Maths is not needed in microbiology. Studying the subject is mostly reliant on memorization rather than calculation. But you might need to understand a little about exponents (or at least how they work) in order to get a sense of the size of the populations you could be observing.

Most microbiology exams won’t require you to use much arithmetic. You might be asked to look and evaluate graphs however. Particularly when looking at growth curves plotted over time.

Related: Can I Be a Doctor if I’m Bad at Math?

Is Microbiology Harder Than Chemistry?

Microbiology leans on the foundations of chemistry but it’s not really necessary to understand too much about it to do well. Comparing the two head-to-head, I’d say microbiology is the easier subject. But that is a very objective opinion based on my struggles with chemistry in the past.

The reason I say that is because so much of chemistry is applied knowledge rather than memorization. Chemistry is also dependent on formulas, simple algebra and minor calculations. All things that make it more math-heavy than microbiology.

I’m sure chemists taking a microbio class will probably disagree with me however. Especially as they see how much memorisation is involved!

Is Microbiology Harder Than Biochemistry?

Biochemistry, although tough, isn’t as difficult as microbiology. This is because a lot of concepts from the subject are constantly revised when you take pathology and pharmacology (assuming you might be on a nursing or medical course).

Volume-wise I’d say there’s less to learn in biochemistry. But it’s also less specific, meaning you can infer a lot of answers in the subject based on a broader understanding of scientific principles.

Most exam questions in microbiology are based on the intricacies of particular organisms. Unlike biochemistry, knowledge of other organ systems, won’t help you too much here.

Biochemistry is also more mainstream too; having found a place in daily discussions around diet and nutrition.

Related: How to Study for Biochemistry (2020 Ultimate Guide)

Is Microbiology Harder Than Anatomy and Physiology?

My feeling here is no, microbiology is not more difficult than anatomy and physiology. In fact, it probably has less material to study from and synthesise.

Contrary to my opinion here though, it could be argued that anatomy and physiology is much easier to visualise than microbiology. After all, you have a body that you can see and use on a daily basis. This also makes it a lot more convenient to use as a study aid – based on your familiarity with it!

Anatomy and physiology questions are possibly more applied than your average microbiology ones. Due to the various insertions, origins and innervations etc, as well as muscles and organs, mastery takes longer. There’s also the issue of math and physics-based formulas used in physiology too.

That’s why I’m still thinking anatomy and physiology is probably harder.

Related: Is Physiology Hard?