Is Microbiology Hard? (Here’s the Bad News)

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 yet as a medical student. The final exam, at least at my medical school, was a bit of a let-off however. It was a test made up of of 120 multiple choice-style questions – fortunately with no written or oral sections (thanks to Covid-19 restrictions).

For a quick briefing on how I approached it, check out my article how to survive microbiology. There I talk a little more about how I tackled it and what resources I used.

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 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; what they look like, how they move and how they’re similar. You’ll look at groupings (organisms with similar features) and learn how they cause infection. You’ll also learn how doctors or microbiologists test for them so that they know how to fight the types of diseases they can cause.

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.

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?

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.

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?


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.

Image Credit: @bermixstudio at Unsplash