Should You Study Medicine Or Engineering? (The Real Facts)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

As a doctor whose brother is studying engineering, I feel well placed to be able to help you out!

By the end of this article, you’ll hopefully have got to the bottom of whether you should study medicine or engineering…

You should study medicine if you want to improve the lives of others through the use of your specialist medical knowledge. You should study engineering if you enjoy practical applications of mathematics and physics and are intrigued by solving complex puzzles.

Unfortunately with these things, there’s never going to be one easy answer that applies to everyone.

However, in this guide I’ve explored a number of different domains that should hopefully help you land on the career for you.

I’ve summed them up in the table below:

Medicine Vs EngineeringMedicineEngineering
The Better OptionTieTie
The Harder CareerX
Paid MoreX
HappierX
Easier TrainingX

Medicine Vs Engineering

If I hadn’t studied medicine at university, I honestly think I’d have studied engineering. (Or dentistry.)

So I’ve certainly compared the two subjects in the past!

Let’s start with medicine as I am a doctor after all. Here’s why I’d recommend medicine to anyone who’s trying to decide on a job:

  • You can essentially mould a career in medicine to suit you. There are hundreds of different subspecialties and job roles, each with their own nuances, interests and perks
  • No two days working in medicine are the same. You never know what your next patient is going to bring you as they walk through the door
  • You’re gifted with a uniquely privileged insight into people’s lives and are able to give help to those who need it most

And here’s what my engineering friends love about their jobs and what attracted me to the profession when I was still at school:

  • It’s incredibly satisfying when you’re able to use your technical knowledge to crack a complex problem you’ve been challenged with
  • In many cases, you’ll be helping create a tangible piece of equipment that you can then see working as intended once you’ve finished
  • You can use innovation to make things better in ways that have never been done before- such as inventing new technology for space exploration

They really are two fantastic subjects so I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by whichever you choose.

The difficulty is they’re so wildly different. It’s almost like comparing apples and pears- it’s not like my passion for helping people through medicine takes away from the satisfaction I get when I’ve solved a problem.

Through the rest of this article, I’ve broken down some more specific areas that you might want to consider before putting in your UCAS application.

Is Medicine Or Engineering Harder?

Considering you may be doing something for your entire professional career, a key question you might want the answer to is whether medicine or engineering is harder?

Medicine is often seen as a harder career compared to engineering. In medicine, doctors work long hours and frequently have to work overtime if patients become unwell. Although in engineering the actual work can be more difficult, engineers have shorter training pathways and the work is less emotionally taxing.

I don’t think anyone would say either profession is ‘easy.’

However, it is true that medicine is traditionally seen as a more demanding path. Which, aside from stroking your ego for taking the more challenging route, absolutely isn’t a good thing.

There are a few reasons why people can find medicine quite difficult to work in:

  • There can be an expectation on junior doctors to work longer hours than they’re contracted for without additional pay
  • If you make a mistake in medicine you’re often directly impacting patient’s lives for the worse
  • It takes a very long time to complete your training as a doctor after graduating from medical school
An overworked doctors stares out the window

But that’s not to say engineering doesn’t have its own challenges:

  • Your work may be focused around a tiny part of a bigger picture that you never get to appreciate e.g. just working on the mechanics of one valve in a jet engine but never getting to delve into the workings of the engine as a whole
  • Engineering can be quite isolating if you’re only working in a small team and potentially remotely
  • Some work can become quite repetitive if you’re only working in one discrete field again and again

As a doctor, I can be the first to admit that the actual elements of a day’s work aren’t always that difficult on their own. For example, there’s nothing amazingly challenging about taking blood from a patient, examining an abdomen or prescribing some pain relief.

An engineer on the other hand may have to solve an intricate mathematical equation in order to improve the function of their computer algorithm in a day’s work.

However, the challenge in medicine is often having to do hundreds of these small tasks, with not enough time, without any mistakes. Coupled with a background fear of litigation if you do get something wrong…

Do Doctors Or Engineers Earn More Money?

Everyone’s dream job is one that they really enjoy but also pays well.

Now neither doctors nor engineers are paid poorly, but which one earns more money?

An average doctor will earn more than an average engineer. The average salary for a doctor in the UK is £76,300 compared to £48,000 for engineering. However, it can be argued that often a top engineer will earn more than a top doctor working in the NHS.

You won’t find many doctors that will tell you they’re just in it for the money. It has to be said there are easier ways of getting paid than working in the NHS!

However, the consultant pay for a doctor is certainly an incentive to get through those long years of medical training when you’re really not feeling it.

In the NHS, the pay banding for consultants tops out at about £114,000- which is definitely nothing to sniff at!

An engineer on the other hand, if career-minded and willing to put in the work, could become the vice-president or even president of engineering for a company.

These top positions typically pay anywhere from £130,000 to £180,000 per year! (Source.)

When it comes to comparing salaries, it does always get a bit murky though as there really isn’t such a thing as the ‘typical’ engineer job or a ‘typical’ doctor job. (I do my best to put figures on how much doctors earn in this article here.)

Consultant doctors can supplement their NHS pay with private work, engineers can start their own engineering firms and both doctors and engineers can leave their traditional fields and work in something completely different!

What you really want to avoid though is just doing a job for the money. Although you may think now that you’d be able to put up with anything if you were earning over a hundred thousand pounds a year, you’ll likely very quickly find that isn’t the case.

Choose either medicine or engineering because that’s where your interests lie, not because you think you’ll be able to get a bigger paycheck in ten years’ time.

Are Doctors Or Engineers Happier?

Rather than money, what I’d argue is a far more relevant question is whether doctors or engineers are happier. Who enjoys their job more and who has a better quality of life?

Engineers are generally happier than doctors. Approximately 56% of doctors report high levels of enjoyment in their jobs after 5 years of work compared to nearly 90% of engineers. This may be explained by the fact that doctors can struggle to maintain a good work-life balance while working in medicine.

I think this is the point that you potentially want to put the most weight on. After all, everyone wants to be happy in life right?

Although it’s got to be said, it’s not as simple as saying if you study engineering you’ll be happy.

I have a friend who went to study engineering at Nottingham, but ended up dropping out halfway through second year because they discovered they just really didn’t enjoy the subject matter at all!

It is a tough choice to make when you’re still at school as you don’t have any ‘medicine’ or ‘engineering’ lessons that you can use to see which you like better.

This is where work experience can really come in handy in helping you figure out which you should go for. By actually shadowing a doctor or shadowing an engineer you can get a pretty good feel for whether you think you’d enjoy their job.

Two engineers having a discussion about design

One of my other friends at school was considering studying medicine but after some work experience in the local accident and emergency department, he decided he really didn’t like people that much! (He actually went on to study maths at Cambridge and now only has to deal with his colleagues at work rather than the general public… )

On the whole, from the statistics, we can say engineers are on average happier than doctors. Just don’t get that confused with the idea that you’ll definitely be better off with one rather than the other.

I personally find my job incredibly rewarding when I’m able to make a positive impact on someone who’s suffering. Something that I really don’t think I’d be able to do in quite the same way in any other job.

Is It Harder To Become A Doctor Or An Engineer?

So, before deciding that you’re going to become a doctor or engineer, it’s important to think about what sort of training you’d have to do.

Is it harder to become a doctor or an engineer?

It’s generally considered harder to become a doctor than an engineer. That’s because it’s more competitive to get a place to study medicine compared to engineering as well as it being a more challenging subject to study- medical school covers huge amounts of information at an incredibly fast pace.

Having actually done medical school, I can confirm that it’s tough.

(You can actually find exactly how hard I found medical school here.)

Now admittedly, I haven’t actually studied engineering at university, but I do have a few friends that have.

From speaking to them and a general knowledge of the subject, I’d say you’ll actually have to learn harder concepts when studying engineering.

There are very few things in medical school that you just won’t be able to get your head around. If you’ve done A-level biology and chemistry, the majority of it will actually ‘make sense.’

One of the things that make medical school such a challenge to complete then is just the rate at which you’re taught these things.

Drinking from the firehose’ is an apt expression I think.

In an engineering degree, I’d argue a lot of the concepts you’ll be taught can be a lot more inherently confusing. Unfortunately, nowadays I wouldn’t be able to integrate a function or work out the vector on a moving body to save my life.

But the work rate can be considerably slower than in a medical degree. You probably won’t find yourself up late trying the memorise all the bones in the hand on an engineering course…

As I mentioned earlier, another thing that makes becoming a doctor more difficult than becoming an engineer is simply the act of being accepted to study the subject!

Medical schools in the UK have an application ratio of about 3:1, with only about 50% of applicants being invited to interview.

Engineering courses often don’t even interview candidates!

A great website for delving into the numbers for acceptance rates is admissionreport.com. Although I can’t find a figure for ‘engineering’ as a whole, we can see civil engineering at Nottingham University has an 86% acceptance rate as an example.

It’s 65% for civil engineering at Edinburgh and 78% for their chemical engineering program. So sadly no ‘overall’ number as we have for medicine, but the ballpark figures do seem to suggest it’s far easier to get an offer for engineering than it is for medicine.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, if you study either medicine or engineering I think you’ll have a fantastic time at university and a fantastic career.

And there definitely can be some overlap between the two.

You could take your engineering degree and develop prosthetics that give real-time sensation feedback to users or use your medical degree as a starting point for working with drug companies to develop new medications for diseases previously thought incurable.

The world really is your oyster- it’s an incredibly exciting place to be to have this decision in front of you.

As a final point to note, if you want my entirely unbiased opinion that has nothing to do with me being a doctor, then I’d say you should study medicine.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.