Studying at university is a time to explore what interests you both in the wider world and in the domain of academia.
Some degrees come with a clear career trajectory laid out after them, while others are more focused on engaging you with a particular way of thinking and critiquing the world.
No degree subject is objectively harder than another, but there are some that are notoriously long, ladened with dense reading or have low pass rates.
We are going to take a look at some of the subjects that, by some measures, are seen as the hardest to study at university.
Which are the hardest university degrees?
The hardest degrees to study at university in terms of length are Dentistry and Medicine, both of which are five years at undergraduate level. However, Law is the degree that has the fewest number of students who achieve a first.
Of course, everyone is suited to different disciplines and styles of learning. Our list is comprised of subjects that have infamously heavy workloads, complex subject matter, multiple skills demanded, and long durations.
So let’s jump in and take a look at some of the hardest degrees to study at university.
Law has been revealed to be the hardest degree in which to achieve first-class honours. Law is one of the heaviest reading subjects and students are not able to simply skim the texts as they have to retain most of what they read for legislature assessments.
Law students also have to put their reading into critical practice. Students must learn how to interpret their readings to form a complex understanding of how these detailed texts create the systems and rules under which we all live.
Although many Law graduates go on to pursue careers in different fields, getting a Law university degree – or LLB – is only the first step of many in the journey of becoming a fully-fledged solicitor or barrister. Prospective lawyers must also complete a Legal Practice Course (LPC) or the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) followed by an extensive period of on the job training before they can practice as a qualified lawyer.
Since most students don’t get a chance to study law until they reach university many will be unsure about what to expect or if it’s the right course for them. To counter this, some universities and summer programmes offer the chance to study subjects like law, to see if prospective university students want to take the subject to the next level.
Architecture is another field in which the initial degree (BA. Arch) is an early stepping stone to a long process of qualification. Students must first study their undergraduate degree for four years, before pursuing post-graduate study for two years, and then a minimum of one year of training on the job. However, there are also many alternative routes for Architecture graduates, so do not feel disheartened if by the end of your degree you no longer have a passion for the profession.
Architecture attracts many creative types, but it is important to know that studying Architecture also requires maths as the students’ algebra, trigonometry, and geometry skills must all be up to scratch.
Architecture degrees have a heavy workload and one study recently found that Architecture students are the most sleep-deprived of all disciplines. However, though it may be gruelling, once they have completed their studies and are qualified, many architects find great satisfaction in their work and can bring their creativity and practicality into workplaces that truly value their unique skills.
Medicine is one of the most competitive degrees in the world. The standards for entry are so high that some medical schools accept as little as 5% of applicants.
Beyond its competitiveness, Medicine is another discipline that requires years of dedication before full qualification. The undergraduate degree alone takes five years to complete. This is then followed by two years of foundation training and then the potential of up to 12 years of core and specialist training on the job. However, medics are paid at every stage of training after their university studies.
Not only does Medicine demand learning huge amounts of information about diseases and the human body, but there are complex practical procedures and clinical skills that students must master over the duration of their studies.
Many medical graduates choose to go into research or other pharmacological disciplines outside of practising as a doctor, but for some, completing a degree in Medicine is the first step towards the career they have always dreamed of.
When you consider some of the great philosophical minds over history – Aristotle, Kant, Descartes, de Beauvoir, Sartre – it is easy to see why Philosophy is regarded as one of the hardest degrees to study at university.
Philosophy degrees require reading incredibly complex and abstract texts that can demand many hours to simply comprehend a few pages. Students not only have to understand such works, but they also have to then critically respond to them and exercise their own essay writing and rhetorical skills. Philosophy asks students to get a firm grasp of the history of the subject and some of the key concepts, and then engage their own creative and academic minds in harmony with what they have read.
Philosophy students contend with questions such as “does morality exist?” and “does language create the world we see or does the world we see create language?”. Many philosophy students continue on to study PhDs, but the world is full of opportunities for people who are keen thinkers and great writers.
If students are unsure about whether philosophy is the right path for them at university, they can turn to their careers advisor at school. Or they can take a look at the course entry requirements and learn more about what they can do with their philosophy degree after graduating.
Physics is all about understanding the way the universe works, how mathematics forms reality and the deep nature of the structures that create our world. So is it any wonder that it features on our list?
Einstein, Newton, Hawking, to name just a few, have all contributed to our understanding of Physics and its relationship with deeply philosophical questions. But they first had to learn all the things that every Physics student learns, which is a lot – and we mean, a lot.
Physics students have to get their heads around complex mathematical formulas and understand why and how such formulas work. The verbal translations that many of us see from Carl Sagan, Brian Cox, or Neil deGrasse Tyson are underpinned by deep mathematics that only Physicists can truly understand.
The workload of a Physics degree is hefty and the content is challenging, but for students who get into it, Physics can be hugely rewarding.
As with Medicine, a degree in Dentistry takes five years to complete, which is then followed by paid training on the job. Dentistry is also highly competitive, with around 9,000 applicants each year vying for about 1,500 places.
The workload for Dentistry students is heavy and studying is a combination of dental information learning and practical classes. Dentistry is also extremely particular. Students have to learn the finite details of incredibly specific diseases and treatments whilst still at undergraduate level.
Dentistry graduates have many opportunities in the dental world upon completing their degree. However, they will usually have to work their way up to becoming a fully-fledged dentist and the learning and training do not end at university.
Engineering can include Electrical Engineering, Aerospace Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and other specified fields of practice. What all Engineering degrees have in common is that they are highly demanding and incredibly difficult.
Engineering students must have a deft understanding of maths and some physics, as well as the ability to translate their knowledge into practical skills or lab work for chemical engineering students. Engineers are expected to complete exams with mathematical, written, and practical components. And they also often have to put their hard work to the test with industry placements and on the job learning.
However, Engineering students are one of the most highly sought after in the working world and the job market is highly amenable to their complex and diverse skillset.
Many people will be surprised to see Art on our list of the hardest university degrees, but when it comes to workload, a Fine Arts degree is a very demanding subject, even when compared to some of the sciences. Art demands creative talent and a unique way of viewing the world, but it also involves long essays and critical evaluations that must verbally justify or analyse your work.
Art degrees are all about learning your craft while also having the space to find your own unique voice or expression. However, there is always the possibility that the tutors on the degree will overlook or criticise your work, and dealing with such criticism can be incredibly difficult, especially for young students who are at the beginning of their journey.
Although making a living as an artist is the dream for many Art students, doing so is, of course, very difficult. However, there are now disciplines such as graphic design that allow Art graduates to put their hard work into practice and reap the rewards of a long and challenging degree.