15 Hardest Degree Subjects (2021)
Choosing your degree course is one of the most important decisions you will ever make. Your UCAS application is only the beginning of the experiences you’ll have at university, the people you’ll meet, and even the career you’ll one day choose.
In this article, we’re going to cover the hardest degree subjects, because it is important to have a realistic idea of how challenging your degree will be before you take it.
If you arrive with misconceptions about how easy the material will be, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the course material.
However, if you know what to expect from your course, you’ll be able to look forward to university with excitement at the challenge ahead.
What are the hardest degree subjects?
The hardest degree subjects are Chemistry, Medicine, Architecture, Physics, Biomedical Science, Law, Neuroscience, Fine Arts, Electrical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Economics, Education, Computer Science and Philosophy.
Let’s dive right in, and look at why these subjects are the hardest degree subjects.
Chemistry is famous for being one of the hardest subjects ever, so it’s no surprise that a Chemistry degree is fiercely challenging. Just one topic in Chemistry (for example, organic chemistry) is incredibly complex. As well as involving huge amounts of memorisation, organic chemistry covers more than 15 million compounds, and there are an infinite amount of organic chemical reactions to investigate.
Then, take the fact that Chemistry has multiple topics as well as organic chemistry, including inorganic chemistry (which involves learning about molecular orbital theory, acids and atomic structure) and physical chemistry (which you need to be a maths whizz to understand), and you get the picture.
If you were to study Chemistry at a top university like the University of Oxford, your weekly schedule would look something like this: 12 hours of labs, 10 hours of lectures, 1 Chemistry tutorial and tutorials in Maths, Biochemistry or Physics, where you’ll learn things you can apply to Chemistry.
Chemistry is one of those subjects where you have to have an advanced knowledge of maths and physics, because these subjects tie so much into Chemistry. If you struggle with mathematical and logical thinking, Chemistry may be the degree to avoid.
Also, there’s a lot of practical learning involved in Chemistry, which means that when you’re not trying to get your head around macromolecules and redox reactions, you’ll be spending the rest of your time in the lab. This brings with it a whole new skillset, including writing lab reports and carrying out complex experiments, to put your learning into practice.
It’s no secret that Medicine is one of the hardest degrees in the world, not least because courses are so competitive. UCAS figures1 show that 28,690 people applied to study medicine in the UK in 2021. The number of applicants from the four countries of the UK shot up 26% from last year,
With acceptance rates for Medicine at only 12.1% (Oxford University) and, in some cases, as low as 5% (Aston Medical School, Birmingham), the course is undoubtedly rigorous.
The process of training to be a doctor is a long one, and you’ll need the ability and dedication to complete a five year degree in medicine, recognised by the General Medical Council, a two year foundation course of general training, two to three years of core medical training and four to seven years of specialist training, depending on what area of medicine you want to work in.
The sheer volume of medical information you have to learn and assimilate to be responsible for people’s lives is the reason that studying Medicine takes so many years. Not only do you have to grasp the complex science behind medicine and disease and memorise enough medical facts for several lifetimes, you also have to gain excellent clinical skills, so you can work with patients.
Architecture is one of those degrees that we wish was easy. Who doesn’t want to wander around the city, pointing out a stunning building and saying: “I built that”?. But the truth is, Architecture is extremely challenging, and in some cases, as hard as a medical degree in terms of length and intensity.
Sadly, Architecture is not just sitting around drawing cool design plans. You have to be good at maths, and have enough understanding of geometry, trigonometry and algebra to plan out the dimensions, quantities, volumes and areas of buildings. Not only this, but four years of an Architecture degree is only the beginning of becoming a professional architect.
Once you’ve completed your degree, you’ll need to do a year of practical work experience, another two years’ full time university course like a BArch, another year of practical training and a final qualifying exam. While this might seem daunting, it is worth it if you have a true passion for architecture. There are also plenty of other careers you can use an Architecture degree for even if you decide not to become a fully chartered architect, including a building control surveyor, an urban designer or an interior and spatial designer.
Architecture degrees are known for having substantial workloads, and tasks are very time consuming. You’re likely to spend more time building physical models and designing floor plans in time for deadlines than partying at the student bar. Architectural drawings can take hours to create, which leads to some late night studying. In the US, Architecture college students suffer from the most sleep deprivation, averaging just 5.28 hours a night2.
Ben Sweeting, Architecture course leader at Brighton University says: “It’s hard to do very well [at Architecture] and hard to pass. There are no perfect designs or ways of working, but wrong ways of working. It can also feel more personally challenging than other arts subjects, as your creative vision has to work in practice”.
While Architecture is a creative subject, unlike other creative subjects like English Literature, you can’t pick up marks by defending a subjective idea. In Architecture, if your design doesn’t translate to infrastructure that is mathematically accurate and physically sound, it’s a write off.
Physics is an astoundingly rigorous degree. It’s one thing to find the general ideas of Physics interesting (after all, who wouldn’t be interested in a subject which explores the very make-up of the universe, from the mystery of black holes to the waves of the electromagnetic spectrum?). But it is quite another to dive into the mathematical principles, complex formulas and calculations within each area of Physics, and apply them enough to excel in your exams.
There are no shortcuts to understanding Physics, which is what makes it such a hard degree. The truth about STEM subjects like Maths and the Sciences, is that while there is plenty of information, as well as plenty of formulas, to memorise, it’s not enough to know the correct answer to something. You need to understand why and how it is the correct answer. While you might just get away with rote learning equations and formulas in A-Level Physics, this won’t fly at degree level.
One of the most important things to know about a Physics degree, is that if you’re confused, you’re doing something right! What this means, is that to truly understand Physics (rather than just find out the answers to solutions without understanding their application), you have to sit down and sweat it out over those formulas, and accept that the answer is going to take a long time to come. Allow yourself to make mistakes, and then go back and work out how you got to those mistakes, and slowly, your understanding will grow.
The huge amount of mathematics in Physics can pose a challenge to students. The fact that one wrong calculation can affect your whole conclusion when it comes to Physics problems means that it is probably not the right course for you if you’re not competent at Maths.
Physics is a truly satisfying degree, once you accept that it’s going to take a while to grasp the subject. Researchers work for a decade or more in the field, and just feel like they’re scratching the surface, which is part of the beauty and frustration of this challenging subject.
Medicine is rightfully touted as one of the hardest degrees ever, but did you know that Biomedical Science shares a lot of content with Medicine? In fact, Biomedical Science students have to understand the science of medicine in more detail than most doctors!
If you were to take Biomedical Science at Imperial College London, your degree would overlap quite a lot with students taking medicine. You’ll share some modules in the first year, and then do a more research-focused second year, where you have to spend hours in labs. Your final year will then overlap with medical students’ fourth year.
As Biomedical Science explores the science behind medical topics, you have to work extremely hard to understand everything from human physiology, pathology and microbiology, to haematology, cells and organs and system function. The sheer depth of knowledge means that you’ll sometimes have to learn about things you’re just not interested in (for example, learning all the names of pharmaceutical drugs!) because you need a good grade.
Aside from learning and understanding highly technical, medical information, you have to do a lot of heavy, independent research as a Biomedical Science student. At Imperial College, for example, you’d complete an intensive research project of your choice, as well as massive amounts of private study to grasp lecture content.
However, Biomedical Science can be a very rewarding degree, if you’re passionate about science and medicine. You’ll understand how Biomedical Science works from all angles, in research, policy and industry, as well as understand the diseases and conditions which significantly impact the human body.
Law is officially the hardest subject to get a first class degree in4, so we all know it’s hard going. If you think you know what it’s like to have a lot of reading, go and talk to a Law student. Except that you probably won’t find any, because they’ll be in the Law library, reading. If you want to study Law, get ready for many, many hours with your nose in Law books.
While you’ll learn fast how to pick up the vital details from masses of text, there are no shortcuts when it comes to Law. You’ll need a detailed understanding of the legislature on different issues in different countries, surrounding, so that you can interpret them well when it comes to exams.
However, Law isn’t just about memorising the details of legislature, enormously useful though this is. You also have to understand how these facts work together to create a system of law, and why this system exists in the first place. While you can enter a wide range of careers with a degree in Law, the path to becoming a barrister or solicitor is extremely competitive, and takes much longer than a three year degree. All in all, it takes six years to qualify as a lawyer in the UK if you study full time, which includes a one year Legal Practice Course (LPC), and a two year training contract with a law firm.
The pressure is really on for getting work experience as a Law student, especially if you want to qualify as a lawyer. Use your summers wisely to get internships at law firms, and if you’re aiming for the Bar, go for as many mini-pupillages (short periods of time where you shadow barristers) as you can. However, if you’re really passionate about Law, most of this process will be very exciting, as you head towards your dream career.
Neuroscience is a fascinating degree, but it is incredibly challenging. As intricate as the human brain is, it makes perfect sense that a subject dedicated to it would be equally complex.
As a multidisciplinary degree, Neuroscience involves many very difficult subjects. These include organic chemistry, psychology, mathematics, physics and cognitive science. One of these subjects alone sounds difficult enough, but having to grasp all of them in some capacity while studying neuroscience emphasises just how tough this degree subject is.
If you were to take Neuroscience as a BSc at King’s College London, you’d be studying everything from aspects of cell, molecular and developmental biology, to neuroanatomy, physiology and pharmacology.
Neuroscience is particularly hard to grasp because it mixes the physical and the abstract. There are so many mysteries about the human brain and consciousness that empirical science can’t entirely explain, hence why Neuroscience also includes aspects of philosophy.
An Astronomy degree involves studying one of the most advanced branches of physics (Astrophysics), which gives you a clue as to how hard it is. Like with any hard science, astronomers have to make falsifiable predictions about space and the universe, which they have to test in a controlled environment.
Sciences like Astronomy necessarily involve a lot of failure, as you continually experiment with hypotheses to try and reach a conclusion. It’s not the same as just having an idea: if you can’t follow through with it, it’s not worth much.
There’s also a lot of mathematics in Astronomy, which is enough to put many students off. You’ve got to have the logical skills to do basic special relativity calculations, as well as understanding differential equations and linear algebra.
However, if you love exploring space, stars and the planets and the very complex mathematics and physics behind them, Astronomy may well be the subject for you.
Molecular Cell Biology
Molecular Cell Biology is one of the hardest Biology degrees to study, and Biology in itself is a very challenging discipline. Studying Molecular Cell Biology is like learning a new language, as there is an incredibly complex vocabulary to describe the structure and function of life at the molecular level. Get ready to memorise a lot of names!
You also need a very intricate understanding of very technical processes, including the relationship between proteins and nucleic acids, and the molecular mechanisms of immunology, genetic engineering and cancer. You’ll have to grasp very complex areas in biomedicine and biotechnology to do well at this degree.
There’s often a misconception that Biology subjects don’t involve a lot of maths, but anyone who thinks that is deeply mistaken. As soon as you enter your first year of a Molecular Cell Biology degree you’re likely to be exploring subjects like genetics, as well as things like microbiology and animal and plant biology. Genetics involves a lot of maths , as geneticists use very complex equations in their field.
Pharmacy is one of the least well known degrees, and one of the most extraordinary challenging. Not only will you immerse yourself in the complex science and makeup of medicines, you’ll also have to do many hours of clinical placements, to learn how to become an experienced healthcare professional.
Pharmacy is one of the toughest subjects because it encompasses practically every part of science. Just one science subject is hard (we’re looking at you, Chemistry), but for Pharmacy you need an understanding of inorganic and organic chemistry, as well as biology in order to understand human anatomy, and how medicines interact with it.
Not only is Pharmacy very intellectually challenging (get ready for a lot of time in labs and trying to grasp very complex formulas), but it is also a very practical course. If you studied Pharmacy at University College London (UCL), for example, not only would you have lectures, problem-solving classes, clinical seminars and tutorials, you’d also have clinical placements, skills workshops with patients and visits to hospitals.
To qualify as a registered pharmacist in the UK, you’ll have to do more training after your degree. You’ll need to take a year of pre-registration training, and then pass the GPhC’s tough qualifying examination.
Art is a deceptively difficult subject, and a Fine Art degree is no exception! The sheer volume of work you have to do for a Fine Art degree is often more than for the hardest science subjects.
Not only this, but Fine Art is a deeply competitive course. Oxford University accepts only 14% of applicants to its Fine Arts course, and of 71 applicants to UCL’s Fine Art course, only 18 received an offer.
While Maths subjects can be difficult because there is only ever one right answer and this can throw your whole solution off track, Fine Art is difficult for the opposite reason. Imagine working for hours and hours on an artistic concept, only for your tutor to dislike and dismiss it! Art is also incredibly personal, so it’s hard to detach yourself from whatever you produce, and the grade it gets.
The huge number of hours you have to put in in order to prove that you’ve done the work and produced something worthy of consideration, is no joke! It takes a long time to finish just one piece, and this plus the written observations and essays you have to write to explain what you produce can be really hard and time consuming.
Electrical Engineering is one of those degrees that makes you wince in confused awe when you hear its name. We all know engineering is really tough, but Electrical Engineering is perhaps the toughest, because it involves a lot of abstract thinking (you have to imagine what you’re constructing or learning, rather than seeing it physically in front of you), which then has to work out safely in reality.
Interestingly, many of the processes in Electrical Engineering aren’t visible to the eye, for example, magnetic fields, currents and wireless signals.
This means you have to have a very solid knowledge of how these things work in theory and then make changes or build things which have to work practically. without being able to see an example of them in front of you.
It’s not always enough to have a strong understanding of theory, either, because sometimes things go wrong in realtime, and Electrical Engineering students have to work them out then and there.
However, if you have strong skills in mathematics subjects like trigonometry and non-linear maths subjects and you enjoy finding answers that sometimes feel impossible to come by, Electrical Engineering may be a great degree choice for you.
Chemical Engineering is an extremely hard degree, because it combines some of the toughest subjects ever: Maths and Chemistry. There is a huge volume of material to understand, and some of the concepts feel nearly impossible to grasp.
For example, you’ll have to understand concepts like ‘quasi-equilibrium’ in Thermodynamics. Quasi equilibrium is a state where a system remains very nearly at equilibrium at all times during the process, but this is difficult to test because it relies on the tiniest differences, which you can’t feel with your body.
If you were to study Chemical Engineering at the University of Cambridge, you’d explore complex engineering topics from Year 1, including Structural Mechanics, Electrical Circuits and Electromagnetics.
Topics like Fluid Mechanics are particularly trying for Chemical Engineering students. For one thing, there seem to be more exceptions than rules when it comes to Fluid Mechanics, and yet you still have to observe the behaviour of fluids and put them into a mathematical structure. This is very hard to do when most aspects of fluids are not fully explainable yet.
However, if you have a very adept, logical and mathematical mind and you’re passionate about Chemical Engineering, this could be the perfect degree for you. You could be the person finding solutions to acid rain, enhancing food production to beat world starvation, or producing life changing drugs and medicines.
Economics is such a difficult degree because it upends our usual ways of learning. While in most subjects you will start with a fully defined truth – for example, 82% of single parents are dealing with debt – and break it down to discover its elements and how it came about.
However, with Economics, you start with a very small amount of true information, and then reason your way up from there. If you were to study Economics at the University of Manchester, for example, you would focus on subjects like Macroeconomics and Microeconomics, both of which are very challenging for different reasons.
Macroeconomics is notoriously difficult to teach as well as learn. This is because it relies heavily on intuition, which is not something that can be easily learned. As well as memorising and absorbing economic models, you’ll need an instinctive understanding of how they operate so you can assess unexpected changes to an economy or unfamiliar economic models in an exam.
Microeconomics is very tricky because of the sheer amount of mathematics involved. You’ll need enough statistics skills to understand things like economic statistical modelling and econometrics.
Philosophy is a tremendously hard degree, because of how abstract its concepts are. Philosophy deals with things above the realm of the known universe (in fact, Metaphysics, which most Philosophy degree students will study, comes from the Greek word ‘meta’ meaning ‘beyond’). You’ll ask questions such as: “what is reality?” and “is there anything outside my own mind?”.
Philosophy isn’t all about sitting around and pontificating either. You’ll have to know the complex ideas of the most famous philosophers in History inside out, so you can excel in your exams.
You’ll look at the work of philosophers from Plato, Descartes and Kant, to J S Mill and Bertrand Russell. Philosophy is such a challenging degree because it questions absolutely everything, even the very structure of our thoughts.
So, that’s it. The 15 hardest degree subjects of 2021. Each one of these degree courses is fascinating, challenging and rewarding, so if you have the skills and passion to study them, you will no doubt have a very exciting university experience.
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