20 Hardest Degrees in the UK, Ranked

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Date of Publication: 01 November 2021

Thinking about what you may want to study in the future? There’s no denying it, looking at your higher education opportunities is an extremely exciting part of your academic journey in life. Especially if it’s your first time pursuing a subject you’re super passionate about and haven’t yet been able to study in school. 

But for many students, it’s also one of the most difficult, especially if you have little to no idea of what to study in the future.

Choosing your university degree is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever need to make during your education. There are so many opportunities available to you, and it’s important to choose the one which best suits your current academic abilities, interests, and future ambitions.

In this article, we’re going to share 20 of the hardest degrees in the UK, ranked in order of easiest to most difficult. This will give you an idea of how challenging the subjects you’re considering could be when studying them in higher education, helping you make a more informed decision about choosing the course that’s best for you. Let’s take a look at them below.

 

List of 20 Hardest Degrees in the UK, Ranked

In the UK, it’s common knowledge that some university courses are harder than others. Whether it’s the subject content itself, or the time, memory or assessment challenges that come with them, many students agree that certain courses are just more challenging. 

After scouring the internet for statistics and hearing what other students have to say, we’ve pulled together 20 of the hardest degrees in the UK, ranked in order of easiest to most difficult – and you can read about them all in detail below. 

Please note before reading: When deciding what you want to study at university, it’s important to note that the difficulty of each subject is subjective to you; that is, how aligned it is to the learning style and type of subjects you naturally excel at. 

Any final decision you make should be based on your current academic position and your goals for the future. It all comes down to your gut feeling – and whether you think you’ll enjoy studying that subject in the long-term. 

20. Psychology

psychology-dictionary-definition

Kicking off our list of the hardest degrees in the UK is Psychology. Over recent years, Psychology degrees have seen a surge in popularity, with almost all of the top universities in the UK now offering the degree as a staple on their subjects list.

But what many students go into the subject without knowing is just how difficult it can be to pursue as an undergraduate degree. Mainly, this is due to the abstract nature of the subject. At its heart, Psychology is a science. But it’s also one that is hugely impacted by social factors – affecting how we study and analyse it.

Although much of the study of psychology is based on a biological grounding (for which, you will need a good scientific background to understand), much of your understanding of the subject, including the various psychological disorders and theories you’ll become familiar with relies on being able to draw on socio-cultural factors and see how they impact each of our everyday lives differently. 

This subjectivity can make it quite frustrating to study at times. Lots of your assignments will be essay-based, where you will go back and forth between science and theory to try and reach conclusions. Most of the evidence you use in your assignments won’t agree on the same theories either – not the best subject option for those who like to use hard facts!

On top of this, there is also a lot of reading that you need to do. Many of your assignments will require you to cite your sources and back any arguments you make with reliable evidence. Therefore, you need to be well-versed in the subject if you want to achieve the highest marks. Something which requires a significant time commitment.

 

19. Microbiology

laboratory-microscope

As the name suggests, microbiology is the study of microorganisms, including both the diseases they cause, as well as the benefits they can bring to the modern world. From initial research, microbiologists then look to see how we can make use of these organisms to improve the world we live in. 

Despite just focusing on one branch of science (unlike many of the other multidisciplinary subjects on our list), microbiology is an incredibly niche study of biology, requiring exceptional levels of knowledge and detail.

Those students who pursue it as a subject at university will be expected to be specialists in what they know, becoming the next generation of leaders in how to use the subject to improve the modern world. From bacterial genetics to virology and animal biodiversity to multicellular organisms, you’ll need expertise in all areas of the subject, right down to the very microscopic details.

What’s more, you’ll also spend a lot of time in laboratories or completing field work in real-world settings, such as universities, hospitals, forensics laboratories, or environmental organisations. As such, you’ll need to have excellent theoretical knowledge to base any tests on, and also grasp lots of different skills needed for the research aspect, including knowing how to operate testing equipment and write comprehensive laboratory reports.

The combination of heavy theoretical with practical field work is what makes the subject so challenging. You constantly need to be applying your knowledge to your findings, while looking towards its impact for the future and what creative solutions can be used to treat disease, increase crop yields, or even create a new type of organism!

18. Economics

economics-graph

It’s widely accepted that Economics is a fairly complex subject, making it one of the hardest degrees in the world. Even students who were experienced in the subject and studied it at A-Level agree that it’s a significant step-up in terms of difficulty at university.

Firstly, the subject demands strong mathematical skills, focusing on elements such as statistical analysis and data interpretation. But on top of this, you’ll also need to understand and use complex models and theories in relation to real-world problems. 

Of course, these real-world problems are often rather complex, which is evident from the fact that the world’s greatest leaders are continually debating over them. So for undergraduates, it’s no surprise that the topics you cover are often rather difficult to get your head around. 

But still, if you have a keen interest in cultural research, and how logical thinking can help to change the dial for all different types of cultures, it can be a very interesting subject to explore!

 

17. Philosophy

philosophy-statue

Now, you may notice that the majority of subjects on our list appear to be more ‘technical’ subjects, demanding logical thinking, formulaic work and the use of hard, factual detail.

But, Philosophy – one of the most popular Humanities degrees in the UK – is also one of the hardest university courses in the UK.

Dealing with abstract concepts which fall outside of our ‘known Universe,’ you’ll need to get to grips with complex ideas which have shaped the subject over the thousands of years that it’s been debated.

Looking at famous philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and more, you’ll need to get comfortable with reading and dissecting ancient texts from hundreds of years ago, while also understanding their relevance through societies over the years, through to modern day.

But possibly, one of the biggest reasons why Philosophy is such a challenging subject is the sheer amount of information you’ll be required to memorise. Your exam questions will demand that you quote their thoughts, ideas and debates in your exams if you want to excel. And with so many philosophers out there, all with differing views and opinions – it can be really tricky to remember them all!

16. Computer Science

coding-on-laptop

Next on our list of hardest degrees in the UK is Computer Science. Although very broad, interesting and growing in importance, it’s also full of challenging subject material, usually demanding excellent problem-solving skills from students.

Those with an interest in the subject will need to combine their maths and science skills and apply them to a whole range of challenges to develop, improve, and troubleshoot technology. It’s a great subject for those who love to test, research and experiment. But also one that requires a key eye for detail! 

But above all, perhaps the hardest part of the Computer Science degree seems to be getting on to it in the first place. More students than ever are applying to study Computer Science at university in the UK, making spaces at top universities fiercely competitive.

With that being said, Computer Science is a growing industry in the UK, with more than four in every one-hundred jobs demanding the skill of those who have trained in this field. A great prospect for graduates!

15. Finance 

flatlay-finance

Moving away from the world of Computer Science, Finance is another undergraduate programme which is considered amongst some of the hardest university courses in the UK. 

Finance is the specialised study of how an individual or company manages its cash flow. The subject is often overlapped with accountancy training and/or business development, giving you a broad understanding of how money influences industries and what individuals with large assets can do to grow and invest their wealth. 

Those with a Finance degree are often highly sought after by various organisations and individuals, all eager to learn what they can do to improve their wealth. Finance graduates are specialists in knowing how to grow cash, thanks to a rigorous training programme of understanding the world’s financial markets, rules and opportunities, including how to best invest or preserve cash.

As a result, much of your degree program will include a mix of economics and accounting, two subjects which demand strong mathematical skills and analytical thinking. You’ll also need some experience of statistical analysis too, which is only available in the more advanced and challenging A-Level, Further Mathematics.

 

14. Fine Art

fine-art-painter

Now, similar to the other Art and Humanities-based subjects on our list, Fine Art degrees don’t feature on our list because their technical knowledge is especially difficult, but it’s because of the breadth and complexity of them which makes them challenging. 

Fine Art is a very demanding subject, meaning that you need to feel comfortable managing large workloads if you want to pursue this subject at university. 

The subject’s opportunities for creative possibilities is something that draws so many students to it, but also one that many see as a difficulty once they embark on their undergraduate program. As a subject which is so subjective in terms of its assessment, you need to be prepared to face criticism of your work, which many students find hard to process at first.

Lastly, as quite a popular subject amongst the creative students, it’s also rather difficult to get onto a Fine Arts degree. In fact, acceptance rates at top universities remain low, with an average of just 14% of applicants at the University of Oxford being accepted onto an undergraduate course.

 

13. Astrophysics

black-hole-in-galaxy

Have a fascination with the outer world? Love to learn about planets, black holes and the Universe? Always been fascinated with the need to learn and understand more about the Universe around us? Then an Astrophysics degree may just be one that you may want to consider in the future. 

Like most of these subjects, Astrophysics demands a strong technical background, requiring a solid foundation in Physics and Mathematics which most applicants will have studied at A-Level. As two of the hardest A-Levels out there, this makes it come as no surprise that Astrophysics therefore features as one of the hardest degrees in the UK.

But beyond core subject knowledge, it’s also one that demands a hard work ethic, as you will continually learn new mathematical concepts and scientific processes, conducting your own research to find answers to quite possibly the most unknown questions out there.

Despite this, the subject does equip you with a range of disciplines which will support a multitude of job roles within a science or research field. And it’s also one of the most explorative, deeply investigative subjects you could study – perfect for those who have an eagerness to experiment!

 

12. Biochemistry

biochemistry

Biochemistry is a lab-based science, combining (as the name suggests) biology and chemistry to focus on processes happening at a molecular level, i.e. what’s happening within our cells. It’s a subject that’s continually evolving, thanks to the vast amount of research that’s constantly unveiling new insights and developments. 

As such, this makes the subject one of the hardest degrees to study in the UK, purely because of the range of skill and knowledge you need to understand the complex science behind it, while also keeping up-to-date with its ever-evolving research base.

Beyond the theory work, biochemistry is also largely assessed via essays and other long-form written assignments. So, those looking to pursue it at university need to have both a strong technical background, and excellent written communication skills – something that most students don’t tend to be masters of at exactly the same time.

 

11. Chemical Engineering

chemical-engineering

At its simplest, chemical engineering is the science of converting one thing into another. But as one of the hardest university courses to study in the UK, it’s much more difficult than the rather simplistic definition makes it sound.

In fact, it’s the subject which is responsible for a vast number of products, materials and processes that are used to power our modern world, such as gas, oil, and electricity. Materials and processes which are rather complex to grasp! 

The subject is very demanding, pushing your scientific skill to the next level. Taking you from classroom to laboratory and even into real-world industry work, you’ll be required to have a strong scientific foundation to apply to real-world problems, including an A-Level in Mathematics in order to support the more technical aspects of the degree.

Despite its difficulty, for those of you who may still be undecided on what sort of job role you want in the future, studying chemical engineering could just be a great idea. The range of skills you’ll develop means you’ll be versatile enough to work in a wide range of fields, including Engineering, Chemistry, Maths and Physics. As such, this makes chemical engineers some of the most in-demand graduates in the UK. Again, a bonus for graduates!

10. Pharmacy

medicine-tablets

Perhaps one of the lesser known, but equally challenging degrees on our list is Pharmacy. 

A mandatory degree for those who have ambitions of becoming a Pharmacist, the degree creates strong clinical and scientific foundations for students, making them experts in the use of over-the-counter medicines and treatments to provide care for patients.

It encompasses just about every single element of science; you need to know the chemistry of certain medicines, as well as their physiological effect on the human body (biology), just so you can be sure of how a medicine will interact with the person you’re giving it to. 

This means you’ll spend a lot of time familiarising yourself with complex scientific theory, while also needing to memorise hundreds of different types of medicines and conditions, including which are best suited to different conditions and patients. In fact, much of your degree will solely be spent on becoming a ‘master’ of medicines, being able to diagnose and prescribe appropriate treatments for a whole breadth of different conditions. 

And if an intellectually and time-challenging degree wasn’t enough for you, once you graduate from university, you then need to complete additional training and a GPhC examination to register as a pharmacist in the UK. So you need to prepare yourself for a lengthy time commitment. 

 

9. Chemistry

people-pouring-chemicals-into-flask

It’s widely accepted that Chemistry is one of the hardest subjects in the scientific world, so it’s no surprise that many students note it as being on the list of the most challenging degrees in the UK. 

As one of the three core sciences, you’ll need advanced knowledge of both maths, physics and (surprisingly!) biology  to understand the theory behind the subject. For example, physical chemistry, which deals with the structure of chemical compounds, demands strong mathematical knowledge to understand, while inorganic chemistry focuses on molecular orbital theory – a topic that demands a grounding in physics. 

In addition to a good theoretical understanding of the subject, Chemistry also involves lots of practical learning too. While this can be great at keeping your learning varied and engaging, it also means you need to grasp lots of different skills, including knowing how to operate testing equipment and write comprehensive laboratory reports. 

But with that being said, a degree in Chemistry will equip you with plenty of transferable skills that can be used across a whole range of careers and job roles – preparing you well for the future workplace.

 

8. Physics 

physics-formula-on-dashboard

For many years now, Physics has been hotly contested as the most difficult science subject to study. But it’s also one of the most interesting to learn about, making it a popular degree choice for many students. 

With fascinating concepts such as the mystery of black holes, the creation of the universe, and how light travels to earth, it’s obvious to see why so many students are encapsulated in its study. Yet, when you apply complex mathematical theory, formulaic calculations and general scientific principles to that discussion, it’s not surprising that so many struggle with it. 

That’s one of the most challenging things about Physics (or with any STEM subject in fact). When pursuing a heavily-research based subject, you need to understand why and how the subject behaves as it does – it’s not enough to just tick a box and know the correct answer. Especially when it comes to writing scientific papers to go into the public eye, you need to be so sure of your science that it can withstand the rigours of public scrutiny. After all, look how much of a stir Sir Stephen Hawking’s early discoveries on the matter of black holes caused!

However, once you’ve acknowledged the fact that physics is going to be a subject which requires tremendous dedication and perseverance, it’s one that you can really start to enjoy. The whole beauty of studying a subject like Physics is that it’s a passion for so many researchers, who love to immerse themselves in a career of exploration, learning and discovery. Something which makes it so incredibly intriguing and challenging at the same time.

 

7. Electrical Engineering

electrical-engineering-student

One of the newer, and quite possibly hardest branches of engineering is in the field of electrical, which deals with the technology and production of electricity. 

As you can imagine, electrical engineering involves a lot of abstract thinking. That is, you need to be able to imagine what you’re constructing, rather than being able to physically see it in front of you. 

You see, many of the processes which take place in electrical engineering aren’t visible to the human eye. Magnetic fields, wireless signals and waves to name a few are all processes which you have to test to ensure their safety in reality. 

Therefore, a solid scientific background is essential for this subject; you need strong theoretical knowledge of how electricity works in principle, so that when these things are physically built, they’ll work safely. 

However, it’s not as simple as just that. Sometimes – as with anything in life – you plan with all the theory in the world, but things just don’t work when you put them into action. And it’s the responsibility of electrical engineers to respond quickly, finding creative solutions to some of the most complex problems. 

 

6. Neuroscience

model-brain

Focusing on the brain, neuroscience is all about its impact on our behaviour and cognitive processes, including how we think, feel and see things. And, as such a highly specialist subject, it’s no surprise that neuroscience is considered to be one of the most challenging degrees in the UK. 

Combining chemistry, psychology, mathematics and physics, the subject requires a strong foundation of technical knowledge in some of the hardest A-Level subjects. Many students find just one of these subjects difficult enough, so needing a strong understanding of them all emphasises how challenging this degree can be. 

But, like all cognitive science subjects, there is an added layer of difficulty to Neuroscience, thanks to its abstract nature. The human brain is very complex, and modern scientists need to combine a whole range of socio-cultural factors with empirical science to explain how and why people behave the way they do, or how they may be impacted after a neurological procedure or trauma. 

With that being said, it’s a very interesting subject for those with an interest in neuropsychology and psychiatry. The degree well-prepares you for a range of careers in academia, research and clinical science – a great pairing for anyone with a keen interest in pursuing a career in research and real-world problem solving.

 

5. Law

According to statistics, Law is officially the hardest course to get a first-class degree in, so it comes as no surprise that it lands itself in position 5 on our list of hardest degrees in the UK. 

It’s one that demands a lot of time from students, reading, understanding, and scrutinising various case studies and legislation from around the world – often looking at texts that date back by hundreds of years. You need to learn a whole new vocabulary and re-learn what it really means to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the eyes of a jury. 

Your assessments in university – and in fact, your entire future career – will require excellent memory skills, where you’ll need to draw on complex laws to apply to real-life case studies and argue the right decisions. But you’ll also need excellent written communication, with much of your assessment work at university being heavily essay-based. 

There really is a huge jump in terms of workload from A-Levels to studying for a degree in Law, and, it’s a subject which takes longer than most others for you to qualify – 6 years of studying in fact to become a solicitor or barrister in the UK! 

So you should really take some time ahead of needing to submit your university application to get some experience of the subject, either by trying to find time to shadow barrister or attending a Law summer course.

4. Dentistry

dentistry-equipment

Next on our list of the hardest degrees in the UK is dentistry. A straightforward degree option for those who want to pursue a career in oral healthcare, either as a dentist or dental nurse, like Medicine, it’s an incredibly lengthy and challenging subject to pursue at university.

Running at five years in length, dentistry requires hard working and highly intelligent candidates, and can be a hard profession to secure a place at. Top universities will ask for students to have achieved high grades in science subjects, including Biology and Chemistry – which are a significant step-up in terms of difficulty from GCSE to A-Level!

Studying dentistry at university means you need to be prepared for a heavy workload. Assignments can include written and practical assessments, as well as coursework which you complete throughout your modules. 

In addition, your final year will focus on refining practical clinical skills, where you’ll need to focus on being able to diagnose and liaise with your team and patients effectively to provide the best possible patient care.

 

3. Aerospace Engineering

aeroplane-in-sky

Aerospace engineering. A subject name which sounds as equally impressive as it does difficult. But one which is responsible for some of the most incredible feats of mankind. 

In essence, aerospace engineering deals with the design and build of machines that fly. Much more than simply making sure we all make it on our summer holidays (or summer courses), aerospace engineers are also responsible for producing equipment that make weather forecasts, mobile phones, and space flight possible, to name a few. 

When you graduate, you’ll be highly skilled, highly technical and almost certainly highly in-demand. And that’s because aerospace engineering is an incredibly technical subject, demanding a strong scientific skillset, logical thinking, as well as a lot of determination. 

Your job could one day lead to ensuring people are kept safe and comfortable on the 40-million flights which take place each year, so it’s no surprise that aerospace engineering is considered to be one of the most difficult degrees to study. You’ll need excellent ingenuity, computing, numeracy and technological talents. But you’ll also have a great pool of skills to use throughout your career once you graduate.

2. Architecture

oxford-summer-courses-architecture-seminar-in-oxford-students-and-tutor-sat-around-table

Architecture may surprise you as one of the hardest degrees on our list, but it’s widely recognised as one of the most challenging – with long hours, a huge workload, and a need for you to focus on little details. So, it’s important to know what you’re letting yourself in for before applying to study this subject at university. 

The subject will take you from classroom to on-the-ground training, with architects involved in a number of different areas of building design – not just the drawing aspect as many of us may have first thought. 

As such, Architecture is a heavily theoretical subject, meaning that you need to have strong mathematical, drawing and scientific knowledge to ensure buildings are structurally sound and safe for people to use. 

But beyond this, you’re also required to bring along certain levels of creativity. As the very definition says, architects are mainly concerned with the design of buildings, and you’ll need to bring your own ideas to create the ideal fit for a space of land, which ticks all the requirements from the site owner. 

Clearly, architects are not limited to one specific skillset, and the training programme takes five years to complete – giving you ample time to become a great designer. 

With that being said, you’ll need a great deal of commitment, time, and motivation to persevere through some of the most difficult aspects. After all, not many of us are skilled in both technical and creative areas – something that takes real dedication and perseverance to master.

 

1. Medicine

stethoscope-atop-medical-notes

What’s the hardest degree to study in the UK? Well, many agree that it’s Medicine. 

It should come as no surprise that Medicine tops our list as one of the hardest degrees in the UK. Many students and academics accept that it’s challenging in both the subject knowledge and emotional pressures of the role, but it’s also one of the most competitive courses in the UK – with over 28,000 students having applied to study it at university in 2021.

The journey to becoming a doctor in the UK is an arduous one, relying on your to complete a five-year long degree, before completing a further rigorous several years of on-the-job training later down the line. 

In the years that you study Medicine, you’ll need to learn and memorise a vast amount of medical information, including how to diagnose, treat, and manage long-term conditions – while being able to draw on that knowledge during often very pressurised and emergency situations. 

On top of this, you also need to have excellent clinical skills, communicating effectively with patients and staff, while also being able to handle quite emotionally-complex scenarios. You’ll be dealing with many patients when they’re often at their very most vulnerable, and you need to be there to assure them. 

Your training will be a combination of theory learning and clinical work, rotating around different areas of medicine to experience and learn more about different ailments, age groups, and branches of medicine. It’s a very insightful, challenging, but ultimately life-changing experience – and one you should take a lot of time to research before pursuing. 

More information about how to become a doctor in the UK can be found here.

And with that, our list of the 20 hardest degrees in the UK comes to a close. 

Remember, this list is just a guideline, based on general student feedback and statistical research. Any subject you then choose to study at university should be based on your personal interests, academic ability and future ambitions. 

Take time to consult different university prospectuses, visit university open days, and speak with family, friends and teachers before making your decision. Choosing what you want to study at university can be a really difficult decision, but still a very important one: so make sure you do plenty of research before making a decision. 

 

Gain clarity on what you want to study at university

Still unsure what you want to study at university? Narrowing down your university choices can be really difficult, especially if you’re looking at studying a subject that you’ve never had the chance to study in school before. 

That’s why, wherever you have the chance to, you should take the opportunity to trial a subject before selecting it as your chosen degree. Once you’ve begun your university course, it can be quite difficult to change pathways, and you may end up having to wait a year, or even embark on additional studies just to transition to a different university course. 

Embarking on a 2-week summer course here in the UK may just be the perfect opportunity to help you explore a new subject, gain a taste of university life here in the UK, and help you narrow down your future options.

With over 40 university-style subjects to choose from, all our summer courses are taught using the University of Oxford’s tutorial-style of teaching, giving you an authentic taste of a top university education here in the UK. What’s more, we’ve even won several awards as a leading short-course provider, including, most recently, the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise: International Trade (2020)

Browse the courses we have available, or contact us to find out more information about our award-winning summer school.

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