The degrees that make students cry: A look at the most challenging courses in the world

hardest degrees in the world
Are you looking for a degree that will genuinely challenge you? Here are some of the hardest degrees in the world. Source: David Becker/Getty Images North America/Getty Images/AFP

Medicine, mathematics, physics — you may have heard from friends and family that these are the hardest degrees in the world.

But a deeper look into each degree often reveals that they may not be the hardest degrees in the world.

Medicine is deemed challenging because it deals with people’s lives. What if, however, you’re someone who is passionate about helping children?

Completing a decades-long journey to become a pediatrician will no doubt still be hard, but not be the hardest thing for you.

Maths is often seen as tough as well, as many people aren’t good with numbers. Now, imagine you are good with numbers and bad with words.

A maths degree will be easier for you than a bachelor’s degree in English Literature that requires you to read 10 books in a week and write five essays.

The point is how hard a degree is will differ from one person to another. And there is no one answer to the question “What are the hardest degrees in the world?”

Instead, there are several answers, using various measures.

And one of the most popular is how much a degree requires one to have a high IQ.

hardest degrees in the world

Does having a higher IQ make you smarter? One professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto thinks otherwise. Source: Sean Rayford/ Getty Images North America/Getty Images/AFP

The link between a high IQ and the hardest degrees in the world

IQ, short for intelligence quotient, evaluates a person’s reasoning ability. It assesses your capacity to apply logic and process information to arrive at conclusions or predictions. 

Does having a high IQ make you more capable to pursue the hardest degrees in the world?

Keith Stanovich, professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, argues that IQ tests are great at measuring certain mental faculties like logic, abstract reasoning, and learning ability. 

But these tests fall short when measuring abilities essential to making sound judgements in real-life situations. 

They fail to assess things like a person’s ability to think critically or whether a person can override their intuitive cognitive biases.  

For students, having a higher IQ doesn’t necessarily mean they might be able to ace some of the most challenging courses.

What’s more, there’s no definitive answer as to what qualifies as the hardest degree in the world. 

The Guinness Book of World Records, for example, does not provide a record of awarding the “hardest degree in the world”. 

The reason? Guinness records are based on objective assessments, following criteria such as measurable, breakable, standardisable, and more. 

Since everyone learns differently at various paces, it’s hard to pinpoint the hardest degree in the world. 

There are, however, some factors that can help us to pinpoint some of the hardest degrees in the world. 

We will look at two factors: 

  • The course demand: Are there any additional qualifications you need to complete to graduate?
  • The course content: How technical are the materials you will learn?
hardest degrees in the world

Just because the course you’re interested is one of the hardest in the world, it doesn’t mean you should put off your dreams of studying your favourite subject. Source: Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images North America/ Getty Images/AFP

What are the hardest degrees in the world?

1. Aerospace Engineering

In these courses, you will build your knowledge of various mathematics principles, including calculus, trigonometry and algebra — skills needed to become an aerospace engineer. 

To study aerospace engineering at the  undergraduate level, the University of Bristol requires you to get A*AA or A*A (in any order) in Mathematics and any one of Physics, Chemistry, Further Mathematics or Computer Science for your A Levels examinations. 

2. Biomedical Engineering

Biomedical engineering requires the analytical problem-solving skills of engineering to develop innovative technology and equipment that enhance human health.

Think pacemakers, insulin pumps, and printed organs. These are highly complex tools and machinery that must work precisely at all times — and are literally matters of life and death.

It’s no surprise then that this is a programme that will require to master several subjects.

These include biology, chemistry, computer science, physics, mathematics, and medical science.

You are not expected to be experts at all of these but at the very least, you are required to be well-versed in two challenging fields of study.

hardest degrees in the world

Most law graduates would go on to pursue a Bar exam if they want to become a practising lawyer, which can take up to at least four years. Source: Roslan Rahman/AFP

3. Law

Speak to any of  your friends who are studying law, and they might share with you a common complaint: there’s too much to read. 

From constitutional law to criminal law, it can be a steep learning curve for law students to grasp various legal principles that touch many aspects of our daily lives — especially if you’re not used to reading in what is usually highly complex English sentences.

That’s not the scariest part.

To become a lawyer, you would need to pass the Bar exams in the jurisdiction of the country you want to practice.

In some countries, the passing rate can be incredibly slim. A Malaysian news outlet reported that less than 20% of students passed the Certificate in Legal Practice, a professional exam applicable to Malaysian law graduates with a degree from a foreign uni. 

4. Chartered Accountancy

Like law, students who pursue accounting would need to take on additional training to become chartered accountants.

Usually, it takes three years to complete a degree in accounting, followed by up to three more years of training. Sometimes, students do a longer degree accredited by the relevant  professional bodies.

What’s more, you would need to be well-versed in mathematics, computer science, business management, and economics if you decide to study accounting.

Don’t forget about tax regulations concerning individuals and businesses too, as they will be an integral part of your programme and later, career.

hardest degrees in the world

As an architect, you often have to deal with elements that are outside your control, such as bad weather. Source: Iudovic Marin/AFP

5. Architecture

Architecture is more than sketching elaborate design plans. 

To become an architect, you’ll need a good understanding of maths, geometry, trigonometry and algebra to plan the dimensions.

What makes the course tough? The substantial workload. As a result, sleep deprivation is common among those who are studying architecture. 

“Some professors say that, as an architecture student, all-nighters should be common practice,” said one Instagram user Rafay Qazi, who shared that one professor told them that “sleep is for the weak.”

Ben Sweeting, an architecture course leader at Brighton University, shares: “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.

Sweeting adds: “It can also feel more personally challenging than other arts subjects, as your creative vision has to work in practice.”

6. Medicine

Let’s start with the course itself.

You need to grasp the complex science behind various medicines, drugs, and diseases. Through clinical practice, you’ll learn how to interact with patients appropriately.

The time it takes to become a doctor depends on where you are studying. But most countries require many, many years of training.

In the US, you will first attend a four-year undergraduate programme. Later, you’ll attend medical school for four years and get matched to a residency upon graduation.

Depending on your speciality, you will spend around three to seven years as a resident before taking a licensing exam for the state or province where you want to practise medicine.

hardest degrees in the world

As a nursing student, you need to have good background knowledge, the ability to recall things quickly, and confidently identify health problems on your own. Source: Frederic J. Brown/AFP

7. Nursing

A nursing degree requires you to master both the practical skills of nursing and extensive background knowledge.

To succeed, you need to grasp the global context of environmental determinants of health, have a basic understanding of bioscience and apply it to nursing.

The tough part of this course is learning to work well with people — many of them.

From interacting with patients to collaborative work with colleagues across multiple disciplines, you’re constantly on your feet.

Practical study for aspiring nurses will expose student to plenty of blood, pain and suffering.

This is never easy, sometimes even for the most experienced nurses.

8. Dentistry

A dentistry degree teaches you all about preventing, detecting, and treating oral diseases. 

In this, you can expect to learn about the theories behind dentistry, such as anatomy, physiology, microbiology, human disease, pathology and epidemiology. 

There’s also the chance to gain practical experience of orthodontics, sedation and minor oral surgeries.

As it is a relatively small organ, you need to be extremely precise — or risk causing pain to your patient.

Due to this technical nature, there is only a handful of universities worldwide for you to pursue dentistry with excellence. 

King’s College London, for instance, is one of the best dental schools in the UK. It ranked ninth in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2023 for dentistry. 

The entry requirements to study dentistry here would be to achieve a grade A in Biology or Chemistry and a grade A in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics or Psychology.

hardest degree in the world

How do you actually study the human mind? That’s what you would be doing when pursuing psychology at an undergraduate level. Source: David Becker/Getty Images North America/Getty Images/AFP

9. Psychology

If you thought studying the human mind was easy, think again.

This degree trains you to be skilled and interested in both scientific and social aspects of psychology, including biology and evolution, social anthropology, politics, philosophy, and sociology.

While this degree is flexible, you must know how to apply it in an appropriate situation. Some graduates have managed to link psychology with human resources

What makes psychology one of the hardest degrees in the world is how little we still know about the human mind.

Unlike medicine, you can’t just amputate a gangrenous foot or let broken bones heal.

Yet, so many people want to have good mental health. There is great demand for good mental well-being, but you will have limited resources and tools to help your patients.

10. Artificial Intelligence

With the rise of chatbots like ChatGPT, unis have started to offer courses related to artificial intelligence.

Here, you’ll learn how to design, build, and apply AI systems to your chosen areas of specialisation.

To do this, a sound understanding of neuroscience, cognitive science, linguistics, and mathematics will help you in your academic journey of uncovering the full potential of AI applications.

A key reason this is considered one of the hardest degrees in the world is because we still know so little about what makes us human.

What separates humans from animals? Why are there tasks that robots just can’t do? These are big questions that AI tries to answer.