No shortcuts to success: A look at the longest degrees in the world

longest degrees in the world
Some of the hardest majors are worth studying for — and here's why. Source: Philippe Lopez/AFP

If you think studying some of the longest degrees in the world is a waste of time, think again. 

Our brains are wired to want results fast. Our primitive impulse is to respond quickly to opportunities and threats.

Plus, there are bills to pay and parents to support. It’s crucial that you get a degree soon so that you can start earning a professional’s salary.

You may not even think it’s that important to sit through years of discussions and assignments on academic topics like complex calculus that you won’t use in your future life.

Considering all of this, it seems like perfect sense to avoid the longest degrees in the world — and choose the easiest degrees or shorter courses like diplomas instead.

Except it isn’t. Being patient pays. “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet,” as they say.

While you can complete a two-year diploma course and get a job, the jobs and salaries you can get will likely still be lower than someone with a four-year degree.

You’ve probably heard about that cousin or uncle who spent a really long time at uni and is doing really well now.

Following this train of thought, does this mean that someone with degree(s) that take six or eight or even 10 years can earn even more?

We looked into the salaries of those with the longest degrees in the world to find out.

Data used are from sites like Glassdoor and the US Bureau of Labour Statistics (USBLS), unless otherwise stated.

longest degrees in the world

Is it worthwhile to pursue the longest degrees in the world? Here are some numbers and stats to help paint the picture. Source: Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images North America/Getty Images/AFP

What are the longest degrees in the world?

These courses are long, not because of the time it takes to complete the programme.

We’re referring to how some degrees, like law, require you to pursue advanced degrees to be qualified.

1. Mechanical Engineering

  • Median salary in the US: US$95,300 (2021)
  • Average annual salary in the UK: 40,117 pounds

Usually, a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering takes three years to complete. While you can start working as a mechanical engineer after completing this degree, many tend to go and earn a master’s degree. 

Blake Hinsey, a mechanical engineering graduate, left the US and pursued an MSc in Motorsport Engineering at Oxford Brookes University to land a job in Formula One. 

As a mechanical engineering student, you design, develop, and maintain mechanical systems. Some topics you’ll learn include materials science, thermodynamics, robotics and control systems, to name a few.

2. Aerospace Engineering

  • Median salary in the US: US$122,270 (2021)
  • Average annual salary in the UK: 52,336 pounds

A bachelor’s degree requiring four years of study is the minimum necessary to enter this field. 

Like mechanical engineering, students pursue a master’s degree, which can take up to two years. This means you could spend up to six years before landing a job in this field.

Most universities offering aerospace engineering courses would award graduates the necessary accreditation. 

Take the University of Sheffield, for example. All undergraduate aerospace engineering degree programmes at this institution are accredited by the following professional institutions:

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

longest degrees in the world

It takes a long time for someone to truly understand how our universe works. Source: Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP

3. Astronomy

  • Median salary in the US: US$147,450 (2021)
  • Average annual salary in the UK: 33,627 pounds

Most research astronomers have doctorate degrees in physics or astronomy.

They tend to pair them with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in physics or astronomy, according to the American Astronomical Society.

The whole process can take up to ten years. 

As a research astronomer affiliated with a uni or dedicated research institute, you can expect to do the following tasks:

  • collect and analyse data from cameras, satellites and other observations (if you are working in observational astronomy)
  • plan and execute research projects to answer fundamental questions 
  • apply for time to observe at international observatories 
  • read existing academic literature
  • write scientific articles
  • apply for grants to fund your research
  • collaborate with other astronomers, often internationally

4. Law

  • Median salary in the US: US$127,990 (2021)
  • Average annual salary in the UK: 73,639 pounds

It’s no secret that law students not only have to read a lot (we’re talking all day and all week just reading) but they have to understand highly complex legal principles.

And that’s just covering the theoretical aspects of the law. Then, a law graduate will have to apply what they’ve learned and pass more tests before they’re licensed to practise in their home countries.

In the UK, students must complete the following to qualify as a lawyer:

  • A bachelor’s degree in law that lasts for three years
  • The Bar Practice Course, which takes a year to complete 
  • A 12 months pupillage 

Passing the bar exams can be extremely difficult in some countries. 

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. 

Those who failed will have to wait another year before retaking — which lengthens the process of qualifying further.

longest degrees in the world

Law is one of the longest degrees in the world as it’s not easy to pass and requires several tests before one can practise. Source: Alon Skuy/POOL/AFP

5. Doctor

  • Median salary in the US: US$208,000 (2021)
  • Average annual salary in the UK: 51,923 pounds

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.

6. Nurse

  • Median salary in the US: US$77,600 (2021)
  • Average annual salary in the UK: 38,459 pounds

The process of becoming a nurse will vary according to each country.

In the UK, you must complete an approved nursing degree programme, which typically lasts three to four years. Upon graduation, you are awarded a BSc in Nursing. 

After this, you would need to register with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). Your uni would have uploaded your course and personal details to NMC’s database, as well as provided a declaration of good health and character. 

All you need to do is create an NMC Online account to pay the registration fee of 120 pounds and fill in your application. Remember to declare any police cautions or criminal convictions. 

After gaining experience as a registered nurse, you can specialise in a particular area of nursing, such as midwifery, mental health nursing, or pediatric nursing. 

Additional training and education are required — which adds more years before you can be a specialised nurse.

longest degrees in the world

As the mouth is a relatively small organ, you need to be extremely precise — or risk causing pain to your patient. Source: Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP

7. Dentistry

  • Median salary in the US: US$163,220 (2021)
  • Average annual salary in the UK: 57,326 pounds

You’ll need to complete a five-year degree in dentistry approved by the General Dental Council, followed by one to two years of postgraduate dental training.

In some cases, you are required to complete a Dental Admission Test to be admitted into dental schools in the US and Canada or the University Clinical Aptitude Test in the UK. 

8. Accountant

  • Median salary in the US: US$77,250 (2021)
  • Average annual salary in the UK: 44,862 pounds

Like other professions, the process of becoming a chartered accountant will differ in each country. 

In the UK, you should obtain a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, such as accounting, finance, or business, which can last up to four years. 

Upon graduation, you need to pass the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) or the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) professional examinations.

This can take up to four years of study and preparation. 

It doesn’t end there. As part of the ACCA or ICAEW, you are required to acquire a minimum of three years of practical experience in accounting. 

Upon completion, you become a member of ACCA or ICAEW, which usually involves paying a membership fee and meeting ongoing continuing professional development requirements.

longest degrees in the world

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

9. Architecture

  • Median salary in the US: US$80,180 (2021)
  • Average annual salary in the UK: 37,522 pounds

Why does it take so long to become an architect? 

Marc Teer, a licensed architect who is the founder and CEO of Black Spectacles, a Chicago-based organisation that helps aspiring architects obtain their licensure, explains it best. 

“Most buildings are not temporary structures; they’re usually around for tens if not hundreds of years. Knowing that your work has a long legacy is a rewarding thing,” Teer shares in an email to US News & World Report.

Firstly, you need to obtain a bachelor’s degree in architecture with the proper accreditation. 

Depending on the state and country, future architects are required to gain practical experience. In the US, internship programmes are mandatory for architect graduates to be eligible for licensure. 

To become a practising architect in the US, you must pass the Architect Registration Examination. This exam is offered through the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.