Move aside STEM; the most challenging degrees are not what you think they are

most challenging degrees
The most challenging degrees don't just include the STEM field. Source: AFP

When we think about the most challenging degrees, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields immediately come to mind. 

It is true that these degrees are challenging, mostly due to their complex theories and problem-solving requirements. However, it’s important to know that difficult degrees aren’t exclusive to STEM fields. 

For example, the humanities and social sciences, such as philosophy, history, or political science, require extensive research, analytical skills and understanding of complex human systems. Despite the stereotype of these fields being “easier,” they demand deep thinking and analysis.

If you look at fields like the arts, including music, fine arts, or theatre, it requires exceptional talent, creativity, and years of practice. Excelling in these areas requires dedication, similar to mastering the complexities of advanced mathematics or engineering.

So, while STEM degrees are undeniably challenging, there are many other degrees on the list of most challenging degrees. 

most challenging degrees

Earning a bachelor’s degree – especially one of the most challenging degrees – can boost earning potential and job opportunities. Source: AFP.

Do challenging degrees provide good jobs after graduation?

Despite the rigorous coursework and demanding nature, pursuing a challenging degree usually leads to a successful career. The light at the end of the tunnel is that after graduation, your chances of finding employment and gaining financial stability are high. 

For those pursuing a degree in medicine, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) projects growth in the healthcare sector with an average of 1.8 million job openings by 2032. 

With a degree in health science or medicine in hand, you can pursue a career as a doctor, nurse, pharmacist, lab technologist, geneticist or surgeon. These occupations offer starting salaries ranging from US$60,000 to US$296,419 annually.

Obtaining one of the most challenging degrees also provides you with the foundation to further your education. Many graduates opt for master’s and doctoral degrees, seeking additional training to enhance their skills and qualify for higher positions.

most challenging degrees

Depending on your skills and interests, some degrees will be easier to complete than others. Source: AFP.

What are the easiest degrees?

Ease and difficulty vary depending on each person’s strengths, interests, and aptitudes, so what may be easy for one person could be challenging for another. 

That said, some degrees are often considered less demanding due to several factors. This includes course content, assessments, and overall workload. 

Here are three degrees that are said to be the easiest: 

1. Liberal arts

This degree offers a broad curriculum covering a range of subjects from a number of disciplines. If you pursue a degree in liberal arts, you will be able to tailor your coursework based on your interests, which can make studying more enjoyable. 

Your assessments would include essays, presentations, and projects rather than exams. A liberal arts degree gives you a well-rounded education, and it may be seen as easier because of the flexibility and less specialised focus.

2. Communications

A degree in communications involves studying topics like media, public relations, and interpersonal communication. 

The coursework includes reading, writing, and analysing different forms of media. Your assessments will include essays, group projects, and presentations rather than using specialised technical skills. 

Most people find it easier to earn a communications degree because the material is more accessible and relatable to everyday life.

3. Hospitality management

A degree in hospitality management focuses on the business aspects of the hospitality industry, such as hotel management, event planning, and tourism. 

Practical training and internships are often part of the programme, and the assessments focus on real-world scenarios and case studies rather than theoretical concepts or advanced mathematics. 

8 most challenging degrees you did not expect

most challenging degrees

Linguistics is one of the most challenging degrees. Source: AFP.

1. Linguistics

While often overlooked, linguistics is one of the most challenging degrees you can pursue.

It intersects with several disciplines, such as psychology, anthropology, computer science, and philosophy, while dealing with abstract concepts like phonetics, syntax and semantics. As such, you would need critical thinking and a broad understanding of multiple fields, which can make it challenging. 

With thousands of languages in the world, each with its unique structures and features, studying linguistics involves comprehending this linguistic diversity, which can be overwhelming for most people.

Despite these challenges, some may argue that linguistics is not as difficult as perceived. While some may thrive in its analytical and theoretical aspects, others may find certain concepts or methodologies more challenging.

2. English literature

Studying English literature might seem like a dream for many students who are passionate about reading and writing. However, it is one of the most challenging degrees for several reasons.

It comes with extensive reading and analysis. Unlike other fields where you might focus on a few key textbooks, English literature has texts spanning different genres, time periods, and cultural backgrounds. 

For example, one course might involve reading works from Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe and Virginia Woolf — all of which require deep analysis to understand their themes, literary techniques, and historical contexts.

On top of that, interpreting literature isn’t always straightforward. There’s often no single “correct” interpretation of a text, leading to debates and discussions in class. This ambiguity can be both stimulating and frustrating as you understand the different perspectives and try to develop your own interpretations.

Some universities have even dropped their English literature programmes as it is among the subjects with higher dropout rates and lower rates of first-class honours than other fields.

most challenging degrees

Memorising different medications can be tough, even for pharmacists, making it one of the most challenging degrees to obtain. Source: AFP.

3. Pharmacy

Pharmacy is often considered a difficult degree as it requires students to master a wide range of subjects, including pharmacology, medicinal chemistry, pharmaceutics, pharmacotherapy, and pharmacy law. This requires long hours of studying and a strong foundation in science and mathematics.

Pursuing a pharmacy degree involves extensive clinical training, where you will gain hands-on experience in various healthcare settings such as hospitals, community pharmacies, and clinics. To complete the training, you would need attention to detail, effective communication skills, and the ability to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world patient care scenarios.

With patient care being a major part of this field, you will need to assess medication regimens, identify potential drug interactions, and provide counselling on medication use. Dealing with patients’ needs, preferences, and concerns can be challenging, especially in high-pressure environments like hospitals.

4. Agriculture

Agriculture covers elements of biology, chemistry, environmental science, economics, and engineering. Students must learn a broad range of subjects, each with its own theories, principles, and practical applications. For example, understanding plant biology is essential for crop production, while knowledge of economics is crucial for agricultural business management.

Modern agriculture faces complex challenges related to sustainability and food security. With a growing global population and increasing pressure on natural resources, students studying agriculture must understand global issues and find innovative and sustainable solutions to those challenges.

A career in agriculture involves hands-on work in the field, which can be physically demanding. Students may find themselves planting crops, tending to livestock, operating machinery or conducting experiments outdoors, often in challenging weather conditions.

A lot of hard work and effort goes into studying and succeeding in fashion design. Source: AFP.

5. Fashion design 

Fashion design may seem like a glamorous and exciting field to study, but anyone who has seen “The Devil Wears Prada” knows that this can easily be one of the most challenging degrees available.

Transforming creative ideas into clothing involves a deep understanding of fabric properties, garment construction techniques, and patternmaking. This requires artistic abilities and proficiency in technical skills such as sewing, draping and illustration.

Meanwhile, evolving trends, consumer preferences, and technological advancements call for creativity, adaptability, and the ability to work under pressure. Fashion students may find themselves juggling multiple projects, meeting tight deadlines and constantly refining their designs to meet market demands.

Despite these challenges, some may underestimate the difficulty of studying fashion design. However, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that fashion design programmes have relatively low graduation rates compared to other fields of study.

6. Art history 

Art history is not just about appreciating paintings and sculptures. It requires students to analyse artworks in historical, cultural, and social contexts. This involves exploring various periods, styles, movements, and the lives of artists.

What is most challenging in this degree is the amount of material to cover. Art spans centuries and continents, from ancient cave paintings to contemporary installations. Students must cover a large amount of material, from the Renaissance masters to modern conceptual art. 

Pursuing this degree involves covering anthropology, sociology, philosophy and even political science.
Intensive research and writing are to be expected as you develop critical thinking skills to analyse and interpret artworks, considering various perspectives and theories.

most challenging degrees

Music is one of the most challenging degrees, requiring hours of hard work and dedication. Source: AFP.

7. Music 

Unlike other degrees where you can simply study from books, music requires hands-on practice, often for hours on end, making it one of the most challenging degrees. 

This degree requires not only theoretical knowledge but also practical skills such as performance, composition, and music production.

To make matters worse, the standards for excellence in music are exceptionally high. In fields like classical music, performers are expected to achieve technical proficiency and artistic expression at a high level. 

The career prospects for graduates can be unpredictable too. While some may find success as performers, educators or composers, the industry is highly competitive, with limited job opportunities compared to other fields. Musicians’ salaries typically range between US$25,000 and US$127,000 a year in the US.

8. Environmental earth science

Did you know that environmental earth science is one of the hardest subjects in higher education?

This degree combines geology, biology, chemistry, physics, and social sciences. As such, you would need to learn many concepts and methodologies through field observations, laboratory experiments and remote sensing technologies. 

Professionals in this field are at the forefront of addressing the most pressing challenges facing our planet, such as climate change, pollution, and resource depletion. Finding solutions to these complex issues requires innovative thinking, collaboration across disciplines, and a deep understanding of both natural and human systems.