The Hardest College Majors

Are they worth pursuing?

Getty Images/Thomas Barwick.

Only a masochist would choose a college major based on the fact that it's challenging. In fact, the most popular college majors are often some of the least difficult options.

There’s a degree of subjectivity in deciding which majors are hard or easy. For example, someone with excellent math skills might consider mathematics to be an easy major. On the other hand, an individual who performs terribly in this area would have a different opinion.

However, there are certain aspects of a major that help to determine the level of difficulty, such as how much study time is required, how much time is spent in labs or performing other tasks outside of the classroom setting. Another criterion would be the amount of mental energy required to analyze data or prepare reports, a difficult metric to measure. 

The National Survey of Student Engagement, conducted by Indiana University, asked thousands of students to assess themselves on the amount of prep time required to be successful in class. The major requiring the highest weekly time requirement (22.2 hours) was double the major requiring the least amount of time (11.02 hours). Over half of the most difficult majors typically lead to a ​Ph.D. However, with or without an advanced degree, the vast majority of these disciplines pay much more than the U.S. median average, and some pay twice as much.

So, what are these “hard” majors, and why should students consider them?

01
of 10

Architecture

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Prep Time: 22.2 hours

Advanced Degree Required: No

Career Option:

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, architects earn a median annual wage of $76,930. However, architects in the land subdivision industry earn $134,730, while those in scientific research and development services earn $106,280. Through 2024, demand for architects is projected to grow by 7%. Approximately 20% of architects are self-employed.

02
of 10

Chemical Engineering

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Prep Time: 19.66 hours

Advanced Degree Required: No

Career Option:

Chemical engineers earn a median annual wage of $98,340. In the petroleum and coal products manufacturing industry, median annual wages are $104,610. However, through 2024, the growth rate for chemical engineers is 2%, which is slower than the national

03
of 10

Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering

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Prep Time: 19.24 hours

Advanced Degree Required: No

Career Option:

The classification of aerospace engineers includes aeronautical and astronautical engineers. Both are well-paid for their efforts, with a median annual pay of $109,650. They earn the most working for the federal government, where average salaries are $115,090. However, through 2024, the BLS projects a 2% decline in the job growth rate for this profession. The vast majority work in the aerospace product and parts manufacturing industry.

04
of 10

Biomedical Engineering

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Prep Time: 18.82 hours

Advanced Degree Required: No

Career Option:

Biomedical engineers earn a median annual wage of $75,620. However, in those who work for pharmaceutical companies earn $88,810. In addition, biomedical engineers earned the highest median annual wages ($94,800) working in research and development in what the BLS classifies as the physical, engineering and life sciences industry. Also, demand for these professionals is through the roof. Through 2024, the 23% job growth rate makes this one of the fastest-growing jobs in the country.

05
of 10

Cell and Molecular Biology

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Prep Time: 18.67 hours

Advanced Degree Required:  Ph.D. for jobs in research and academia

Career Option:

Microbiologists earn a median annual wage of $66,850. The federal government pays the highest wages, with a median annual age of $101,320, compared to an average of $74,750 in research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences. However, through 2024, demand is slower than average at a dismal 4%.

06
of 10

Physics

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Prep Time: 18.62 hours

Advanced Degree Required: Ph.D. for jobs in research and academia

Career Option:

Physicists earn a median annual wage of $115,870. However, the average earnings in scientific research and development services ​is $131,280. Job demand is projected to increase by 8% through 2024.

07
of 10

Astronomy

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Prep Time: 18.59 hours

Advanced Degree Required: Ph.D. for jobs in research or academia

Career Option:

Astronomers earn a median annual wage of $104,740. They earn the highest wages — a median annual wage of $145,780 — working for the federal government. However, the BLS only projects a 3% job growth rate through 2024, which is much slower than average.  

08
of 10

Biochemistry

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Prep Time: 18.49 hours

Advanced Degree Required:  Ph.D. for jobs in research or academia

Career Option:

Biochemists and biophysicists earn a median annual wage of $82,180. The highest wages ($100,800) are in management, scientific, and technical consulting services. Through 2024, the job growth rate is roughly 8%.  

09
of 10

Bioengineering

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Prep Time: 18.43 hours

Advanced Degree Required: No

Career Option: The BLS does not keep employment for bioengineers. However, according to PayScale, graduates with a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering earn a median annual wage of $55,982.

10
of 10

Petroleum Engineering

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Prep Time: 18.41

Advanced Degree Required: No

Career Option:

The median pay for petroleum engineers is $128,230. They earn slightly less ($123,580) in petroleum and coal products manufacturing, and slightly more ($134,440) in the oil and gas extraction industry. However, petroleum engineers earn the most ($153,320) working

The Bottom Line

The hardest college majors require a significant amount of time and energy, and students may be tempted to shun these choices. But there's a saying, "If it were easy, everyone would be doing it." Degree fields with a glut of graduates tend to pay much less because the supply of workers exceeds demand. However, the "hard" majors are the roads less traveled, and are more likely to lead to well-paying jobs and a higher level of job security.