10 Hardest College Majors – Ultimate Guide with Salaries

You might wonder, why would anyone look for the hardest college majors?

Well, the hardest college majors are often the ones with the biggest payoff for graduates!

List of Difficult Colleges Majors

Yes, these hardest college majors will present challenges. You will put in long hours in the lab analyzing data and compiling reports, take the toughest classes in math and the sciences, and just generally work hard for your degree. But in the end, you will likely earn top dollar. If you’re up for the challenge, check out these hard majors with promising futures!

What Are the 10 Most Difficult College Majors?

We’ve compiled a list of the 10 hardest majors based on average GPA. You can read more about our methodology here.

By average Grade Point Average, the fields include:

  1. Chemistry – 2.78 GPA
  2. Mathematics – 2.90
  3. Economics – 2.95
  4. Biology – 3.02
  5. Geology – 3.03
  6. Philosophy – 3.08
  7. Finance – 3.08
  8. Physics – 3.10
  9. Computer Science – 3.13
  10. Mechanical Engineering – 3.17

Note that average GPAs vary somewhat depending on the university, program requirements, and the type of school (public university, private university, liberal arts school, trade school, etc.). Some schools have a reputation for being among the hardest colleges, depending on their academic requirements.

We are providing these averages so that you’ll have a reasonable idea of the difficulty of the fields.

Chemistry

#1 Chemistry

According to the average Grade Point Average of students in the program, Chemistry wins the prize title hardest major.

A Chemistry major will overlap somewhat with biology, but chemistry extends beyond living things. You will focus on the composition of matter, including all structures, properties, and reactions. You will spend a lot of time in the lab testing and re-testing theories.

Chemistry graduates can choose from a number of career paths, including education, research, medicine, pharmaceuticals, nursing, and law. Some students further their education in the field by pursuing a graduate degree, where they’ll develop their writing and speaking skills for presenting their findings.

Chemistry Pros:

  • You will have lots of hands-on learning in the lab!
  • Pride when you make a big discovery or invention.

Chemistry Cons:

  • Chemistry shows a right and a wrong, with little area for middle ground or opinions.
  • The courses will include frequent testing, which could present an extra challenge for some students.
  • You might need a more advanced education when looking for a job outside of the lab or teaching arenas.

Chemistry Major Jobs

Job Title Potential Salary
Biochemist / Biophysicist $91,190
Chemist / Materials Scientist $76,280
Environmental Scientist / Specialist $69,400

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

mathematics courses

#2 Mathematics

Not surprisingly, mathematics takes second place for hardest college major.

A bachelor’s in math may seem a bit generic, but it’s actually quite flexible. Employers everywhere are seeking individuals who think independently, creatively and critically, and math students do exactly that. They also do well in statistics and algebra classes, of course.

With skills like these, you could work in patent law, software development, animation, financial analysis, economics, cybersecurity, market research, astronomy or any number of fields.

Mathematics Pros:

  • A pretty flexible program and pairs well for a dual degree or minor
  • With a bachelor’s in math, people will just assume you’re a genius.
  • Mathematician ranked the #2 Best Job, noting the “very good work environment, very low-stress level and very good projected growth.”

Mathematics Cons:

  • Many positions require a graduate degree, which will cost more and take more time.
  • People will assume you are a human calculator.

Mathematics Major Jobs

Job Title Potential Salary
Actuary $101,560
Mathematician / Statistician $84,760
Financial Analyst $84,300
Operations Research Analyst $81,390

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

economics

#3 Economics

Economics involves studying individual, household, and organizational behavior related to markets and finance. It’s about how people think and act, what makes them make the decisions they do, and so on. So why do people consider economics a difficult major?

In this area, you will take a lot of math and statistics classes and do plenty of critical thinking and synthesizing of data – so it’s most definitely hard!

Economics students can land in business, technology, government, and finance, for example. They often become well-known analysts, sharing their knowledge via interviews or their own writing.

Economics Pros:

  • You have the ability to find employment in a number of different industries.
  • The critical thinking and problem-solving skills you will develop will be valuable in both your professional and personal life.

Economics Cons:

  • If you’re not a math guru – or at least someone who likes math – you will likely struggle in this field.
  • Studying graphs, charts, and spreadsheets every day becomes a little dry.

Economics Major Jobs

Job Title Potential Salary
Economist $102,490
Actuary $101,560
Financial Analyst $84,300
Budget Analyst $75,240
Accountant / Auditor $69,350

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Biology

#4 Biology

Interested in all things alive? Go beyond basic frog dissection and learn about the evolution, growth, life cycles and other aspects of animals, plants, bacteria, and fungi.

You’ll do a lot of hands-on learning in the lab, making new discoveries and advancing our understanding of everything that’s living. You will also need to understand the terms and processes, which means a lot of memorization, making this one of the most difficult majors.

Biology Pros:

  • Many specializations you can choose from!
  • You’ll work with and learn about nature and use advanced tools in your classes.
  • A variety of occupational paths, such as working in laboratories, conducting field research or teaching at the secondary or post-secondary level

Biology Cons:

  • You must keep up with developments and findings happening outside the classroom every day.
  • A lot to learn and memorize
  • Since many biology students plan to go into the medical field, professors prepare students for the rigors of medical school, making this a very demanding subject.
  • An element of professional danger, particularly for those working with diseases and bacteria

Biology Major Jobs

Job Title Potential Salary
Microbiologist $69,960
Environmental Scientist / Specialist $69,400
Zoologists / Wildlife Biologist $62,290
Biological Technician $43,800

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Geology

#5 Geology

Earth to students!  Geologists explore the history of our planet and use their knowledge as they make predictions about future earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions. They also use their knowledge for planning where and how to build highways or structures, or lay pipelines for natural gas or oil.

Their activity is calculated and complicated, which puts geology among the hardest college majors, but it provides great rewards!

Geology Pros:

  • You can find employment with only a bachelor’s degree.
  • The field can deliver plenty of excitement, with daily hours of hands-on exploration.

Geology Cons:

  • You may need to travel for fieldwork in remote areas.
  • Duties may involve keeping irregular and extended hours.

Geology Major Jobs

Job Title Potential Salary
Mining/ Geological Engineer $94,240
Geoscientist $89,850
Hydrologist $79,990
Environmental Scientist / Specialist $69,400
Geological / Petroleum Technician $54,190

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

philosophy

#6 Philosophy

Do you like stretching your brain around some big questions? What’s the meaning of life? How do we attain truth? What is human consciousness? You’ll read the ideas of famous philosophers in your classes and develop theories of your own as you spend hours debating with classmates and colleagues.

Careers in philosophy are scarce, so many students pair the subject with a more marketable area of study or a minor. Consider software programming, mathematics, ethics, linguistics, physics, or life sciences. Many Philosophy majors build their careers through their writing.

This may not seem like one of the hardest college majors, but it requires retaining and understanding a lot of concepts.

Philosophy Pros:

  • You will develop strong analytical and writing skills, valuable in many professional positions and in life.
  • You can enjoy the deep thinking involved in philosophy, while also learning skills in another area.

Philosophy Cons:

  • It’s generally harder to find employment outside of teaching without another area of expertise
  • Society looks down on philosophy in favor of scientific facts.

Philosophy Major Jobs

Job Title Potential Salary
Philosophy and Religion Teacher, Postsecondary $78,790
Market Research Analysts $63,230
Writer or Author $61,820

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Finance

#7 Finance

You’ll need your left brain and right brain for this profession! Finance majors need skills in math, analyzing data, formulating strategies, and communicating well. Individuals with skills in all these areas are hard to come by!

Having to be this good with numbers and future thinking also puts this in the running for hardest college major.

Finance Pros:

  • Regardless of the economy, financial and accounting services will always in high demand.
  • Job variety. You can find employment in government, business, international trade, and beyond.

Finance Cons:

  • Potential for high stress and long hours
  • Finance, banking, and business are constantly changing, so continual reading and education in the field becomes a must once you start working.

Finance Major Jobs

Job Title Potential Salary
Personal Financial Advisors $90,600
Financial Analysts $84,300
Management Analysts $82,450
Financial Examiners $81,690
Logisticians $74,590

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

 

Physics

#8 Physics

Ready to join the ranks of Stephen Hawking and those guys from “Big Bang Theory?”

Studying physics covers everything from the universe and the largest galaxies to the smallest subatomic particles. Excelling in this area requires skills in math, different sciences, English, problem-solving, and teamwork.

The coursework is extremely demanding, but comes with a versatile degree, providing you job opportunities in scientific research, business, finance, technology, and engineering. Physics students must pay attention to their writing so they’re prepared to deliver professional-level findings.

Physics Pros:

  • You could be a part of significant, life-changing discoveries, such as curing cancer or developing sustainable energy solutions.
  • Everyone will assume you’re a genius!

Physics Cons:

  • You may need a more advanced education when looking for a job outside of the lab or teaching arenas, which means more hours spent getting your education.

Physics Major Jobs

Job Title Potential Salary
Physicist / Astronomer $117,220
Aerospace Engineer $113,030
Nuclear Engineer $105,810
Chemist / Materials Scientist $76,280

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

undergraduate computer programming

#9 Computer Science

If you’re a techie who loves digging deep and solving complex problems, this program is probably a good fit for you. You’ll need patience and persistence, and the ability (and desire) to learn entirely new programming languages as you solve problems and make processes more efficient.

Computer Science Pros:

  • You could work for a large insurance corporation, for Google, or for the CIA – your skills will find use in a wide variety of industries!
  • With always evolving technology, the need for people skilled computer scientists will always exist.
  • You will never stop learning.

Computer Science Cons:

  • Because things are always changing, you may put a lot of hours into learning a language or skill, then find it’s obsolete and the industry now favors newer methods.
  • Not everyone gets hired by Silicon Valley companies. You may find employment in IT at a local publishing company. (Less glamorous, but you’ll still make good money!)

Computer Science Major Jobs

Job Title Potential Salary
Technology and Information Systems Manager $139,220
Hardware Engineer $115,120
Network Architect $104,650
Software Developer $103,560
Information Security Analyst $95,510

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Related Guide: 40 Best Online Computer Science Degrees

Engineers on study project

#10 Engineering

If you’re a STEM whiz, then there’s an engineering program for you! You might not even consider this one of the hardest majors.

There are six branches you might consider – Mechanical, Chemical, Civil, Electrical, Management, and Geotechnical – and under these branches are hundreds of degrees you can choose from.  But no matter which you choose, you will put in hard work. You will take courses in Chemistry, Calculus, Statistics, Physics, and other subjects, and many smart students struggle for passing grades.

Engineering Pros:

  • Literally hundreds of areas you could go into
  • Excellent pay right out of school and regular working hours.
  • Individuals with this degree can transition into a variety of fields, becoming doctors, lawyers, technical writing professionals, teachers, and businessmen/women.

Engineering Cons:

  • The coursework is rigorous and demanding.
  • Most courses will relate directly to your future profession, so you’ll likely skip developing other interests like art or writing.

Engineering Major Jobs

Job Title Potential Salary
Petroleum Engineer $132,280
Computer Hardware Engineer $115,120
Aerospace Engineer $113,030
Nuclear Engineer $105,810
Chemical Engineers $102,160

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Is Engineering Hard?

Engineering is one of the hardest college majors because it covers a broad range of challenging subjects, including mathematics, the sciences, and technology.

There are six main branches of engineering: Mechanical, Chemical, Civil, Electrical, Management, and Geotechnical. Under these branches are hundreds of subcategories.

Here are some of the many major degrees available:

  • Aerospace
  • Agricultural
  • Architectural
  • Automotive
  • Biological
  • Biomechanical
  • Biomedical
  • Ceramics
  • Chemical
  • Civil
  • Computer
  • Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
  • Electrical
  • Electronics
  • Management
  • Physics
  • Environmental
  • Geological
  • Geomatics
  • Industrial
  • Manufacturing
  • Marine
  • Materials Science
  • Mechanical
  • Mechatronics
  • Metallurgical
  • Microelectronic
  • Mining
  • Nanotechnology
  • Nuclear
  • Operations Research
  • Paper
  • Petroleum
  • Photonics
  • Robotics
  • Structural
  • Sustainable
  • Systems

Some of these degrees are highly specialized, of course, and may only have classes at the graduate level, or only at certain schools in certain regions.

Consider the path you’re interested in and which program would help get you there most successfully.

Which College Majors Pay the Most?

These hardest college majors prepare you for some of the highest-paying, most in-demand jobs.

Check out these options:

Major Job Title Median Salary
Computer Science Technology and Information Systems Manager $139,220
Engineering Petroleum Engineer $132,280
Physics Physicist / Astronomer $117,220

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Excelling in these fields will take a lot of hours of hard work, but the potential payoff? Huge!

Methodology for Finding the Hardest College Majors

How hard a subject may be is quite subjective.

That being said, there are a few factors that could make one major seem harder than another, such as:

  • Number of hours spent in classes and labs (Insider tip: getting credits quickly)
  • Number of hours spent studying
  • Stricter professors
  • Stricter grading policies

Because of the rigorous courses in mathematics and the sciences, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) majors are generally considered hard.

To compile our list of majors/degrees, we looked at the subjects with the lowest average GPAs. In a recent whitepaper, Cornell University found that “sci” majors generally have lower GPAs, with Chemistry winning the prize for the lowest average GPA. This means it tops the list for hardest college majors.

The difficulty of a program will vary by university.

How hard a major seems will also vary by university. Different schools have different professors, different grading policies, different course material, and even different courses required for a particular degree.

Average GPAs differ between public and private colleges

A recent study found that where you attend university will impact your overall Grade Point Average, but not by much. Students at public universities have an average GPA of 3.1 while those attending private universities have a 3.3.

The best university programs have different requirements

All degree plans are not created equal.

A Bachelor’s in Software Programming at Duke University will have different requirements than one earned at the University of Illinois.

One example of this is in the Calculus requirement:

  • Duke requires Calculus 1 & 2
  • The University of Illinois requires Calculus 1, 2, & 3

That’s a difference of 3 hours per week for a semester, which doesn’t sound like much but could add a lot more hours of frustration trying to master the subject.

Depending on the school, a requirement might be completing four semesters of Calculus (a tough subject!). Is the school requiring more Calculus credits harder? Maybe. Maybe not.

We’ve compiled our list based on averages with the aim of giving you a general idea of which fields are the hardest college major options for most students.

GPAs by Field of Study

The following table shows the average Grade Point Average by subject area.

Major Average GPA
Chemistry 2.78
Mathematics 2.90
Economics 2.95
Biology 3.02
Geology 3.03
Philosophy 3.08
Finance 3.08
Physics 3.10
Computer Science 3.13
Mechanical Engineering 3.17

Source: Cornell University

The best colleges in the United States and the lowest ranked could yield different GPAs, but these are the averages. Remember, the most difficult college majors for you will mostly stem from your lack of interest and natural talent for a subject.

16 Easiest Majors by Field of Study

For those of you who aren’t interested in taking a particularly difficult major and are curious about the quick and easy university majors that pay well, here’s the list:

  1. English
  2. Psychology
  3. Criminal Justice
  4. Education
  5. Religious Studies
  6. Social Work
  7. Sociology
  8. Communications
  9. History
  10. Health
  11. Liberal Arts
  12. Creative Writing
  13. Anthropology
  14. Linguistics
  15. Music
  16. Humanities

In this article, we explore easy majors in-depth. And for those of you who are interested in choosing the best major for getting your bachelor’s quickly, read this page.

Are You Up for the One of the Hardest College Majors?

Obviously, these hardest majors aren’t for everyone. But that’s a good thing, right? We give props to all you engineers, biologists, and computer scientists. But let’s not forget the linguists, social workers, and historians. Everyone’s got a place at the table at the best colleges!

For those of you who are still exploring different fields of interest, you might also find this article discussing quick degrees helpful.

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Lindsay Aldini
WRITTEN BY
Lindsay Aldini
Lindsay holds a Bachelor of Arts in Magazine Journalism & Graphic Design from Drake University. Lindsay's writing focuses on adults going back to college, higher education trends, and online learning.