10 Hardest College Majors – Ultimate Guide with Salaries

You may be wondering, why would anyone be looking for the hardest majors?

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

List of Difficult Colleges Majors

Yes, you will be challenged. You will have to put in long hours in the lab analyzing data and compiling reports, take the toughest math and science courses, and just generally work hard for your degree. But in the end, you will likely be earning top dollar – thousands more than those who went with easy degrees.

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.

Based on average GPA, the fields of study include:

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

It’s important to note that average GPAs vary somewhat depending on the university, degree requirements, and the type of school (public university, private university, liberal arts school, engineering school, etc.). We are providing these GPAs to give you a reasonable idea as to the difficulty of the fields of study.

Chemistry

#1 Chemistry

Chemistry will overlap somewhat with biology, but it extends beyond living things. You will focus on the composition of matter, including all structures, properties and reactions. As a student, you will spend a good chunk of your time in the lab, testing and re-testing theories.

Students who study Chemistry can choose from a number of jobs, including education, research, medicine, pharmaceuticals, nursing and law. Some students opt to further their education in the field by pursuing a graduate degree.

Chemistry Pros:

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

Chemistry Cons:

  • In Chemistry, there is a right and a wrong, and little area for middle ground or opinions.
  • The courses will rely heavily on testing, which may make it extra challenging for some students.
  • You may need a more advanced degree in order to find a job outside of the lab or teaching arenas.

Chemistry Jobs and Salary

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

A degree 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 students who study math do exactly that. They also do well in statistics and algebra classes, of course.

With skills like these, you could go on to work in patent law, software engineering, animation, financial analysis, economics, computer security, market research, astronomy or any number of fields.

Mathematics Pros:

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

Mathematics Cons:

  • Many jobs require a graduate degree, which will cost more and take longer to earn.
  • People will assume you are a human calculator.

Mathematics Jobs and Salary

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 the study of individual, household and organizational behavior as it relates to markets and finance. It’s about how people think and act, what makes them make the decisions they do, and so on. In this area of study, you will need to take a lot of math and statistics courses, and do plenty of critical thinking and synthesizing of data – so it is most definitely hard!

Economics students can go on to work in business, as well as technology, government, and finance for example.

Economics Pros:

  • You will be able to work 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 may be a little dry.

Economics Jobs and Salary

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 there will be a lot of memorization required.

Biology Pros:

  • There are so many specializations to choose from!
  • You’ll get to work with and learn about nature, and use advanced tools.
  • There are 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 will need to keep up on developments and findings that are happening outside the classroom every day.
  • There will be a lot to learn and memorize.
  • Since many biology students plan to go into the medical field, professors often try to prepare students for the rigors of medical school, making this a very demanding field of study.
  • There can be an element of danger to the field, particularly for those working with diseases and bacteria.

Biology Jobs and Salary

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 study the history of our planet and use that knowledge to make predictions about future earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions. They also use their knowledge to determine where and how to build highways or structures, or lay pipelines for natural gas or oil. Their work is calculated and complicated, but it can be very rewarding!

Geology Pros:

  • You can find employment with only a bachelor’s degree.
  • The field can be exciting, with hands-on exploration in the field.

Geology Cons:

  • You may need to travel to do fieldwork in remote areas.
  • Jobs may consist of irregular and extended hours.

Geology Jobs and Salary

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

Get ready to stretch your brain around some big questions! What’s the meaning of life? How do we attain truth? What is human consciousness? You’ll study the ideas of famous philosophers and develop theories of your own.

Jobs in philosophy are hard to come by, so many students pair the degree with a more marketable area of study or a minor. Consider computer science, mathematics, ethics, linguistics, physics or life sciences.

Philosophy Pros:

  • You will develop strong analytical and writing skills, valuable in many jobs as well as in life.
  • You can enjoy the deep thinking involved in philosophy, while also learning skills in another field.

Philosophy Cons:

  • It may be harder to find employment outside of teaching without another area of expertise.
  • Society tends to look down on philosophy in favor of scientific facts.

Philosophy Jobs and Salary

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 field! Finance majors must be adept at math, but also have the ability to analyze data, formulate strategies, and communicate well. Individuals with skills in all these areas are hard to come by!

Finance Pros:

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

Finance Cons:

  • Potential for high stress
  • Finance, banking, and business are constantly changing, so you have to stay on your toes

Finance Jobs and Salary

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?”

The study of physics covers everything from the universe and the largest galaxies to the smallest subatomic particles.   To excel in the field, you will need to be skilled in math, science and English, be an excellent problem solver, and work well in a team setting. The coursework is extremely demanding, but the degree will be versatile, allowing you to work in scientific research, business, finance, technology and engineering.

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 degree in order to find a job outside of the lab or teaching arenas.

Physics Jobs and Salary

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 to solve complex problems, computer science may be a good fit for you. You’ll need patience and persistence, and the ability (and desire) to learn entirely new computer languages in order to 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 be useful in a wide variety of industries!
  • Technology is always evolving, so there will always be a need for people skilled computer scientists.
  • You will never stop learning.

Computer Science Cons:

  • Because things are always changing, you may put a lot of time and effort into learning a language or skill only to find it’s obsolete and you need to educate yourself on the newer methods.
  • Not everyone gets to work in Silicon Valley. You may work in IT at a local publishing company. (Less glamorous, but you’ll still make good money!)

Computer Science Jobs and Salary

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

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Engineers on study project

#10 Engineering

If you’re a STEM whiz, then there’s an engineering program for you!

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

Engineering Pros:

  • There are literally hundreds of areas of engineering that you could go into.
  • Excellent salary right out of school.
  • Individuals with engineering degrees can transition into a variety of fields, becoming doctors, lawyers, writers, teachers and businessmen/women.

Engineering Cons:

  • The coursework will be rigorous and demanding.
  • Most courses will be directly related to your field, so you won’t likely have opportunities to explore other interests like art or writing.

Engineering Jobs and Salary

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 toughest fields of study, and it covers a broad range of challenging subjects, including mathematics, science and technology.

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

Here are some of the many engineering degrees available:

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

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

Consider the path you’re interested in and which field of study would be the most helpful in getting you there.

Which college majors pay the most?

These hardest college majors lead to some of the highest-paying, most in-demand jobs.

Check out these options:

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

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

It will take a lot of hard work to excel in these fields of study, but the payoff could be huge!

Methodology

How hard a subject maybe is quite subjective.

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

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

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

To compile our list of majors/degrees, we looked at the fields of study with the lowest average GPAs. In a recent whitepaper, Cornell University found that science majors tend to have lower GPAs, with Chemistry winning the prize for the lowest average GPA.

The difficulty of a degree plan will depend somewhat on the university.

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

Average GPAs differ between public and private colleges

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

The best university programs have different requirements

All degree plans are not created equal.

A Bachelor’s in Computer Science 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

Depending on the school, you may even be required to complete four semesters of Calculus (which can be a tough subject!). Is the school that requires more Calculus credits harder? Maybe. Maybe not.

That being said, we’ve compiled our list based on averages. It should give you a general idea of which fields of study are likely to be the most challenging for most students.

GPAs by Field of Study

The following table shows the average GPA by field of study.

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 may yield different GPAs, but these are the averages.

16 Easiest Majors by Field of Study

For those of you who 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 that allows you to get your bachelor’s degree as fast as possible, this article is for you.

Conclusion

Obviously, these fields of study aren’t for everyone. But that’s a good thing, right? We’ve got to give props to all you engineers, biologists, and computer scientists out there. 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 study, you may also find this article on quick degrees helpful.

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