10 Hardest Engineering Majors in 2023-24

October 16, 2023

hardest engineering majors

Depending on their course of study, engineering majors can expect a high payout for all the hard work they do at college. Median annual salaries range from about $80,000 to $130,000 for engineers with bachelor’s degrees, with an expected 140,000 new jobs added every year through 2026,  according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the big bucks come with a heavy theoretical and practical workload at college. If you’re thinking like a true engineer, you might want to optimize that difficulty with your chance of landing a full-time job and a beefed-up paycheck.

So, what’s the most difficult engineering major? The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, relative, though this may come as a disappointment to some of our more objectively-minded readers. Levels of rigor are going to vary from university to university, and one student’s astrophysics nightmare might be another student’s treasure. Still, there’s a general consensus that some disciplines are more demanding than others, and, if someone was so inclined, they could take the time to pin down that consensus. Luckily for us, economics doctoral candidate and U.S. Census Bureau research statistician Vitaliy Novik conducted a study to do just that. He asked students to tell him their perceptions of the most difficult university majors across the board, then he crunched the numbers for engineering majors alone. Based on his survey work, he’s drawn some data-based conclusions.

Hardest Engineering Majors (Continued)

Novik, who also studied and worked as an engineer prior to his doctoral research, surveyed nearly three million college students at 200 different universities, asking them to rank the difficulty of their courses on a scale from 1-5. He then took those findings and created a list based on what those two hundred students said was the hardest. You can read Novik’s full study about all the majors here, but for now, let’s dig into the results.

10 Hardest Engineering Majors

1) Chemical Engineering

Novik’s list ranks chemical engineering as the hardest major in this field. This might be because chemical engineers’ unique training involves concepts from across many other STEM disciplines, including chemistry, biology, math, and physics. The field opens students up to a variety of careers, from nanotechnology to new energy. According to Stanford University, chemical engineers are in high demand, and while they might more traditionally work in the chemical, oil, or energy industries, they might also find jobs in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, the fabrication of electronic devices, and, even, environmental engineering.

According to U.S. News and World Report, the top three schools for this major are MIT, CalTech, and Stanford.

2) Aerospace

In second place is aerospace engineering. Aerospace students learn the science of flight for all types of aircraft—they can send you on vacation to Antarctica just as easily as they can send you to the moon. They might also end up in careers in the defense industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, aerospace engineers focus on “aerodynamic fluid flow; structural design; guidance, navigation, and control; instrumentation and communication; robotics; or propulsion and combustion.”

The top schools for aerospace engineering are also MIT, CalTech, and Stanford, according to U.S. News and World Report. 

3) Materials Engineering and Materials Science

Students who study materials engineering and materials science are putting themselves in the position to work at the forefront of technology, which might be why the rigor of these types of programs was so highly ranked in Novik’s study. These students are going on to careers in which they create new products, many of which serve to improve our lives through sustainability. According to Michigan Tech, materials engineers seek to understand “the fundamental physical origins of material behavior in order to optimize properties of existing materials.”

If that sounds like your kind of challenge, the top schools also include MIT and Stanford, but this time, in second place, we have Northwestern University, McCormick, in Evanston, Illinois.

Hardest Engineering Majors (Continued)

4) Nuclear

When you think of nuclear engineering, you might think first about energy production. And while that’s certainly a path that engineers can take, they also learn how to apply radiation technologies to disease treatment, food production, and space exploration. Programs are rigorous because the careers that follow tend to have high stakes. According to Penn State’s Department of Nuclear Engineering, “The federal government also hires nuclear engineers to design next-generation reactors for submarines, aircraft carriers, and space probes; regulate nuclear power or radiation uses; and develop advanced technologies that will be used in future power plants.”

The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor comes in first place in the U.S. News and World Report program ranking, followed by MIT and North Carolina State University.

5) Mechanical

In fifth place, according to Novik’s study, we have mechanical engineering. In this major, you’re going to spend a ton of time in the lab, developing the capacity to design and evaluate products while also learning valuable problem-solving skills. You’ll learn all about motion, energy, and fluid, solid, and thermal mechanics. Your basic coursework will run the familiar gamut of physics, math, and chemistry, but you might also be able to choose a concentration in “automation and robotics, manufacturing, mechanics of materials, nuclear engineering, automotive engineering, or micro and nanoengineering,” according to U.S. News and World Report.

The best schools include the familiar top three—MIT, Stanford, and CalTech—followed by UC Berkeley, Georgia Tech, and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

6) General Engineering

A general engineering degree is a great option for folks who know they want to study engineering, but aren’t sure in which direction they’d like to go in terms of their career. It could be a great precursor to a more refined grad school program or more specialized training that you learn on the job. That might also be why general engineering students perceive the major as being so challenging—you’ll be learning engineering concepts from across the board, diving heavily into mathematics with computation, mathematics for engineers and scientists, experimentation, and  design, as well as courses that engage different engineering disciplines more closely.

Not every university offers a degree in general engineering, however, so if this is something that interests you, make sure to do some research to see if the schools you like also offer this broader major.

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7) Environmental Engineering

Environmental engineering is not for the faint of heart. Yes, you’re studying the same kind of rigorous engineering subjects as the rest of the list, but you’re also confronting the climate crisis head-on. If you’re a person who’s passionate about the environment, science, and problem-solving, you’ll thrive in this growing field. Coursework might involve water safety, protection, and treatment; reduction and prevention of air pollution; and hazardous waste clean-up, but programs like Yale’s are “at the forefront of expanding the discipline” into areas like “human health, green design and pollution prevention, carbon sequestration and climate changes, and the development of alternative energy.”

Top schools include UC Berkeley, Stanford, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, while the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Georgia Institute of Technology; and the University of Texas, Austin aren’t far behind.

8) Biomedical

Because of their focus on medicine and biology, biomedical engineering students also study ethics and “how to account for economic, social, global, and environmental factors in their problem-solving,” according to U.S. News and World Report. This interdisciplinary major will definitely challenge students but also set them up for cutting-edge careers in medicine and tech startups.

The best schools for this major are an interesting mix. At the top of the U.S. News and World Report rankings list is Emory University-Georgia Institute of Technology, followed by Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University, UC Berkeley, and Duke.

9) Civil

When it comes to planning for a sustainable future, environmental engineers aren’t the only ones responsible. Civil engineers, who study infrastructure, water systems, and power supplies, learn to “design earthquake-resistant buildings, enable the use of autonomous vehicles, develop innovative processes to provide safe drinking water, promote green and sustainable infrastructure, and employ virtual and augmented reality to design human-friendly space,” according to NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering.

If you’re up for the challenge of studying this field, check out programs at UC Berkeley, Georgia Tech, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Purdue, MIT, and Virginia Tech.

Hardest Engineering Majors (Continued)

10) Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering

Industrial and manufacturing engineering is tough because it takes such an interdisciplinary approach. These students and career engineers will “apply science, mathematics, and engineering methods to complex system integration and operations. Because these systems are so large and complex, IEs need to have knowledge and skills in a wide variety of disciplines, the ability to work well with people, and a broad, systems perspective,” according to Oregon State University College of Engineering.

Top schools include Georgia Tech; the University of Michigan,  Ann Arbor; and the University of California, Berkeley.

Hardest Engineering Courses 

No one declares an engineering major without knowing that it’s going to be tough. Classes like statics, dynamics, C++, and chemistry routinely prove to be a challenge to students. Any of the introductory courses at the beginning of the specific majors are very difficult for new college students because they require a full-blown shift in your state of mind: you’re essentially learning to think like an engineer, which, for better or worse, is probably not how you’re thinking about the world as a high school student.

Perhaps the best way to gauge how hard courses will be in your specific major will be to talk to older students about their experiences.

Cami M., a class of 2023 MIT student and writer for the school’s admission blog, ranked Differential Equations—a commonly required and frequently lamented engineering sequence course—as one of her overall favorites at MIT. She said, “I loved this class, but mainly because I loved the professor and found him super engaging and his lectures really entertaining. The TAs were all super helpful and it’s one of the few STEM classes I didn’t feel stupid in.”

And while Cami’s experience sounds like a lucky one, attending every class and studying as much as you can is always the best prescription for your college career, no matter how hard your major is.

Hardest Engineering Courses – Additional Resources

We hope you found this article to be useful in deciding on a college major. If you enjoyed this blog, you may also wish to explore: