Top 10 Most Difficult Engineering Majors

Most Difficult Engineering Majors

Engineering is the branch of applied science that deals with structural, mechanical, electrical, and chemical processes. Engineers are at the forefront of modern problem solving, working to solve issues related to climate change, energy, and urban development. The ultimate goal in engineering is to solve problems in society using mathematical and scientific principles. 

Unsurprisingly, engineering has a reputation for being a difficult course of study. Engineers need to be strong in math, physics, and have creative problem-solving skills. In fact, engineering is consistently ranked as one of the most difficult college degrees to achieve. However, some disciplines are undoubtedly more difficult than others. Here, we’ll be going over which engineering degrees are the most difficult, and why. 

10 Hardest Engineering Majors

Electrical Engineering

Electrical engineering is one of the emerging fields in engineering, and it deals with some of the biggest problems in the modern world. Examples include working with electrical power grids, large-scale production, renewable energy, and computer technologies. One of the reasons that electrical engineering is such a big field is because it has a huge impact on the design of the world we live in. Electrical engineering is part of the design of power grids, agriculture, and development.

Top Five Colleges for Electrical Engineering

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
  • University of California – Berkeley 
  • California Institute of Technology
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Stanford University

So, what is it that makes electrical engineering so hard? It has a heavy focus on math, physics, and electromagnetism, all of which can be difficult to master. It also requires an open mind and abstract thinking which can be hard to apply to such concrete subjects. 

Electrical engineers do receive a broad education that covers quite a few subjects which makes them well equipped for going down many career paths. The most popular include:

  • IT technician
  • Telecommunications
  • Management
  • Consulting
  • Electronic engineer 

Petroleum Engineering 

Petroleum engineers work with oil, natural gas, and energy companies for the most part. They commonly work in the energy sector, studying and working with hydrocarbon (fuel) production. To get a petroleum engineering degree, you have to study several subjects including geology, chemistry, and physics. 

Top Five Colleges for Petroleum Engineering

  • University of Texas – Austin 
  • Texas A&M University
  • Stanford University
  • Colorado School of Mines
  • Pennsylvania State University

Petroleum engineering is a highly intense and competitive field for a few reasons. First of all, getting a degree in petroleum engineering means studying (and mastering) multiple scientific disciplines. However, once you have a degree, the career prospects are high. The average salary for a petroleum engineer in the U.S. is upwards of $75,000 a year. 

The specificity of a petroleum engineering degree may make you think career options are limited, but this isn’t really the case. Some popular career choices for people with a petroleum engineering degree are:

  • Design engineer
  • Environmental advisor
  • Field engineer
  • Petroleum engineer
  • Production technologist

Chemical Engineering

Much like petroleum engineering, chemical engineering is known for encompassing multiple scientific disciplines. Obviously, a large part of the degree is chemistry, but it also includes physics, biology, mathematics, environmental science, and economics. Economics may seem like the odd one out in that list, but understanding the economy helps chemical engineers link manufacturing and selling to scientific processes. 

Top Five Colleges for Chemical Engineering

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
  • Stanford University
  • University of California – Berkeley
  • California Institute of Technology
  • Princeton University

Because chemical engineering covers so many subject areas, there are several different careers that you can go into after graduating. Unlike many other degrees, chemical engineering graduates are not limited strictly to one field or career path. Popular choices include: 

  • Pharmaceutical engineer
  • Chemical technologist/chemist
  • Maintenance manager
  • Food hygiene engineer
  • Chemical process engineer/manufacturing 

Aerospace Engineering

Aerospace engineering is one of the most design-focused degrees in engineering. It deals mostly with the design, manufacturing, and up-keep of air and spacecrafts. It can also encompass the same aspects for weapon systems and missiles. Because of this, many aerospace engineers go into the defense industry after getting their degree. 

Top Five Colleges for Aerospace Engineering

  • California Institute of Technology 
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Stanford University
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • University of Michigan – Ann Arbor

Essentially, aerospace engineering shares many of the basics of mechanical engineering, but with an extra level of expertise. Aerospace engineering students may share many of their classes with mechanical engineering students, especially at the start of their degree. However, as they advance, the degree shifts into more specialized flight-based studies. 

Because it is such a specialized degree, many aerospace engineers work in similar industries. The most popular careers/jobs are:

  • Air and space craft designer
  • Military aerospace engineer
  • Mechanical engineer
  • Commercial aerospace engineer
  • Process manager

Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineering is, at its core, the application of physics to solve real-world problems. Mechanical engineering students have to have a thorough understanding of the concepts and theories behind force, motion, energy, thermodynamics, and design. They must also be able to think of the big picture so that they can apply their knowledge to building practical solutions. 

Top Five Colleges for Mechanical Engineering

  • Georgia Institute of Technology 
  • Stanford University
  • University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
  • University of California – Berkeley 
  • California Institute of Technology

Many people consider mechanical engineering to be the basis of many other forms of engineering, and because of this, many engineers choose to get their bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering before going on to do a graduate degree that is more specialized. 

For graduates with a mechanical engineering degree that don’t specialize further, some popular career choices include: 

  • HVAC engineer
  • Maintenance engineer
  • Mechanical/manufacturing engineer
  • Control and instrumentation engineer
  • Automotive engineer

Computer Engineering

Computer engineering is closely related to electrical engineering, but with a specific focus on bridging the gap between hardware and software. Whereas electrical engineering focuses on the hardware of computers like circuitry, and computer science focuses more on the software development side, computer engineering combines aspects of both. 

Top Five Colleges for Computer Engineering

  • Stanford University
  • University of California – Berkeley 
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • University of Illinois – Urbana-Campaign
  • Georgia Institute of Technology

Because a computer engineering degree covers both the hardware and software of computers, it’s a popular choice for students who can’t decide if they want to build circuits or write code. Electrical engineers don’t do much coding, whereas computer science students don’t do much with mechanics. Computer engineers, on the other hand, get to do both!

Because they cover a wide range of subjects across several fields, computer science degrees often come with a wide range of job opportunities. Some of the most popular are:

  • Software engineer
  • Computer programmer
  • Hardware engineer
  • Network and computer system administrator
  • IT/network support specialist

Civil Engineering

Civil engineering a type of engineering closely related to urban planning and design. Civil engineers work to design modern cities in ways that most people never think about. Everything from roads to energy supply is designed, at least in part, by civil engineers. They have to take many aspects of design into consideration and often work closely with governments to design cities in ways that flow well as they grow and develop. 

Top Five Colleges for Civil Engineering

  • Georgia Institute of Technology 
  • University of California – Berkeley 
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Purdue University – West Lafayette
  • University of Texas – Austin 

By its nature, civil engineering is one of the more specialized engineering degrees. Despite its specialized nature, civil engineers must learn about many different subjects to get their degree. Some of the subjects are statistics, environmental science, chemistry, architecture, and design. 

Civil engineers have more job options than you may think of when it comes to a specialized degree. Graduates work in many sectors, including construction, business, management, and finance. Some popular jobs for civil engineering graduates include: 

  • Consulting civil engineer
  • Fire risk assessor 
  • Patent attorney
  • Site engineer
  • Design engineer

Architectural Engineering

Architectural engineering (also known as architecture engineering) is a form of structural engineering with an emphasis on urban planning and design. It’s and area of engineering that has a large impact on everyday life, as they work to engineer the buildings we all use every day. They also work closely with civil engineers, architects, and urban planning offices to design buildings that make work and life easier. 

Top Five Colleges for Architectural Engineering

  • Auburn University
  • Pennsylvania State University
  • California Polytechnic State University – San Luis Obispo
  • University of Nebraska – Lincoln 
  • Drexel University

Unfortunately for prospective students, architectural engineering is one of the less popular engineering degrees, and many colleges and universities don’t offer it specifically. Instead, they offer civil and structural engineering degrees which may be done alongside an architecture degree. 

Architectural engineering majors have quite a few options when it comes to future careers, most of which fall under the urban design/planning and construction industries. Some popular jobs for architectural engineers are:

  • Fire protection engineer
  • Structural systems engineer
  • Conditioning engineer
  • Plumbing engineer
  • Systems engineer

Industrial Engineering

Industrial engineering is a relatively popular type of engineering degree for those interested in promoting green manufacturing and climate issues. One of the main ideas of industrial engineering is to eliminate waste in manufacturing processes and to design efficient systems in industry. They do this by studying systems and how they work through physics, statistics, and chemical processes, among other subjects. 

Top Five Colleges for Industrial Engineering

  • University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
  • University of California – Berkeley 
  • Cornell University
  • Northwestern University – McCormick
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Because environmental and efficiency problems are a huge concern for many modern companies, industrial engineers have no shortage of job options after they graduate. As industry problem-solvers, industrial engineering graduates are not limited to any one field, but rather have their choice in what area they want to work in. 

Instead of going directly into the workforce after their undergraduate education, many industrial engineering graduates choose to go into graduate school for a master’s degree to further specialize their skills. For those that do go directly into working, popular job choices include:

  • Quality control engineer
  • Process engineer
  • Cost estimator
  • Health and safety engineer
  • Production manager 

Environmental Engineering

Environmental engineering is one of the broadest majors in engineering because it requires students to learn about almost any type of science that relates to the environment. For example, environmental engineering students take classes in chemistry, math, biology, ecology, geology, hydraulics, and many others depending on their specialty.

They use these skills to assess a wide variety of issues relating mostly to the impact of humans on the environment. They also design processes for environmental clean-up and study current materials and processes that may cause environmental damage in the long-term. 

Top Five Colleges for Environmental Engineering

  • Stanford University
  • University of California – Berkeley 
  • University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
  • University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign
  • Georgia Institute of Technology

Environmental engineering is a growing field thanks to increasing awareness of the impacts of climate change. Many companies are looking to reduce their carbon footprint, and there are many non-profits, NGOs, and public sector options for graduates passionate about helping the environment and doing environmental clean-up. 

Regardless of what area of industry graduates want to go into, there are several options, and the industry is projected to continue its growth. In the next 10 years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a growth of 5.1% in environmental engineering jobs. Some of the most popular jobs for environmental engineering graduates include:

  • Water project manager
  • Environmental engineer/senior environmental engineer
  • Environmental health and safety director
  • Green building engineer
  • Environmental consultant


Engineering is a huge subject with many degree choices that require vastly different skill sets. One of the things that makes some degrees harder than others is the level of abstract thinking needed, along with the number of subjects the degree encompasses. Something like electrical engineering requires for abstract and scientific thinking to be combined, which many people find extremely difficult to master. Something like architectural engineering, on the other hand, is easier to treat like a physical science, and the results are easier to manifest physically. 

Ultimately, all engineering degrees are going to be difficult, so it’s more about finding what you’re passionate about than choosing based on difficulty. Regardless, engineers are on the forefront of solving the problems of today, and getting any type of engineering degree will put you at the front of problem-solving and applied scientific design.

Jonathan Holmes

Jonathan Holmes is a writer for HKS Siblab, an education and business blog. He has a MSc in Cyber Security & Digital Forensics from the University of Hertfordshire and has been working in the cyber security industry since 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, playing guitar and spending time with his family.

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