“So, what are you majoring in?”
This will probably be the most frequently asked question of your freshmen year – and perhaps beyond.
Read this guide so you can avoid responding with an overly general, “I’m majoring in engineering.”
This may be a sufficient answer for people outside of the field, but students with similar interests will prompt you for specifics.
Engineering is a vastly nuanced discipline comprised of different fields that have unique areas of focus, topics of study, and forms of application.
In this guide, we will give you an overview of six engineering majors that are considered some of the most difficult in the field.
- We want to stress that this is not a strict or definite list of the hardest engineering majors because difficulty level is subjective and may depend on various factors like student strengths, weaknesses, and interests.
The six featured here are all difficult for different reasons.
The primary purpose of this guide is to inform you of what these majors entail: what they are, what makes them tough, what you would learn and focus on, and the potential career options for each one.
Electrical engineers focus on the study of the physics and mathematics of electricity, electronics, and electromagnetism.
They apply this knowledge to design, develop, produce, and work to improve every kind of electrical equipment imaginable.
On a larger scale, this may include communication systems, power networks, computers, and radars.
- On smaller scales, this means equipment like GPS devices, phones, music players, and household appliances. Electrical engineers are often the ones at the forefront of new technologies.
- While electricity is a relatively recent advent (1879), it has integrated itself into every avenue of modern life.
- As such, electrical engineers can be found working in nearly every industry once they graduate from college and the nature of their work depends on the industry.
Potential workplaces include offices, labs, factories, production or industrial plants, and mines.
Their usual duties include designing, maintaining, and improving electronics, manufacturing and installing electronic equipment and networks, and meeting with clients to see how they can improve conditions or solve existing problems.
Many EEs are responsible for supervising and managing other people in their workplace (scientists, electricians, other engineers) and projects (coordinating schedules and budgets, attending strategic planning meetings, etc.).
Here is a list of possible EE careers:
- Electronic engineer
- Telecommunications engineer
- Power engineer
- IT technician
- Project manager
- Consultant or contractor
The electrical engineering major is considered one of the most difficult majors in the field, and these are the common reasons students list to explain why it is hard:
- There is a lot of abstract thinking involved. Unlike the other majors, like civil engineering, where students can physically feel or concretely see what they are designing, changing, and building, electrical engineers have to imagine what they are constructing or learning in their minds.
This is because many of the processes involved in EE are simply not visible.
Electrical engineers cannot see currents move through circuits. They cannot see wireless signals, electric fields, or magnetic fields.
Therefore, in order to build anything, students must have a strong grasp of the fundamental concepts – how circuits and signals work – and the ability to think openly and abstractly about projects.
- Beyond mastering theory and fundamentals, EE requires students to troubleshoot and analyze in real time.
- Understanding theory (even understanding it really deeply) does not always equate to its successful application in the lab.
Students need patience, the ability to think about and test variables that may have contributed to a project not working correctly.
This is especially important for EE majors who cannot always see what is going on (for example, if it is something within the circuit).
- Abstract thinking also extends to the kind of math involved in EE.
- While all engineering majors incorporate a lot of math, EE is known for being heavy in trigonometry, calculus, and math that becomes progressively more nonlinear as students complete the major.
- In nonlinear math, exact answers are difficult to come by.
EE majors also use partial differential equations (PDE) more frequently than other engineering majors.
These equations are notoriously abstract and difficult to think about conceptually.
They are used to aid the solution of physical problems involving functions of several variables (electrodynamics, heat, sound, waves, quantum mechanics, etc.), yet the equations themselves can never truly be solved.
Therefore, EE can be particularly difficult for students who prefer discrete mathematics.
Computer Engineering is often inaccurately described as “Electrical Engineering with a dash of Computer Science.”
A better description would say that Computer Engineering straddles the space between EE and CS – but also that all three disciplines are closely related and there is no obvious or finite end/beginning leading from one to another.
- If EE primarily involves hardware (electrical components, building things, and circuit theory) and CS primarily involves software (algorithms, operating systems, and programming), CE is about understanding the bridge between hardware and software.
- A very general rule of thumb is that if you want to work with circuits, major in EE; if you want to focus on programming, major in CS; and if you want to do both (building the electrical parts and writing the code to control them), go with CE.
The CE major has more coursework in programming, computer architecture, and networking than EE the major.
Unlike EE, it focuses on the design, development, and application of computers, computing, and computing systems over other electrical devices.
As Computer Engineers work with both hardware and software, they have diverse job options outside of college depending on what they specialized in during their education.
They may work on developing and manufacturing systems and devices in the medical, telecommunications, fuel, and automotive industries among others, as well as develop computer equipment (processors, memory devices, routers, circuit boards, etc.) and architecture systems.
Here are some potential job titles for CE majors:
- Software Engineer
- Computer Programmer
- Hardware Engineer
- Computer Network Architect
- Computer Network Support Specialist
- Network and Computer System Administrator
And here are reasons why Computer Engineering is difficult:
- As Computer Engineering came out of Electrical Engineering, they share a common foundational curriculum that diverges from one another later on.
Much of the beginning computer programming, physics, mathematics, chemistry, electronics, and linear circuits, among other subjects, are similar for both majors.
Because of this, the Computer Engineering major is difficult in many of the same ways the EE major is at the start.
- Once the two majors diverge, EE delves into very difficult, abstract mathematics while CE goes further into coding, programming, and discrete mathematics.
Therefore, CE would be especially challenging for students who do not enjoy learning and using different coding languages and programming.
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Chemical engineering is a truly multidisciplinary major that is noted for its breadth. Its areas of focus span mathematics, physics, chemistry, and even economics.
Chemical engineers serve as a link between science and manufactured products; they transform raw materials into practical/refined, everyday goods or processes for common use.
- Chemical engineers work with drugs, foods, fuels, plastics, paper, various chemicals, and many other materials.
- Their goal is to solve problems in order to achieve better, more efficient, and more economically feasible outcomes, products, or means of production/processing of chemical compounds.
As you can imagine, many things are impacted and influenced by chemical engineering and, as such, chemical engineers work in a diverse range of industries.
Any workplace where raw materials are converted into a product will have chemical engineers on deck.
Major industries that employ chemical engineers are environmental health and safety (where they would develop solutions to environmental problems), pharmaceuticals (developing methods to produce drugs in mass), food processing (improving processing techniques or developing ways to improve food quality), polymers (developing better poly fibers for a specific purpose), refineries, and petrochemicals.
Potential job titles include:
- Pharmaceutical engineer
- Plant or chemical process engineer
- Food hygiene engineer
- Chemical Technologist
- Maintenance manager
These are the reasons chemical engineering is difficult as a major:
- The major is an intersection between physics, chemistry, and math – three notoriously difficult subjects even on their own.
- Students have to master all three to gain a deep understanding of chemical engineering as a whole.
This is hard for students because, while some may be particularly gifted at math, or physics, or chemistry, it is rare for someone to have a knack for all three.
No matter what your strengths are, it will take time and effort to study chemical engineering, which brings us to the next point.
- The study of chemical engineering takes a lot of time, effort, and conscious attention. Because of its breadth, ChemE is perhaps the most time-intensive engineering major.
- Many ChemE students and teaching assistants (TAs) report that you do not have to be a genius at ChemE’s three core subjects to do well in the major – but you do have to be willing to put in the work.
This means spending time on practice problems to hammer down your knowledge and studying over weekends or during times when your friends may be relaxing, socializing, or going out.
At the fundamental level, the mechanical engineering major is concerned with the basic laws concerning physical nature (for example, the principles of force, motion, and energy).
Students will learn about concepts in thermal fluid science (thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, etc.), dynamics (machine design and controls), and material science (metallurgy, continuum mechanics, solid mechanics, and more).
- ME students will develop a deep understanding of these laws and concepts and their effects on the universe at large.
- More specifically and practically, students study the application of these concepts on machines.
- Mechanical engineers are responsible for developing, constructing, and improving machines: manufacturing equipment, engines, hydraulic systems, machine tools, steam turbines, air-conditional equipment, and many others.
At its very heart, ME is all about designing and producing machines that make work lighter and easier for people.
- Mechanical engineering is often described as the “jack of all trades” major.
- It is an incredibly diverse degree with many applications, depending on what students focused on in school and in their internships.
As such, ME majors often work in fields that are technically “meant” for other engineers, but they qualify for because of the nature of their training.
This also means that, depending on the job, they may have to learn and rely on other engineering branches as much as they rely on mechanical engineering knowledge. Potential careers include:
- Biomedical Engineer
- HVAC Engineer
- Contracting Civil Engineer
- Aerospace Engineer
- Maintenance Engineer
- Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineer
Because of its versatility, the difficulty of pursuing a mechanical engineering degree depends on interest level and how deeply students choose to delve into the material, as well as what materials they choose to focus on.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- In general, mechanical engineering deals with concepts that can be visualized or created physically. Therefore, it tends to be more concrete and less abstract than electrical or computer engineering.
Of course, if you choose to learn more about EE or CE within mechanical engineering, you will have to grapple with more abstract concepts too.
- You will have to apply a lot of concepts and mathematics to solve problems in real time. This means that you must have these difficult equations and knowledge sets memorized so you can draw upon them on the spot.
Therefore, ME may be challenging for students who a difficult time with memorizing a large set of material.
- Because of its versatility, the mechanical engineering major is a great choice for students who are interested in pursuing graduate studies in engineering but are unsure of which one.
With the mechanical engineering major, students are less limited in their choices and would be able to apply to programs in several engineering branches.
The Aerospace Engineering major is essentially a specialized Mechanical Engineering degree.
Students learn everything an ME student would, but with a dedicated focus on designing, making, testing, and maintaining machines that fly.
While an aerospace engineering major may not be as versatile as the ME major, it is the best fit for students who are sure they want to be in the field.
- The degree gives students an advantage in pursuing specific, specialized jobs in the aerospace industry – ones that involve building aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, satellites, and even systems for national defense.
It is especially important within niche jobs (for example, if your aim is to work with NASA) in the industry because technological advances in aeronautical and aerospace engineering progress at a rapid rate.
- As such, aerospace engineers are usually employed by the federal government or in more commercial settings like manufacturing and other private sectors where they would work on research, development, analysis, and design of machines that fly.
In addition, one other major employer of aerospace engineers is the automotive industry, where they focus on aspects of vehicle design (structure, power, aerodynamics, controls) to develop more efficient vehicles.
Some potential jobs for an aerospace engineer are:
- Aircraft or Spacecraft Designer
- Military Aerospace Engineer
- Materials Engineer
- Mechanical Engineer
- Engineering, Science and Data Process Managers
- Commercial Aerospace Engineers
Like mechanical engineering, the difficulty in aerospace is that you will be applying a lot of concepts and mathematics that you will have to memorize or be able to call upon very quickly.
In other words, it requires a large set of knowledge that you will need to know. As a more specialized degree, there are also things about it that are different from ME:
- In some programs, the aerospace engineering major places heavier emphasis on learning fluid dynamics because aviation is so influenced by it.
- Fluid dynamics is a branch of science that deals with the study of liquids and gases, and it can be particularly difficult for students because many of the formulas and calculations used in it are based solely on empirical correlation.
Fluid dynamics built on differential and partial differential equations and integral and vector calculus.
Therefore, it may be more challenging for students who have a difficult time with intangible concepts and explanations like what you would see with fluid behavior.
- Depending on the school or how specialized the program is, the aerospace engineering major may be more competitive to stay in, because they require students to maintain a certain GPA that is higher than that required of mechanical engineering students.
Biomedical engineering is an interdisciplinary major that merges the two fields of engineering and medicine.
Students study a wide range of subjects, and the BME major intersects with most traditional engineering disciplines, including mechanical, electrical, chemical, and computer engineering.
Students also focus on life sciences and medical concepts, particularly biology.
- The objective is for students to use their broad training and knowledge to apply engineering principles to solve problems in the biological and medical realm.
- A classic example of this is when biomedical engineers design and create medical devices, like artificial limbs, artificial organs, and implants.
Regarding job prospects, there is a lot of divisiveness over the practicality of pursuing a biomedical engineering major.
Some BME graduates love their major and would not trade it for the world, while others regret choosing it and wish they had picked a more traditional engineering major, like chemical or mechanical engineering.
- This is because of BME’s broad, interdisciplinary approach – and there are both pros and cons to it.
- A major pro is that BME students will have a better understanding of the biological side of things compared to other engineering students.
They will be able to gain a well-rounded, truly holistic understanding of how engineering concepts and technology affect, augment, and fit into biology and medicine.
This allows them to stand out in niche jobs and fields that require a cohesive understanding of both.
- A con is that, because the major covers so much ground, BME students take only a couple classes in each engineering discipline.
- While students have a broad set of knowledge about how things work and come together, they may not become expert enough in the disciplines to practice it themselves.
This makes it tricky for BME students in the job market if their goal was to do actual engineering.
For example, companies will prefer a computer engineering graduate to do coding over a BME student who did not necessarily get that much practice with coding during their school career.
For the above reasons, the BME major is popular among pre-medical students and students who know they want to stay in the specialized biomedical engineering field/market.
This is not to say that BME students do not have success finding jobs in more traditional engineering industries, just that the competition may be stiffer.
Potential jobs for BME majors include:
- Clinical Engineer
- Orthopedic Bioengineer
- Rehabilitation Engineer
- Manufacturing Engineer
- Biomedical Equipment Technician
Much of what makes the BME major difficult has been covered above. Here are some key things to keep in mind:
- As mentioned before, BME is a very broad, interdisciplinary field of study. It requires students to pull learned knowledge from all sorts of different fields together and integrate them cohesively for application.
- It may be particularly challenging for students who prefer having a point of focus that is concentrated on traditional engineering topics.
- Biology tends to require a lot of memorization, so that may also be challenging for students.
More Expert Advice on Engineering Majors
We asked engineering experts, scholars, and professionals about their time studying engineering.
This should give you additional insight on engineering majors. Let’s get started!
Brian Shell, a master of electrical engineering from the University of Michigan, and author/musician:
I got my MSEE from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor which landed me a job as a satellite antenna engineer in Los Angeles. As a NASA space buff, this was one of the best jobs I could land.
I got to work with flight hardware and see a few launches. At UM, one of my professors was an astronaut, and he allowed me a few interviews about the experience which I recorded and still cherish.
Citlali Molina, manufacturing engineer at Sweet Briar:
I loved studying engineering because it was a hands-on learning experience, and I loved learning about how things worked. Sweet Briar’s engineering program meant I had the undivided attention of my professors and a great alumnae network, which helped me gain two internships.
The curriculum is unique: It is very broad, which allows you to explore the world of engineering and choose a niche that works for you.
Thanks to the mandatory internships, I ultimately settled into the micro-electronics industry. I was also very confident to enter the workforce because of the positive environment in the engineering department.
From Dr. Russ Tuck, a software engineering manager who led the “productionization” and launch of Gmail and built and managed Gmail’s Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) group:
I studied Computer Science in a department that was grouped with Arts and Sciences, rather than in an engineering school. I liked that because it let me explore my other interests, including a variety of sciences and history.
That academic journey led to work as a systems architect, software engineer, and engineering manager at a mix of computer hardware and software companies. I’ve worked closely at times with Electrical Engineers and Mechanical Engineers, as well as many Software Engineers.
I have always loved the way software lets me solve a problem thoroughly, so computers can do that chore from then on – instead of people having to do it over and over. I enjoy making things in software, and figuring out how to make them work. It’s sometimes a kind of logic puzzle, and often involves brainstorming different ways to solve a problem.
During my 11 years at Google, I spearheaded the development of support systems for Google’s vast web services and facilitated the company’s EDGE Engineering Leadership Training program. I also published several articles, hold 10 patents and have a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in computer science from Duke University.
I spent the first 20+ years of my career as an engineer and manager in four high-tech companies. I saw firsthand how many nice, bright and lost engineers work in them, and how hard it is for outsiders (and often even insiders) to reach them…Gordon College (where I now teach) is an outstanding place to pursue this call (of preparing students for the high-tech world).
Tony Glockler, mechanical engineer from UCLA and CEO of SolidProfessor:
I loved studying engineering because I’ve always had an engineering mindset, even from a young age. I enjoyed putting things together and investigating how things worked or could be improved. And being able to study something I loved doing was a truly great experience.
It’s also incredibly fulfilling to build something that’s never existed before. I think we take for granted all the products around us that we use every single day.
Those products were once just an idea in someone’s brain! And an engineer took the initiative to create that product to solve a problem and make our day-to-day possible.
Getting a degree in engineering provides a really solid foundation for the rest of your life, whether you pursue a career in the field or not.
Engineering taught me so much about the physical world I live in and how things work. It gave me critical thinking skills and challenged me to be a good teammate and effective communicator. I learned so much more than just engineering concepts.
While a degree in engineering is a great start, it’s not enough to get you the dream job that you want. You need to spend time tinkering with products on your own and getting involved because there’s just no replacement for experience.
You need to actively be doing things – like getting internships or joining your school’s Formula Racing team — to really dig in.
Conclusion: The Hardest Engineering Majors
When choosing your engineering major, make sure to focus on application, professional growth, and your ambitions.
Use this guide to help you with making your choice.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask us a question!