5 most difficult majors in US colleges and universities

most difficult majors
Taking one of the most difficult majors today? Expect to spend loads of time in the library. Source: AFP

When I was studying at the University of Glasgow, I was told, “This is the most difficult major ever.”

I was doing a double major in English literature and theatre studies, and these words were said by our theatre programme lead.

At the time, I was not convinced. My Asian upbringing was confused as to how an arts subject could possibly be harder than something in STEM (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) or medicine.

While I picked my subject because of passion and not ease, I was curious about what that lecturer meant by “most difficult major.”

Now, having completed the programme and graduated, I agree with that sentiment. Wholly.

One of our courses was so full of academic jargon that it felt like you were learning a completely new language to understand the philosophical and societal impact of theatre.

The complexities of comedy go far deeper than making people laugh. You employ storytelling and have to find the funny in seemingly bleak situations.

It’s why stand-up comedians are so celebrated — they find the funny in the mundane and the sad, reaching a catharsis or relief at the end.

There were research papers that took days to process and assignments that were so difficult that I was grateful just to pass.

I remember setting up camp in the library and spending more time with my nose in a book than some medical students I knew.

All this goes to show that there is some nuance to determining what the most difficult major is.

What makes a subject the most difficult major?

Vitaliy Novik, a doctoral candidate in Economics at George Washington University, ranked 118 majors for difficulty based on millions of student ratings.

He argues that study hours are not accurate enough to determine the most difficult major, and that just course difficulty by college students themselves is more accurate.

The PhD student collected data from over 200 universities, more than 150,000 professors, and almost three million student ratings, covering 118 majors.

From his findings, here are the top 10 most difficult majors:

  1. Biochemical Sciences
  2. Botany
  3. Chemical Engineering
  4. Chemistry
  5. Molecular Biology
  6. Accounting
  7. Genetics
  8. Miscellaneous Biology
  9. Electrical Engineering
  10. Physics

The first non-STEM-related major on the list was Pre-Law And Legal Studies, coming in at 19th place, followed by architecture at 22.

Reseach.com’s most difficult major list is based on GPA, the average study hours required, and the total number of degrees awarded.

It came up with 16 of the hardest majors:

  1. Legal Studies
  2. Computer Science
  3. Environmental Earth Science
  4. Chemistry
  5. Environmental Economics and Policy
  6. American Studies
  7. Nuclear Engineering
  8. Energy Engineering
  9. Astrophysics
  10. Applied Mathematics
  11. Interdisciplinary Studies
  12. Genetics and Plant Biology
  13. Marine Science
  14. Cognitive Science
  15. Political Economy
  16. South and Southeast Asian Studies

What both these rankings have in common, other than the obvious lack of arts and humanities represented, is that they get you high-paying jobs.

These are highly sought-after positions which help you earn the big bucks, which is possibly why they are so hard in the first place.

most difficult major

The most difficult major might be the one with the lowest enrolment. Source: AFP

In US News & World Report 2024 Best-Paying Jobs list, the first seven positions are related to medicine in some way.

Here’s the top 10 in this list:

  1. Anesthesiologist
  2. Obstetrician and Gynecologist
  3. Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon
  4. Psychiatrist
  5. Nurse Anesthetist
  6. Paediatrician
  7. Orthodontist
  8. IT Manager
  9. Dentist
  10. Podiatrist

Naturally, all of these professions are the reason many students opt for the most difficult major.

As a result, these majors have a high enrolment rate. What about majors with a low enrolment rate?

Low enrollment may also indicate how difficult that programme really is.

Majors with a low enrolment rate are arguably even harder to complete as there are fewer students doing research in the area or less funding is directed in their direction.

Students in low-enrolment majors often are doing it out of passion, and so work even harder.

Upon graduation, they then have to bend over backwards to get jobs that pay them a decent wage.

So perhaps, the most difficult major is the one that garners the least interest.

most difficult major

If you want to be in education it is best to be passionate about teaching. Source: AFP

Top 5 most difficult majors in the world

1. Education

Many countries are facing a shortage of teachers, including France, Germany, Cameroon, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Morocco, Italy, Portugal, Quebec, Niger, and Switzerland.

In the US, an analysis of 37 states found that teacher vacancies grew by 35%.

You would think that more students would opt for this degree, but there have been 16,230 fewer graduates in education.

This might be dubbed the most difficult major because, in many ways, teaching can be a thankless job.

Many schools do not give teachers the support they need to give it their all, and as a result, teachers and students suffer.

The best teachers are the passionate ones, and that often means they are fine to put up with low wages and fewer resources.

most difficult major

With a degree in English literature, you will get to explore great authors like Shakespeare. Source: AFP

2. English Language/Literature

Is there a reason why people don’t study English literature after graduation? This is a popular question on Quora.

For many graduates, finding a job proved to be a difficult task. A degree in either English literature or language is not thought to be profitable.

While there are many transferrable skills in this degree, and the arts are important for human development, the slump continues as institutions and governments don’t support them.

Even famous novelists like Mark Haddon are appalled at the lack of support for this subject.

“English is about history, it’s about psychology, it’s about philosophy, languages, sociology, theology. It’s about what makes us human,” he says.

The sheer number of books, theories and articles you must consume makes it the most difficult major.

This is followed by typing up pages and pages of academic analysis, and everything is up for interpretation.

People find it difficult because it’s not black and white, but it lives in the grey area, where you argue out your perspective.

In the US, there have been 15,193 fewer graduates as a result.

most difficult major

History is one of the most difficult majors. Source: AFP

3. Social Sciences and History

While these subjects cover a massive range of majors, there have been 11,618 fewer graduates in the US.

The decline in humanities has been happening slowly over many years and it may be due to our capitalist goals.

Instead of trying to understand each other and form a healthier community, we are caught up in making as much money as possible.

“Academia today is dominated by the utilitarian mindset that values an education strictly on its monetary potential,” says Thomas Gilmore, Ave Maria University professor in politics and economics.

“We measure the success of a degree with the same tools we analyze stocks and assets: the higher the return on investment, the better.

“While this is not necessarily an objective evil, we must understand what we lose in the process: knowledge for the sake of human fulfilment and flourishing.

Like literature, these subjects are difficult as they require you to explore perspectives rather than right and wrong answers.

Things are open for interpretation, and you develop skills such as debate and are able to articulate yourself better because of it.

However, for some, this is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

most difficult major

Many people find learning a new language frustrating thanks to rules that often don’t make sense. Source: AFP

4. Foreign Languages

The Modern Language Association (MLA) revealed that college student enrolment in foreign language programmes has dropped 16.6% between fall 2016 and fall 2021.

This is considered the largest decline in the six decades.

In the US, there have been 5,202 fewer graduates in this field.

You would think that the globalisation of the world would mean more students in language courses, but learning a language can be very difficult.

Some languages like French, Hindi and Mandarin can take a very long time to master.

Many bilingual people find that their personality slightly differs in different languages. It is like a mind shift and a sort of attitude change.

If you’re learning a language as an adult, it would be extra hard to do because your mind is not as flexible to change.

most difficult major

Theology, one of the most difficult majors, is also less popular these days. Source: AFP

5. Theology

Certainly a niche major, theology in the US has had 1,864 fewer graduates.

Even in the UK, there were 6,500 fewer students. The decline has led to the closure or reduction in the size of several university theology departments.

What makes theology the most difficult major? Perhaps it is in belief. For some people, studying religion can feel like a heavy ordeal.

Not everyone is comfortable questioning why things are the way they are or analysing God and the many forms in which God is represented.

It is one of those majors that you can’t simply gloss through, but almost needs you to be passionate and driven to discover more.