Unraveling Engineering Pathways: A Comparative Look at the Easiest and Hardest Engineering Degrees

12/09/202325 minute read
Unraveling Engineering Pathways: A Comparative Look at the  Easiest and Hardest Engineering Degrees

Is engineering hard? Yes, but students aspiring to get an engineering degree can choose from among many engineering majors aligned with different branches of engineering. Not all engineering majors present the same levels of difficulty though, and because engineering programs are hard and involve challenging STEM concepts and advanced math, you should consider the levels of academic difficulty. This post reviews different engineering branches and highlights the easiest and hardest engineering majors.

Engineers apply scientific and mathematical principles as they design, create, and optimize solutions to problems faced in the real world.

Above all, engineers are problem-solvers. They shoulder much responsibility in designing, testing, maintaining, and building structures, systems, and technologies crucial to our way of life.

As such, engineers and the principles of engineering have profound value in shaping the modern world.

However, engineering work unfolds across very different sectors or branches: chemical, civil, nuclear,  electrical, aeronautical, mechanical, industrial, and computer… This means aspiring engineering students need to consider various factors when choosing the engineering degree that’s right for them:

  • What engineers in different fields and roles do
  • How much engineers make and salaries for different kinds of engineering qualification
  • Which engineering majors are harder or easier academically

In this post we’ll review some fundamental differences between each branch of engineering and then we’ll do a deep dive into which kinds of engineering are harder or easier, and why.

Further reading:

How Much Do Engineers Make? The Financial Future of a Career in Engineering

What Determines the Difficulty Level in Engineering Majors?

Many concepts and principles are similar across different engineering majors, but some competencies and skills apply more to some branches of engineering and less to others, making some engineering programs easier or harder for college students.

That said, our college journeys are shaped and impacted by our individual aptitudes and our individual motivations, passions, and interests… So remember that different kinds of academic difficulty won’t challenge all students equally or in the same way!

For example, individual “aptitudes” may have a determining impact on the challenges we experience. At the same time, educational psychologists suggest that with “an open mindset” and the right instructional tools and support, many individuals should find avenues to new levels of achievement.

The truth about our learning challenges and limits probably lies somewhere across this spectrum of limitation and potential — as a student you may simply have to test your limits and expand your vision of what’s possible in order to experience what’s true for you.

Let’s start with a quick overview of what the different branches of engineering are all about, and then we can explore which majors are typically considered easiest or hardest and why!

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Overview of Different Engineering Majors

1.     Civil Engineering

Civil Engineering focuses on the design, construction and maintenance of infrastructure that underpins the smooth functioning of modern societies.

Its coursework covers modules like structural analysis and transportation engineering. Typically, assignments involve designing structures and conducting analysis.

Career prospects include roles in the government, construction, and consulting firms, and in infrastructure projects.

2.     Industrial Engineering

Industrial engineering entails the design and analysis of systems that include operational machinery and their interactions and performance in workplace environments.

Industrial engineers use specialized methods and advanced calculations to study how to optimize the efficiency of complex industrial systems and processes. This work can be very valuable in industry settings. When engineers generate solutions that improve complicated processes like supply chain logistics, this can help companies be way more efficient and profitable. The right solutions also help industrial managers adapt to the demands of changing market dynamics or technologies.

Typical assignments often involve process optimization and data analysis. While the workload can be challenging, it often involves less complex mathematical and technical concepts compared to other engineering disciplines.

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Career prospects for industrial engineers include roles in manufacturing, logistics, and consulting firms.

3. Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineering involves the testing, design, and development of mechanical systems and machinery. It is one of the broadest engineering fields, dealing with almost anything of mobility.

Mechanical engineers apply their skills in all kinds of mechanical systems that involve moving parts, hydraulic systems, and the physical parts that do the work of making cars, planes, ships, robots and other kinds of machinery move, heat up or cool down, rotate or spin, stop or start, open or close, and so on…

Courses and concepts they study include thermodynamics, solid and fluid mechanics, systems and controls, heat dynamics, design and manufacturing, and computational simulation.

Mechanical engineering has some significant challenges for students and professionals alike. It requires designing and developing complex machines and the use of many kinds of materials and moving components. The machines, when operating, will typically need to meet demanding performance specifications as well!

Career wise, as you may have guessed already, qualified mechanical engineers are in demand in a tremendous range of STEM sectors, including robotics, aeronautics, automotive industries, HVAC, acoustics, biomechanics, manufacturing, minerals and construction

Engineers play a range of roles in these career paths too, including design, development, testing, and manufacturing tasks.

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4.     Electrical Engineering

Electrical engineering focuses on the study and application of electricity, electronics, and electromagnetism. It involves the design, analysis, and implementation of various electrical systems and devices, such as power generation and distribution, telecommunications, control systems and sensors, and electronic circuits.

Coursework usually covers modules like circuit analysis, electromagnetics, and control theory.

The difficulty of electrical engineering can be attributed to the abstract mathematical models used to analyze and design electrical systems, as well as the rapidly advancing technologies in this field.

Potential career paths for electrical engineers include roles in industries such as telecommunications, biomedical technologies, and power generation and distribution systems, components, and materials.

 5.     Chemical Engineering

Chemical Engineering combines principles of chemistry, physics, and mathematics with engineering concepts to develop processes and systems for the production, transformation, and utilization of chemicals and materials.

Because chemical engineers routinely need to apply advanced concepts from these different STEM fields, it is an unusually hard engineering major. 

Coursework typically includes modules like thermodynamics, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, process control, and chemical kinetics. 

Potential career paths for chemical engineers include roles in industries like pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, food and beverage, agricultural products, mining and materials engineering.

6.     Aerospace Engineering

Aerospace Engineering deals with the design, development, testing, and production of aircraft, spacecraft, satellites, and missiles.

It encompasses various sub-disciplines such as aerodynamics, propulsion, structural analysis, and control systems. Aerospace engineering can be a difficult major because it involves complex physics and advanced mathematical computation and modeling.

Coursework typically includes subjects such as flight mechanics, aerospace structures, propulsion systems, and avionics.

Aerospace engineers can pursue a range of jobs and roles in both private and public sectors related to the design and development of systems for civilian, scientific, and military uses.

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7.     Biomedical Engineering

Biomedical engineering combines principles of engineering, chemistry, and biology to solve problems related to healthcare and medicine.

At the intersection of multiple challenging STEM fields, biomedical engineering combines advanced concepts in engineering, chemistry, physiology, and biology, making biomedical engineering an unusually hard major.

Courses will range from physiology to biological engineering and biomechanics, to molecular biology, biophysics, biochemistry, general chemistry, and genomics.

In the workplace, biomedical engineers help in the research, design, development, and testing of biomaterials, pharmaceuticals, and biomedical devices.

8.     Computer Engineering

Computer engineering focuses on the intersection of computer science and electrical engineering. It involves the design and development of computer hardware and software systems.

Because computer engineering involves highly specialized knowledge related to computer hardware, electronic systems, and computer processing, software, and coding, it is a difficult major, and many computer engineers work within more specialized sub-branches of computer science.

Computer engineers study electronics, telecommunications, and computer processing, programming, and architecture.

Computer engineers, depending on their specializations, may help design and develop a wide range of computer systems and devices or play lead or support roles across larger IT teams in the private or public sectors, including cybersecurity or cyberwarfare applications.

Learn more:

A Guide to Different Types of Engineering Degrees

Top 5 Best Mechanical Engineering Schools

Soaring to Excellence: The Best Aerospace Engineering Schools

Different Levels of Difficulty by Engineering Major

1. Conceptual Complexity

Different engineering disciplines have varying levels of conceptual complexity in their fundamental concepts.

Less conceptual complexity — mechanical and civil engineering majors

Fields like mechanical or civil engineering may involve largely intuitive and tangible concepts like forces, structures, and materials, which could be relatively easier to grasp for some.

More conceptual complexity — electrical and aerospace/aeronautical engineering

Majoring in electrical or aerospace engineering will potentially involve more abstract and complex concepts that come into play when you study electromagnetic fields, control systems, aerodynamics, or space travel.

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2. Mathematical Complexity

Mathematics is a necessary and crucial component of engineering. The level of mathematical rigor can vary across different branches of engineering, but also across different professional pathways within different branches.

More mathematical complexity — electrical, computer, or biomedical engineering

All engineering degrees tend to have a lot of math content, but it’s worth considering that some branches of engineering might be more difficult based on the types of mathematics that they use and apply.

“If you are trying to avoid math, engineering is not the way to go!”

- Xosé M. Carreira, civil engineer, on Quora

Engineering is more than mathematics… It involves inventiveness, lots of testing, analysis, creative design and problem solving solutions, and more… But, students seriously considering an engineering degree should have at least some interest in learning and applying advanced math concepts as an integral part of their success in the field of engineering.

Students who love advanced math can certainly use that passion and aptitude for success in engineering or physics. Some math lovers may decide the right path is to  build a foundation in math itself as math majors, since advanced math skills can be valuable in many STEM fields.

Engineering Majors and Math Concepts
Engineering MajorsMath Concepts
Mechanical, civil, aerospaceGeometry
ComputerNumber theory and conceptual math
Electrical, mechanical, chemicalCalculus
Electrical, mechanicalComplex and linear algebra
ElectricalVector algebra and trigonometry

Fields like electrical, computer, or biomedical engineering often require the most advanced and complex mathematics, including calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, and probability.

3. Volume of Work

Engineering has a rather demanding volume of coursework, which spans a wide range of assignments, projects, and laboratory work. The volume of work varies between the different majors, and some may require more practical tasks and others more research work.

For some people, working on more finite projects — like building a bridge or creating design principles and metrics for a specific kind of physical object — may seem more satisfying. You have a clearer sense of a beginning and an end, and a more tangible sense of accomplishment when the project is completed.

However, it’s worth noting that tangible projects, as in civil engineering projects, for example, or in biomedical engineering, can also entail many cycles of iterative experimentation, data collection, and testing — this can involve large datasets and tedious number crunching or analysis processes…

More purely mathematical or purely theoretical endeavors, by comparison,  may sometimes feel exhilarating in terms of creativity and speculation.

At the same time these endeavors may involve long periods of investigation that lead to theoretical dead ends or “failures” — the kinds of failures that are necessary stepping stones to success for most scientific endeavors!

These kinds of more speculative and theoretical endeavors can have what feels like an infinite horizon — new findings lead to new questions, or new findings disrupt well established principles…

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4. Practical/Lab Work

Engineering majors such as civil, mechanical engineering, or electrical engineering call for extensive hands-on work and laboratory experiments — testing structures, materials, machinery, or unique hardware components. The practical aspects of these disciplines can add an extra layer of complexity, as students have to understand how theory translates into real-world applications and real nuts-and-bolts objects.

In general, all fields of engineering have lab work or include lab procedures as part of specific phases of research, testing, and development.

Biomedical research, for example, often begins with lab experimentation, and may end with more hands-on type development work in a mechanical laboratory or facility.

Aerospace engineers may use lots of computer modeling initially, and then test specific materials in a lab facility, before developing and constructing specific components in another type of lab or industrial facility…

5. Research and Thesis Requirements

Engineering majors like aerospace or biomedical engineering often require students to fulfill thesis and research requirements as part of the curriculum. These requirements are rather demanding and academically rigorous, which can make these majors more challenging.

That said, most engineering degree programs require a final semester project or a capstone project instead of a thesis.

These projects can typically have some research component, but they engage you in a more practical, real-word type of task — such as a design challenge, a case study analysis, or a complex problem-solving task, for example.

If you advance to a master degree program down the road, however, the thesis requirement is more common but certainly not universal.

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Easiest and Hardest Engineering Majors

Here’s an overview of some of the factors to consider related to the difficulty that different engineering majors present to students.

Engineering Majors & Degrees — Easier & Harder
MajorCourse Content DifficultyRetention & Graduation RatesMath Content & DifficultyResearch & Thesis Requirements
Industrial Engineeringmoderatehighmoderatemoderate
Civil Engineeringmoderatehighmoderatemoderate
Mechanical Engineeringmoderatemoderatehighhigh
Biomedical Engineeringhighmoderatehighhigh
Computer Engineeringhighhighvery highhigh
Electrical Engineeringvery highlowvery highhigh
Chemical Engineeringvery highlowvery highvery high

'Easiest' Engineering Majors

Based on some conventional ways of thinking about “difficulty,” some less difficult  engineering majors are civil and industrial engineering. These two majors are said to be relatively easier for several reasons:

  • The mathematical complexity in these majors is more manageable, requiring a solid foundation in just calculus and foundational physics.
  • Hands-on applications in civil and industrial engineering majors make it easier for students to visualize and internalize concepts.
  • These majors generally have a broader scope and have less technical specialization compared to some other engineering disciplines.

That said, it is imperative to note that ‘easier’ is a relative term, and different for some individual learning styles and inclinations. And, of course, all engineering majors involve rigorous coursework. For most students getting a degree will require discipline, study skills, and perseverance.

'Hardest' Engineering Majors

The ‘hardest’ engineering majors are chemical, electrical, and aerospace engineering, based on some of the key areas of difficulty we’ve been considering.

Chemical and electrical engineering involve higher levels of abstraction. Chemical engineers also need to apply both chemical, electrical, and physical engineering principles at a high level, while an electrical engineering major also entails very high levels of math difficulty.

Aerospace engineering is a challenging major due to the complex physics and math involved in analyzing and designing aerospace systems, and strict safety and reliability requirements.

Balancing Difficulty with Passion

While perceived difficulty can be an important factor when deciding on a university major, it’s crucial to also consider your own long-term career goals and areas of personal interest.

“The most difficult field in engineering is that field which you have no interest in and yet, you study it.”

- Saleh Al Harthi, on Quora

Keep in mind that top schools will typically offer numerous academic support resources. You can also get help from tutors when a class is academically challenging.

It can be harder to make up for a lack of interest or passion, however. Can a tutor provide that? Without proper motivation and interests how will you have the commitment and perseverance needed to succeed in a challenging major?

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Final Thoughts

You now have a fuller understanding of the comparative difficulties of various engineering majors.

While civil and industrial engineering are said to be ‘easier’  with chemical, biomedical, and aerospace engineering on the opposite end of the spectrum of difficulty  it is crucial to prioritize personal interest and aptitude over the perceived difficulty of various majors. This is because a comparative evaluation of the difficulty of different majors is far from being purely objective. The learning of ‘difficult’ majors may, in actuality, be a smooth process for you if you take interest in it.

While some paths may prove more difficult than others, discipline, passion, and academic ability combined are likely to be key to your success.

It makes sense to be diligent in exploring your interests and important factors related to the many pathways engineering offers.

Though this may be a daunting process, it can be made easier with help. Insights from experienced admissions advisors will clarify important decisions, priorities, and goals, and significantly increase your chances for getting into your top-choice target schools.

What Makes Crimson Different

If you want to get personalized feedback to clarify your own college journey or learn a bit more about how a Crimson Advisor can help, you can schedule a no-cost check in with an Advisor. We can explain what a personalized counseling plan looks like and how those plans can help a student get into top-choice universities.