The hardest career paths are not necessarily the worst fit for you. Truthfully, just the opposite might be true.
Consider some of these possibilities and perhaps consult with a career counselor if you’re just starting or looking to switch careers. Maybe the challenge is just what you need.
This post may have affiliate links, meaning we earn a small commission on purchases through the links (at no extra cost to you). This does not change our opinion but does help support the site. Thank you!
11 of the Hardest Career Paths to Pursue
We’ve broken this list into three categories to simplify things: the hardest entry-level, mentally challenging, and stressful careers.
For each one, you’ll find the approximate salary according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as well as a summary of what makes the job so hard.
Hardest Entry-level Jobs
“Entry-level” jobs can still be some of the hardest jobs to get out of college, make no mistake! Part of the reason behind this is that employers can’t seem to agree on a definition of “entry-level.”
Indeed defines it this way: “a type of job that typically requires minimal education, training, and experience.” In practice, you can expect it to be easier to get hired for these jobs, at least theoretically. But these careers are not for the faint of heart.
Difficulty: Healthcare environment, the high level of attention to detail required.
Medical technologists typically only need an associate’s degree to be qualified, but their work can be difficult. Take, for a more specific example, the responsibilities of lab technicians.
These are those who collect, handle and keep records of human specimens for testing.
Imagine the consequences of a single mislabeled sample, and you’ll understand why this is a challenging career to pursue
Difficulty: It requires a high level of physical fitness and can be very dangerous.
It can’t be easy to regularly put your life at risk for the safety of others. Firefighting may not require an advanced graduate degree, but it does require dedication to respond selflessly to emergencies.
Firefighting as a career path can be incredibly fulfilling if you feel called to help your community at any cost. Society depends on people to step up in these roles.
Difficulty: Physical demands, risk of injury.
Roofers are just one example of physical laborers who go under-appreciated.
Some of the hardest career paths are those that require people to work in potentially hazardous conditions, like up on a roof.
It’s an important position that needs doing to keep our homes dry and protected from damage.
Most Mentally Challenging Jobs
Some of the hardest jobs are also the ones that provide the most sense of meaning. And according to some recent studies, more mentally demanding careers may result in “better cognitive outcomes in later life,” such as better memory. So don’t be afraid to pursue a job that will make you think!
Difficulty: Dealing with people who may be struggling with addiction, homelessness, or mental illness.
Social workers work in all sorts of jobs. They might work with the homeless, for child protective services, or as a therapist, as just a few examples.
It can be hard to figure out how to help people, of course, but you may feel called to this kind of work if forging human connections is something you’re good at and enjoy.
Difficulty: High stress situations, and this field requires people skills and endless patience.
Therapists may have some similarities in skillset with social workers, but we think they deserve their spot on this list because they can transform lives, for better or worse.
Therapists listen to people struggling with mental health issues all day and figure out how to help those clients help themselves.
Difficulty: Responsible for a great deal of medical knowledge as well as people skills, many years of education.
It probably doesn’t surprise you to see doctors have one of the hardest jobs out there. The human body is so incredibly complex that even medical professionals don’t have all the answers, but their patients look to them when they’re sick or injured.
Difficulty: Surgeons are responsible for expansive medical knowledge, must remain calm under pressure, and have many years of education.
Surgeons may not work directly with patients to the extent that doctors do (when they’re conscious, at least), but surgeons have the added pressure of performing procedures that could spell life or death for patients.
Let’s face it: their salaries are incredibly high, but they probably deserve it.
Most Stressful Jobs
These jobs are some of the hardest jobs to fill. High stress typically isn’t desirable!
On the flip side, these are some of the most in-demand roles today. A career in one of these fields means job security.
Difficulty: Dangerous, high-pressure situations.
Police officers have to be quick-thinking and excellent judges of character.
If, when you do some soul-searching to figure out what makes you unique, you realize you’re unusually calm under pressure or perceptive of others, law enforcement might be a good challenge for you.
Difficulty: Requires work in a dangerous, hostile environment.
We need corrections officers to keep prisons running smoothly, but this is a hard job and one unlikely to receive many “thanks” daily. Inmates can get violent and typically resent guards almost as a matter of course.
On the other hand, if you’re good at de-escalating tense situations, you could make a difference by making the best of a bad situation.
Income: about $65,000
Difficulty: Both physically and mentally demanding, require long absences, and can be dangerous.
A military career takes immense dedication. You’ll need to feel a passion for defending your country to be willing to endure the physical pain and exhaustion with additional psychological stress.
The military is undoubtedly one of the most challenging career paths to pursue, but it could also develop your resilience and give you a strong sense of purpose.
Difficulty: Requires quick thinking and calm under extreme emotional pressure.
Paramedics are often the first to address medical emergencies of any kind. They need to be ready for anything and willing to improvise the best solutions to care for patients in less-than-ideal circumstances.
It might be a good idea to talk to or ride with a paramedic to get a feel for the experience. It’s a wise step toward finding your career in any field, but it’s arguably extra vital if you’re considering a high-pressure career path like becoming a paramedic.
Challenging or hard-to-fill jobs are maybe even more important to consider in your job search than typical roles. Don’t let educational or physical demands scare you away from a rewarding career. We might need someone exactly like you to do the job right.