5 of the Hardest Jobs to Get

Career ladders | iStock.com

“When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut.” So many children have big dreams of becoming actors, musicians, and even the president. Unaware of the long and arduous journey people in famous and high-profile positions often face, children have aspirations that are pure and simple. If a career looks like something that would be fun, exciting, and well-suited to their interests, that’s what they want to do.

Then, as we grow older, our thinking kind of reverses. Instead of dreaming first and worrying about all of the challenges that lie ahead afterwards, we try to fit or tailor our career aspirations toward the obstacles we have already faced, or those we are willing to face.

This line of thinking, although practical in a sense, had led some people toward careers they are unhappy with. It has also contributed to the shortages we see in certain occupations that require high levels of education, preparation, or skill. Manpower Group recently published a report on job shortages, finding that globally, 35% of employers report a degree of difficulty filling job positions; in the U.S., 39% of employers report such difficulties. Why? Because there is a lack of suitable candidates for certain positions.

When you go onto a job search database, most positions indicate the level of education, skill, and experience required to be successful. These requirements vary dramatically across each position, with some only requiring that you can show up and perform menial tasks without screwing anything up. Others require more than a decade of combined education and experience.

We’ve created a list of the most difficult jobs to get. The jobs on this list are prominent enough to be attainable, yet there is an exceptionally high level of devotion required by those who aspire to get these jobs. The rank is based on the requirements you need to obtain each position, how many people actually work in these positions versus how many people have obtained some of the education requirements for each position, and the job’s pay.

We also tried to stay away from the most obvious choices, like politicians, Hollywood actors, or doctors. Our data come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net Online, and the National Center for Education Statistics. Would you go after any of the following five positions?

Principals, deans, and education administrators

Education of students in an elementary classroom
Student in school | Sean Gallup/Getty Images
  • Required education and experience: Principals and deans generally must hold at least a master’s degree in education, and they also must have at least five years of experience working in a school or education environment. Many deans hold a PhD.
  • Number of people with education degrees: NCES data indicate that 105,785 bachelor’s, 178,062 master’s, and 9,990 doctorate degrees were conferred in education in 2012.
  • Number of people employed: There were around 161,800 post-secondary education administrators and 231,500 principals as of the most recent BLS estimates. By 2022, around 39,000 more positions should open up.
  • Median pay: Average pay is around $100,000 for education administrators and $90,000 for principals.

Computer and information research scientists

Businessman looking at his laptop
Using a laptop | iStock.com
  • Required education and experience: Generally, those who work in this position need a PhD in computer science or a related field, like engineering. Many positions also require at least five years of experience.
  • Number of people with IT degrees: NCES data indicate that 145,924 computer science and engineering degrees were conferred in 2012. There were also 66,014 master’s degrees and 10,554 PhDs conferred within this field of study.
  • Number of people employed: As of the BLS’s most recent estimates, only 26,700 people held this position. By 2022, 4,100 more positions should open. The Manpower Group also reports that IT positions are No. 7 on the list of the top 10 most difficult positions to fill.
  • Median pay: Annual salary of $106,290 as of 2013.

Senior-level scientists

Adults laboratory technician working
Laboratory technician working | iStock.com/diamant24
  • Required education and experience: Senior-level scientists — like physicists, biophysicists, and biochemists — generally earn a PhD. They spend several years working their way up the ranks from assistant research scientists to associate research scientists to senior-level scientists.
  • Number of people with degrees in these sciences: In 2012, 141,354 bachelor’s degrees, 25,570 master’s degrees, and 14,974 doctorates were conferred in the science and mathematics disciplines.
  • Number of people employed: There are more biophysicists and biochemists (29,200) and physicists (20,600) employed than there are astronomers (2,700). Employment of biochemists and biophysicists is expected to grow rapidly, with 5,400 additional openings by 2022.
  • Median pay: In the range of $84,000 and $112,000, but it varies based on the specific discipline.


Judge gavel, scales of justice
Judge gavel, scales of justice | iStock.com/BrianAJackson
  • Required education and experience: Judges generally obtain law degrees and spend many years working in the law field, often as lawyers. Judges are generally elected or appointed into their positions.
  • Number of lawyers: 759,800.
  • Number of people employed as judges or magistrate judges: 28,300.
  • Median pay: $118,150 as of 2013.

High-ranking military positions

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  • Required education and experience: Military officers hold at least a bachelor’s degree. They begin at a lower rank and spend several years, sometimes decades, working their way up the ranks.
  • Number of people in the military: “About 155,000 personnel must be recruited each year to replace those who complete their commitment or retire. Since the end of the draft in 1973, the military has met its personnel requirements with volunteers,” reports the BLS.
  • Number of people employed: In the highest-ranking positions, like generals, there only a handful on each military base.
  • Median pay: As of 2013, an officer with more than 20 years of experience and a rank of O-10 earned $15,913 (per month) in base pay prior to any additions for housing, subsistence, or other benefits.

There are a wide variety of other career positions that are relatively difficult to obtain. O*Net Online rates jobs by the degree of preparation they require. Like doctors, scientists, and judges, all of the jobs included in the chart below are job zone five positions, meaning they require extensive preparation and commitment.

Data source: O*Net