Computer science and computer engineering both contribute to building crucial technologies that many people rely on. However, these related disciplines have distinct educational requirements and focus on different aspects of computing and technology. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, it’s important to understand the key differences. This is especially true if you are going to pursue a degree in either field because you may take overlapping classes. Some schools may even combine their computer science and engineering offerings into one program.
What is computer science? This field focuses mainly on software and software systems. Computer scientists write code that accounts for data, data structures, algorithms and statistical modeling. This code solves complex problems in an efficient manner. For instance, computer scientists write the code that many of us use daily on search engines.
Conversely, computer engineering typically focuses on the hardware required to make computer programs run. It’s a field at the intersection of electrical engineering and computer science.
Computer scientists and computer engineers often work together to solve complex problems and create new technology. For instance, a computer engineer may focus on building a smartphone while a computer scientist may write the software applications that run on that phone.
On this page, we’ll look at the differences between computer science and computer engineering including educational requirements, job tasks in each field and salary expectations. Additionally, we’ll delve into what you can do with a computer science degree and a computer engineering degree.
What Is Computer Science?
Computer science deals largely with the theoretical components of how computers came to be the powerful engines they are in today’s modern world. It also teaches the practical aspects of software development, algorithmic logic and the principles of operating systems.
Computer science draws on mathematics and uses logic and theory to map out problems and solve real-world problems with the help of a computer. Broadly, computer scientists understand how to use technology to process information.
Those interested in learning computer science may earn a bachelor’s degree in the subject or in a related STEM major with a concentration in computer science. Prerequisites for a computer science degree include mathematics, especially algebra, as well as programming and coding.
If you’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree in a different field, you can earn a master’s degree in computer science. A master’s degree typically offers more opportunities to deepen your understanding in a specialized topic like cybersecurity or data science. The educational requirements to become a computer scientist may entail four years to earn a bachelor’s degree or six years for a bachelor’s plus master’s degree.
Eventually, you may want to determine whether you are more interested in the practical aspects of computer science that deal with software engineering and algorithm development or the theoretical aspects of how computers work. This could determine the career path you ultimately choose in the computer science field. Additionally, it’s often a good idea to begin working on projects outside of the classroom to gain some practical experience.
Here are some topics that may be covered in a computer science curriculum:
Security and assurance
What Is Computer Engineering?
Now that we’ve explored computer science, what is computer engineering? This field deals with the hardware, as opposed to the software, of computer devices. It draws on physics, electrical engineering and computer science to understand how to build and refine new computer structures. It deals in electronics and the laws of physics to build computer components. Software engineers typically spend their days in a lab rather than writing code.
The prerequisites for a computer engineering degree may include physics, engineering and more advanced math classes like calculus. The degree itself covers a variety of topics, including:
A bachelor’s degree is not required to become a computer engineer, but it’s beneficial to earn one from an accredited computer engineering program. Majoring in software or electrical engineering with a specialization in computer engineering is common.
So, what can you do with a computer engineering degree? People with this degree may specialize in robotics, computer and network security, hardware system development or distributed computing, among other specializations.
Computer scientists get hired by software development companies, government entities, manufacturers, research organizations and many other employers. In their role, computer scientists may identify how to design software that meets critical business challenges. They may work on more theoretical processes around how data is processed and communicated by computers. Their day-to-day tasks may include working with adjacent fields like IT or engineers to come up with solutions to product issues, improving upon existing software systems, researching data structures and algorithms, or working in emerging fields like robotics or artificial intelligence.
Computer engineers work in a variety of fields, from the federal government to electronic component manufacturing to computer systems design. Graduates with a degree in computer engineering are prepared to work as computer hardware engineers, electrical design engineers, embedded software engineers, computer systems engineers and wireless communications network engineers. Their day-to-day roles may include developing complex hardware systems such as microprocessors and other computer components.
Both fields offer interesting work in a variety of industries from health care to marketing to AI to business. Computer-related careers offer a robust job outlook.
According to the BLS, computer hardware engineers earned a median salary of $119,560 as of May 2020. Having an advanced degree may increase earning potential. Jobs in this field are expected to grow 2% from 2020 to 2030. The setting in which you choose to work may affect your pay. Below are some of the most popular work settings for computer engineers and their median annual salaries as of May 2020 according to the BLS:
Computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing: $146,640
Research and development for physical, engineering and life sciences: $133,060
Federal government: $118,620
Semiconductor and any other related electronic component manufacturing: $115,140
Computer systems design and any related fields: $114,190
Note that your particular role and geographic location may affect your salary, and starting salaries may be lower than the national average.
Computer science and computer engineering are related but different disciplines that put you on a path to a variety of growing jobs in a wide range of industries. For those who enjoy complex problem solving and the chance to create new technologies, a degree in computer science or engineering may be a great fit.