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Computer Science Vs Software Engineering: Degree & Career Guide

Having trouble deciding between degree programs in computer science and software engineering? Discover what each degree entails, how they differ, and the kinds of careers they can lead to by reading on.

How Do Computer Science and Software Engineering Degrees Compare?

There are many degree programs that can lead to careers in technology, and while they may have some overlap, it's important to understand how they differ to ensure the program you've chosen is the right one for you. Computer science takes a broad approach to technology, examining both the hardware and software that make computers work, and places a heavy emphasis on mathematics. In contrast, software engineering concentrates more specifically on programming and the development of software programs for various purposes as well as the constant process of updating this software. These degrees do share some aspects, and at the entry level may be seen as equivalent. However, progressing further into a career in computer science could require higher levels of education. Software engineering careers may be better served by additional experience and self-driven learning, such as keeping up-to-date with development theory and programming languages, although obtaining graduate degrees can certainly be beneficial.

Computer Science Degrees Software Engineering Degrees
Program Content Advanced mathematics, computer architecture, programming languages Software design, programming languages, database systems
Degree Type Bachelor of Science/Arts (BS/BA), Master of Science (MS) Bachelor of Science/Arts (BS/BA), Master of Science (MS)
Career Options Computer and information research scientist Software developer
Median Salary* $122,840 (2019) $105,590 (2018)

Source: *US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Overview of Computer Science Degrees

Computer science degrees teach students about the entire field of computing, from the mathematical foundations to the physical hardware to programming and software creation. Bachelor's degree programs in computer science commonly award a Bachelor of Science (BS), emphasizing the mathematical underpinnings of computer science and laying the groundwork for further education. Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees in computer science are sometimes available as well and tend to take a more interdisciplinary approach that prepares students to apply their knowledge of computers to other fields. Like software engineering, computer science degrees may contain some elements of software design and programming, although this is not the main focus. Concentration options that may be available in computer science programs include cybersecurity, game development, media, artificial intelligence, and theory, among others.

Master's degrees in computer science are often required for higher-level positions in computer-related occupations, such as computer and information research scientist. Master's degree programs take more in-depth approaches towards topics and may feature concentrations of their own, like data science or security. Both master's and bachelor's degree programs in computer science are available online and may involve internships.

Overview of Software Engineering Degrees

Software engineering degrees are primarily aimed at teaching students software structures, various programming languages, and algorithms used in software. Like computer science, bachelor's degrees in software engineering almost always award a BS, although BA programs do exist. Courses early in a software engineering degree program are the most likely to have some overlap with computer science programs, and the two degrees become more different as students progress. Specializations in software engineering are often based around specific languages, such as C or Java, allowing software engineering graduates to find a niche in a particular area of development.

Master's degree programs in software engineering are almost always Master of Science (MS) degrees, and take a very focused, nuanced approach to the practice of software engineering. Advanced topics like data workflow, software testing, and architecture and design play major roles in the curriculum. As an engineering discipline, the best software engineering programs are frequently those accredited by ABET, the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology. At both the bachelor's and master's level, software engineering degrees may be found online.

Other Fields Similar to Computer Science and Software Engineering

Prospective students interested in computer science and/or software engineering may also be interested in these other fields that deal with computers. Subtle changes in their approach to computers or the inclusion of other topics may make these better choices for certain individuals, depending on their interests and career goals.

Information Technology (IT)

Information technology is the name for the field surrounding the application and maintenance of computers and technology. IT professionals ensure that devices are accomplishing what an organization needs of them, keeping them up to date and functional and troubleshooting issues that arise. Individuals with a knowledge of IT usually work directly for businesses organizations to maintain their computer systems and ensure the safety of data stored there. IT differs from computer science in that it is less concerned with how computers work and instead concentrates on keeping them running. While software engineers may create updates to existing platforms, IT professionals are the ones ensuring those updates are applied at the end user side.

Computer Information Systems (CIS)

Computer information systems degrees include a business focus in addition to the study of computer systems and technology. CIS degrees place individuals in a position where they can effectively communicate with the more technically minded IT staff and upper management, which may be less familiar with computers, ensuring the IT departments have what they need to function. Additionally, CIS education provides insight into technology that helps companies decide what machines and software might increase efficiency for a business. This business aspect helps CIS stand out from other computer and technology related degrees like those discussed above.