You may know that you want a career in computing and technology, but you don’t know how to decide between computer engineering vs. computer science.
Computer science and computer engineering are both in-demand specialties in lucrative, growing fields.
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Getting to know more about these two majors can help you determine which one to choose for your college studies.
Computer Engineering vs. Computer Science
When people spell out the differences between computer engineering versus computer science, they may say that computer engineering focuses on hardware. Computer science, on the other hand, addresses the software side of computing.
That’s an oversimplification, but it gives you a starting place for understanding these two disciplines. In some ways, there’s a good deal of overlap. Computer engineering relies on principles from two fields: computer science and electrical engineering. Computer engineers can’t do their jobs without understanding some computer science.
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On the other hand, computer scientists’ software runs on the hardware that engineers create.
What Is Computer Engineering?
The field of computer engineering is an offshoot of electrical engineering. It combines concepts from electrical engineering with principles from the computer science field.
Computer engineers work with the components and systems used in computing. That can range from tiny microchips to impressive supercomputers. Much of their time is spent with hardware and firmware. They focus on developing, testing, and improving these items.
To earn a computer engineering degree, you’d study topics like physics, electricity, circuits, magnetism, and mechanics. Your classes might cover computer design, digital computer architecture, and VLSI circuits. Some students also choose degree specializations. Concentration options can include robotics, computer security, and mobile computing.
After graduation, computer engineering majors may look for jobs in hardware, firmware, or software engineering. Common careers in the field also include network architect or systems analyst. Computer engineers may work in sectors like telecommunications or logistics.
What Is Computer Science?
Computer science is a mathematical field that applies algorithms and modeling to computing systems.
Computer science is both theoretical and practical. For example, computer scientists may investigate the theory of computation. Pondering abstract ideas like that can lead to finding solutions for real-world issues.
As a result, the field of computer science also includes practical topics like how to design networks, safeguard data integrity, employ artificial intelligence, and speed up computer processing.
Students in a computer science program typically study advanced math, algorithms, data structures, programming languages, and operating systems. The curriculum list will likely include courses on the lifecycle of software development and software quality assurance.
A computer science program can offer specializations like big data, artificial intelligence, and computer systems. Comp sci graduates may pursue work in software, mobile app design, or web development. Some become IT managers, information systems researchers, or data scientists. Many work in the computer systems design field.
Computer Engineering vs. Computer Science Roles and Responsibilities
The same companies often hire computer engineers and computer scientists. These two types of professionals typically handle different roles and responsibilities within those companies, though. Here’s a general overview of how the two job categories compare:
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Although computer engineers are usually better known for their work with hardware, both computer scientists and engineers sometimes handle software responsibilities.
Computer Engineering vs. Computer Science Careers
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in computers and information technology are growing at an 11% rate and pay a median annual salary of $91,250.
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Although there are differences between computer engineers’ and computer scientists’ jobs, hiring committees aren’t always particular about the distinctions. Some companies may allow you to easily cross over from one category to the other.
Computer Engineering Careers
1. Computer Systems Analyst
Also known as systems architects, computer systems analysts help organizations develop the most efficient computer systems for their needs. Analysts’ responsibilities sometimes include running quality tests as well.
Common places of employment are computer systems design firms and financial companies. These jobs have a 7% growth rate, and the median salary for computer systems analysts is $93,730 per year (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
2. Computer Network Architect
Also called network engineers, computer network architects are professionals who design network communications systems. Depending on their responsibilities, they might recommend hardware for an in-office upgrade or deploy a worldwide cloud-computing system.
Jobs for computer network architects are growing at a 5% rate and pay a median salary of $116,780. These positions are common in telecommunications and computer systems design (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
3. Computer Hardware Engineer
Hardware engineers design the components that make computers run. They can also assemble them into functioning systems or plan upgrades to bring devices in line with the latest technology developments.
Top employers for this line of work include computer systems design companies, manufacturers, and research and development firms. The median annual pay for computer hardware engineers is $119,560 (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Computer Science Careers
1. Information Security Analyst
Information security analysts are constantly on the lookout for cybersecurity threats and new ways to protect an organization’s data. They may run frequent tests on their systems.
Common sectors for employment include information, computer systems design, and finance. The median salary for information security analysts is $103,590, and jobs are growing at a 31% rate (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
2. Software Developer
Working in software development involves coming up with plans for programs that will meet users’ needs. Developers may design the parts of a program, make changes during the testing process, and prepare upgrades later on.
The median salary for software developers, quality assurance analysts, and testers is $110,140 per year (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Employment for these positions is expected to grow at a 22% rate over the next ten years.
3. Computer and Information Systems Manager
Also known as IT managers, this role involves heading up an organization’s technology considerations. This may involve overseeing hardware, software, and data security as well as managing the staff and budget of the tech department.
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Managers often report to the organization’s top executives. The median salary for computer and information systems managers is $151,150, and employment is projected to grow 10% over the next ten years (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Although comp sci and comp engineering students often operate in similar realms, they approach their studies from two different angles. Checking out sample curriculum lists may help you understand the differences.
Computer Engineering Curriculum
Computer engineering programs include courses related to electrical engineering, physics, and computer science.
- Circuit Analysis: This course involves classroom lectures on electrical circuits as well as hands-on lab practice.
- Digital Computing: You’ll study how computer systems are built and organized, and you’ll also learn to think as a computer does.
- Electronics Engineering: This lab class could include lessons on semiconductors, transistors, amplifiers, and circuits.
- Electromagnetics: Topics in this class may include waves, electromagnetic fields, and transmission lines.
- Nanoelectronics: A course on nanoelectronics will introduce you to tiny transistors, the principles that make them run, and their uses in smartphones and other modern tech devices.
In addition, you can expect to have several classes in math and programming languages.
Computer Science Curriculum
Computer science students study topics related to computing theories, math, and software programming.
- Data Structures: You’ll explore algorithms and how they can help find solutions to problems.
- Discrete Mathematics: This advanced math class will challenge your critical-thinking skills as you study topics like logic and functions.
- Languages for Programming: This course teaches you to use code and write programs in various computer languages.
- Operating Systems: You’ll study the principles that govern operating systems and learn how to make modifications to them.
- Software Lifecycle: This course covers the steps of the Software Development Lifecycle, including planning, analysis, and maintenance.
In addition to Discrete Mathematics, you’ll likely take several other high-level math classes. Electives and specializations may introduce further variations between these two programs.
Should I Major in Computer Science or Computer Engineering?
There’s high demand for both comp sci and comp engineering professionals. When determining which major is best for you, it can help to consider your strengths and interests.
You may want to choose a computer science major if you:
- Are mathematically minded and understand algorithms
- Enjoy theoretical study
- Plan on a career in research, data science, or software development
- Want to work with data and systems for managing it
You may want to study computer engineering if you:
- Are interested in electronics
- Enjoy lab courses and hands-on work
- Plan on a career in hardware engineering or computer architecture
- Want to develop or test firmware and hardware
If you’re still having trouble deciding between these two majors, you might consider software engineering. Software engineering draws on principles from both computer science and computer engineering.
Is Computer Engineering Harder Than Computer Science?
Which degree program is harder has a lot more to do with your personal strengths than the inherent qualities of the majors.
Computer engineering studies involve a good deal of physics. Generally, you’d also spend a lot of time working with circuits and other electrical engineering concepts.
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On the other hand, computer science typically requires a high level of proficiency in mathematics. You’d typically engage with algorithms, statistical analysis, and other advanced math concepts.
Computer engineering can also involve more hands-on work and the best computer engineering schools will provide you with the practical experience needed when you begin your career.
While there are practical sides to computer science studies, students in this major often spend more time on theoretical concepts.
Is Computer Science an Engineering Degree?
Computer science doesn’t have the word “engineering” in its title, but many colleges do consider it an engineering discipline. For one thing, the program may be managed by a college’s school of engineering. Computer scientists also frequently engage in engineering activities. For example, they could participate in designing computer chips.
In fact, many computer science graduates go on to land jobs with “engineering” in their names. Software engineer is one example of a job title that’s common among computer science professionals. Even still, not all colleges think of computer science as an engineering program.
Computer Science or Computer Engineering, Which One Is Better?
One of these majors is not objectively better than the other. Both fields are essential for the development of new computing technology and products. In fact, computer scientists and computer engineers often work closely with one another.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth in both of these disciplines is promising. In addition, both the computer engineering and computer science fields are known for commanding impressive salaries that are well above the national average.
Getting Your Degree Online
Whether you decide to major in computer science or computer engineering, you’ll be developing in-demand skill sets for a growing job market.
Technology is developing at a rapid rate, but continued advancement requires the input of educated experts. Both computer science and computer engineering degrees from accredited universities are available online. Some universities offer an online bachelors in engineering degree with an emphasis on computer engineering.
Plus, some even offer an online masters in computer science or computer engineering. If much of your time is devoted to other responsibilities, at a growing number of universities, you can also earn a masters in computer science part time.
Online computer science degree programs can allow you to prepare for the cutting-edge field of computing at some of the best online computer science colleges and at your own convenience.
If you’re ready to begin your studies in computer engineering or computer science, you can start exploring accredited colleges today to find the program that’s right for you.
Joy is pursuing her Ph.D. in Public Policy & Foreign Policy and holds a Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management, as well as a Bachelor's in Business Administration. Joy's focus is helping non-traditional students find accelerated degree options and credit for prior learning opportunities.