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Take the guesswork out of your educational decision! This guide is designed to help you choose between the fields of software engineering and computer science. Discover the key differences—and similarities—between software engineering and computer science. Learn more about your choice of undergraduate degree programs for each discipline. Evaluate potential job titles for software engineers and computer scientists. And get answers to FAQs about salaries, career switching, and more.
What’s the Difference Between Software Engineering and Computer Science?
Software engineering is a field that focuses on how software is built and maintained. Software engineers are involved with every step of the software lifecycle, from designing and coding to testing and maintaining a piece of software. Software engineering is not the same as software development. Although development and programming are included in the first part of the process, software engineers are team leaders who are also responsible for thinking about organizational issues such as integration, technical specifications, project management, and more.
Computer science deals with how computers and computational systems work—not just software. Computer science is a broad field with many offshoots. Think of disciplines such as artificial intelligence (AI), networks, cybersecurity, software performance analysis, and databases. Studying computer science often involves software engineering coursework, but not to the same degree as a software engineering or development program. That means a computer science background doesn’t pigeonhole you into a software-related position. However, it’s wise to have specialized knowledge of a particular field you’re interested in (e.g. game design).
What Are the Similarities Between Software Engineering and Computer Science?
Software engineering and computer science share plenty of similarities. In many cases, software engineers and computer scientists work together side-by-side on the same application, tackling it from different angles. They might be brainstorming together on application security or quality assurance, or consulting each other on how best to tackle a problem.
The most significant overlap between software engineers & computer scientists involves programming. Both roles will utilize coding in some form or another, but with different uses depending on the case. For instance:
- Software engineers typically concentrate on full applications from front to back, focusing on the overall architecture of the project.
- Computer scientists typically specialize in a niche role, such as ensuring the application is secured or working on how data gets stored in a database.
Generally speaking, software engineers are technical managers and computer scientists are technical specialists. They may both have a background in programming, software development, project management, and computer science topics. But they’re concerned with different outcomes.
Should You Study Computer Science or Software Engineering?
Both degrees will open doors for you, but you may enjoy specific aspects of one field over another. Just remember that your decision doesn’t mean you’ll be locked out of the other forever. Because these fields overlap, there’s a good chance you can leverage your skills from one realm to jump to the other. Learning to code is the most significant factor here, and if you master it well, you can take your career in many directions.
Studying Software Engineering
For students interested in a software engineering career, your best bet is a bachelor’s in software engineering or software development. Although there are differences between the two fields, both choices will qualify you for software-related positions. But don’t limit your research to degrees with the word “software” in the title. Explore options in computer programming, web development, and mobile application development before you make your decision.
We should also mention the many bootcamps now provide hyper-focused crash courses in software development skills. Unlike 2-year or 4-year undergraduate programs, bootcamps usually take 6–12 months. Bootcamps can be beneficial for career changers because development careers tend to be more skills-based than other fields. With that being said, do your homework! Make sure that bootcamp graduates go on to successful job offers.
Studying Computer Science
If you’re looking to get into computer science fields, focus on computer science bachelor’s degrees. There are thousands of computer science degree programs in existence, most with the opportunity to pursue a specialization. You can start your degree with the fundamentals (e.g. programming) and then dig into a particular realm of interest.
For example, Hofstra University offers a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Cybersecurity, University of Michigan-Flint offers a BS in Computer Science and Information Systems, and Grand Canyon University offers a Bachelor’s in Computer Science with Big Data Analytics emphasis. This is just the tip of the iceberg! Universities have done an excellent job of helping computer science students develop a skill set in a dizzying array of specialties.
Job Opportunities and Career Outlook
What Can You Do with a Software Engineering Degree?
Software engineers don’t have a lot of title variation. Generally speaking, your role will be determined by your company. You’ll start out as a junior software engineer, but you may be able to add terms like “mid-level” and “senior” as you climb the ranks. Below are some of the most common job titles you’re likely to encounter:
- Software Engineer
- Software Developer
- Front-End Developer
- Back-End Developer
- Full Stack Developer
- Web Developer
- Product Owner
At some companies, the terms “software developer” and “software engineer” are interchangeable. At others, there are very important differences in the roles and responsibilities. For more on this debate, have a look at our guide to software developers vs. software engineers.
The definition of a developer has always been a bit of a red herring. What exactly is a programmer? What do you need to do to become one? With the surge in demand for developers over the last few decades and the array of jobs in the tech world, it’s quite a lucrative option for those who want a mentally challenging and rewarding career.
What Can You Do with a Computer Science Degree?
With a computer science degree, your choice of jobs will depend on your area of interest. Someone who specializes in analytics is going to have a very different career trajectory than someone who chooses to focus on design & development. For example, computer science graduates can find roles in:
- Mobile App Development
- Cybersecurity (e.g. security analysts, penetration testers, etc.)
- Information Technology (e.g. network admin, systems admin, etc.)
- Analytics Roles (e.g. data analyst, cybersecurity analyst, etc.)
- Game Design and Development (e.g. designer, programmer, etc.)
Career Outlook for Computer Science vs. Software Engineering
Regardless of which field you choose, you will be in demand. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), software developers, quality assurance analysts & testers are projected to experience a 25% job growth rate within the next ten years. Comparatively, the BLS estimates there will be a 21% job growth rate for computer scientists. You’ll find no shortage of work once you have your degree!
Frequently Asked Questions
Which is Better? Software Engineering or Computer Science?
It all depends on what you want to do for a career as soon as you graduate. Whether you have a degree in one or the other, you’ll be able to transition to any developer or engineering role if you have the right skill set. However, if there is a specific field you want to work in, you’ll want to spend extra time developing the skills needed for that specialty.
Can You Become a Software Engineer with a Computer Science Degree?
Which Pays More? Computer Science or Software Engineering?
If money is a factor for you (and we won’t judge, we promise), there is a pretty significant difference between the two fields:
- Software Engineer Salaries: According to Glassdoor, entry-level software engineers earn just under $100,000 on average. Some major companies, including IBM and Boeing, pay software engineers over $110,000.
- Computer Scientist Salaries: It’s tougher to give you a clear estimate of computer science salaries because graduates are able to pursue so many different positions. For example, basic IT work might put you at the low-end of your earning potential, about $30,000 to $60,000. More advanced fields come with higher salaries. Artificial intelligence and machine learning professionals are in high demand and command salaries north of $120,000.
It’s important to note that the pay scale can vary dramatically based on location, industry, employer, and experience levels. For example, a senior software engineer located in Silicon Valley with 10 years of professional experience will have a much higher salary than an entry-level software engineer in Tampa, Florida. Be realistic about these factors when determining your own earning potential.