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Computer Science vs Computer Engineering

March 31, 2021 | Staff Writers

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It is no exaggeration to say that computers run the world. From communication to medicine and global finance to trade, computers have become deeply ingrained in our society. To be honest. it’s more difficult to find a field that doesn’t involve computing, in some sense, than it is to identify a dozen that do. 

When it comes to the career value of a degree, it is difficult to beat computer science or computer engineering. Right now, there seems to be an endless number of jobs for people who study computers, whether for coding, data analysis, cybersecurity, cryptography, or any of the many other sub-fields of computing and information technology. In every area, there are a thousand different jobs to be done.

Computers are complex. They are made up of thousands of complex parts, electrical components, algorithms, codes, and programs. Each little piece is produced or world on by different people. As a result, many computer-related careers are also complex things. Figuring out the specifics of these careers can be somewhat tricky. 

However, figuring out the specifics of computer science or engineering can also mean finding your way into a rewarding and lucrative future job. If you educate yourself in some niche area of computer science or engineering, you are looking at a seriously large salary. If you love computers, you might also love your job. It is the best of both worlds.

To make things easier for you, we put together a thorough guide to computer engineering and computer science that will, first and foremost, serve as a comparison sheet. It gives a full breakdown and comparison of the two career paths and educational requirements. After reading, you should have a strong understanding of these two fields and the relationship between them.

First, we address the major differences between computer science and computer engineering. Then, we get into the various fields of work that you can expect to enter in each respective field. After that, we break down some of the average salaries and career trajectories of people who study these areas. Finally, we wrap up the piece with a guide to deciding between these two areas. Overall, this article should help you better understand these fields, where they can take you, and which one is better suited to you. 

Differences Between Computer Science and Computer Engineering

At face value, it seems like computer science and computer engineering are the same things, more or less. To some extent, this is not far off – in many places, computer engineering is considered a subfield of computer science. But, when you get into the specifics of the work, the two fields reveal themselves to be quite different. If you’re planning to work in either field, it’s a good idea to have a sense of what both of these fields tend to do. 

Broadly speaking, computer science is dedicated to computation and computational algorithms. It deals with things like coding, data structures, and programming. On the other hand, computer engineering deals with the relationship between computer science and electrical engineering. It largely deals with developing hardware and software. These are broad terms that, to many people, tell you little about either job. 

Here’s a look at some of the finer details:

What is computer science and what does a career in computer science look like?

Computer science is a very broad field. Computer science deals with hardware, software, and the theoretical side of computing. It often involves dealing with algorithms, data structures, coding, or architecture. To put it simply, a computer scientist is somebody who works on software, algorithms, databases, communications, etc. with computers. They can also solve problems or develop new ways of doing things. 

Most of the foundational theory behind computer science derives from mathematics, engineering, and management. In particular, computer science is a descendent of the field of Applied Mathematics. In the early days of the discipline, there was a more direct overlap between the two areas. 

Computer science is closely related to other fields such as Information Technology, Computer Engineering, and Information Systems. These fields are, however, distinct. For instance, information systems deal mostly with storing, analyzing, and organizing information and data. Computer science deals more with architecture, programming, coding, and software development. 

A career in computer science can look like many things. As computers have become integral to so many different areas of our society and world, computer scientists might find work in a plethora of different fields. For instance, many computer scientists find work as programmers or coders, working for major internet companies. Others find work producing and developing web pages or networks for private firms. Others still might find work developing a certain system, such as a parking app, a train maintenance system, or a surveillance system. 

What is computer engineering, and what does a career in computer engineering look like?

Computer engineering is the combination of computer science and electrical engineering. It deals with the really “deep” end of computers, from microprocessors to embedded computing devices. Computer engineers work more specifically with hardware in many (though not all) cases. These engineers often are concerned with the physics of the microscopic and macroscopic components of computers. 

When working on a computer or other electronic devices, like a phone or tablet, a computer engineer has a specific role. Usually, this involves working on designing and creating the chips, circuits, and minute components. They also work with integrating these components into the plan or schematic outlined by the designer. The engineer is concerned with making the physical technology function. 

A computer engineer is likely to write software and firmware, design operating systems, create circuit boards, or work with robotics. A computer engineer has expertise in engineering, electrical work, software design, computer science, and other related fields. 

As noted by the University of California Berkeley, many of the most important advancements of the past century have been made by electrical engineers. These advancements include everything from power systems to global broadcasting systems and advanced lasers to basic household appliances. Whenever a piece of technology requires computation, a computer engineer must be involved in the process. 

What are the key differences between computer science and computer engineering?

There are many differences between a computer scientist and a computer engineer. Here’s a look at some of these differences.

  • Computer Engineers: Work with the hardware and physical components making up the computer. A specialized profession combining electrical engineering with computer science. 
  • Computer Scientists: Work with the algorithms and theoretical underpinnings of computer software and operation. A broad category encompassing a range of professions working with computers on the technical side.

Each discipline has specific programs designed for it. These programs cater to the differences between the two. Looking over the details of these various programs can help you to understand the distinction between the two. 

The University of California, Berkeley offers a College of Engineering Electrical Engineering, and Computer Science Major, which focuses largely on the development of new technologies and the advancement of current ones. The college states that its program is based on the idea that engineering is about applying technology to solve societal needs.

Berkeley’s Computer Science Bachelor of Arts focuses on “the theory of computation, the design and analysis of algorithms, the architecture and logic design of computers, programming languages, compilers, operating systems, scientific computation, computer graphics, databases, artificial intelligence, and natural language processing.”

Fields of Work for Computer Science and Computer Engineering Degrees

Computer scientists and engineers tend to have related but distinct work fields. The day to day tasks and duties of these fields differ significantly. If you’re planning to work in either field, it is really helpful to know just what you’re getting into. For that reason, we’ve put together a handy breakdown of the type of work you can expect to do if you pursue a career as either a computer scientist or a computer engineer. 

What does the general field of work look like for someone in computer science?

The general work of someone with a computer science degree will vary depending upon their specialization. Computer scientists work in a huge range of areas. Some of the most popular computer science jobs include: 

  • Software Developer
  • Web Developer
  • Computer Systems Analyst
  • Computer Network Architect
  • Database Administrator
  • Information Security Analyst

These jobs all have different responsibilities and day to day routines. Here’s a look at some of the specific details of these positions:

  • Software Developer: Software developers are tasked with developing the software used on computers and computer systems. They perform a range of jobs, including coding, programming, testing, and designing software. After development, they generally also maintain the system. 
  • Web Developer: Web developers deal with the “behind the scenes” work when it comes to web pages. They can work with diverse teams of specialists. Often, they code, work with user interfaces, troubleshoot problems, update websites, and work with design specs. Web development is a very popular job, and those who specialize in it are in high demand. 
  • Computer Systems Analyst: Computer systems analysts specialize in assisting organizations or companies with their overall computer system. This work often involves analyzing the needs of the organization, creating cost and benefit analysis, consulting with clients, organizing the use of systems, and training staff. 
  • Computer Network Architect: Computer network architects are involved in the overall creation, design, and implementation of computer networks and systems. This role might include local offices or overarching structures between various parties. Network architects assess the needs and requirements of organizations, then structure the network accordingly. 
  • Database Administrator: Database Administrators work with the storage and organization of data, which might be data collected in private firms, government offices, or public bodies. Most organizations now have full-time database administrators. Generally, this involves coordination with numerous IT staff, including analysts, security specialists, architects, and software developers.  
  • Information Security Analyst: Information Security Analysis is about protecting websites and networks from threats such as breaches, viruses, hackers, or cyberattacks. An ISA analyst will install security software and systems, monitor networks, and prepare reports regarding security and security breaches. The nature of their work changes with the nature of cyber threats and attacks.

What does the field of work look like for someone in computer engineering?

Like computer science, there are many different kinds of work that you can do with a computer engineering degree. Generally, these jobs combine the field of electrical engineering with specific areas of computer science, which means that computer engineers are likely to engage in research, design, or development of hardware and software. 

Some of the most common jobs for people with degrees in computer engineering are: 

  • Big Data Analyst
  • Software Engineer
  • Computer Hardware Engineer
  • Network Engineer
  • Infrastructure Engineer
  • System Engineer
  • Dynamic Web Front-End Engineer

Where might these fields of work overlap, and where do they differ?

In many places, computer engineering is a specialized subfield of computer science. In other places, this is not the case. What this discrepancy indicates, however, is that there is a great deal of overlap between these two fields of work. 

Both computer science and computer engineering are concerned with the behind the scenes work of computers and computing. People in both fields are involved in designing and maintaining the systems and processes computers and computer networks need to operate. Often, both computer engineers and computer scientists will code and program. 

The specific jobs pursued by people who specialize in each area shed light on the differences that exist within this field. For example, a machine learning engineer will be a job filled by someone with a computer engineering specialization. This job involves working with artificial intelligence and how artificial intelligence “learns” or develops its processes and functions. To create and implement a functional AI system, whether, for private or public use, both computer designers and computer engineers will work on the project.

Salary and Career Path Differences Between Computer Science and Computer Engineering

Both computer science and computer engineering can be very lucrative fields. As the Silicon Valley gold rush has demonstrated, there is more than a little money in computers. Some of the highest-paid professionals in the world today work with computers. 

What are the differences in terms of job opportunities between computer science and computer engineering?

If you plan to enter the world of computers, you are in luck. There is no shortage of work in either computer science or computer engineering. Computer science is a somewhat broader field. As a result, there tend to be a lot more job openings in this field. However, looking at these specializations, both engineers and specialized scientists have about the same level of opportunity. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer-related professions are on the rise. The field of Computer and Information Technology is expected to see over half a million new jobs in the next decade. These jobs are spread between various careers, such as systems analysts, programmers, support specialists, and web development. 

The field of Computer Hardware Engineering is also growing. It is not growing as quickly as the field at large. However, hardware engineering is just one of many jobs available to computer engineers. Other areas of work include computer network architecture, machine learning, and mechanical engineering.

What is the salary comparison between computer science and computer engineering, and why is this so?

Both computer scientists and computer engineers make a lot of money, generally speaking. Different jobs within these fields will make varying amounts of money, of course. Though it is not always the case, engineers tend to make more than computer scientists in general. However, the best-paid computer scientists can make hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a computer engineer makes an average of $117,000 per year. A software developer will make an average of $107,500 per year. A Computer and Information Research Scientist will make about $123,000 per year on average. For a more general sense of how these salaries compare, according to Glassdoor, a computer scientist will make an average of $99,000 per year. 

How do the typical career paths differ for computer scientists and computer engineers?

Computer science and computer engineering are both important fields for the overall advancement and maintenance of computer systems. These fields deal with the finer details of the systems that control our world. From finance to geopolitics, computers are integral. 

Though these fields are interrelated, there are some diversions in the typical career path of computer scientists and computer engineers. As the University of Arizona notes, one of the major distinctions between the two fields is that computer science is primarily concerned with software, data, and computer networks. In contrast, computer engineering is primarily concerned with integrating software with hardware, hardware, and electrical systems.

Typically, someone with a CS degree will begin as an IT worker, developer, or contractor with a major firm. They will work on specialized projects and advance within the company. Often, they can build a niche area and, potentially, even start their own business.

Someone with a computer engineering degree might find work in a company specializing in something like computer architecture. They might advance within their field as a systems engineer or network engineer. Though it is not always the case, the computer engineer is more likely to work with a firm dedicated entirely to computers, while a computer scientist might be part of a larger and broader project.

How To Decide Between Computer Science and Computer Engineering Programs

Deciding whether to study computer science or computer engineering can be difficult. In the end, it all comes down to your traits and characteristics. Some people are better suited to be computer engineers, and others are better suited to be computer scientists. To decide which path is right for you, it is helpful to take stock of your skills, hobbies, passions, and interests. It is also worth looking at some of the educational requirements for both. 

What sort of skills and passions are needed to thrive in a computer science program and career?

Like any other field, computer science is best suited to a certain kind of person, which is not to say that only a certain kind of person can work in computer science, of course. It is simply that computer science and computer science education programs cater to and have been constructed by people with certain skills, attributes, and characteristics. 

To decide whether a degree or career in computer science is right for you, it is a good idea to take a look at some of the skills and passions that can help you thrive in this environment. If they seem like a good match, it might be worth looking further into this field of study. 

A lot of the skills you need to be successful in a computer programming career are taught in school, but there are some skills that you either have or you don’t. Some of the skills that can help you to thrive in a career as a computer scientist include:

  • Problem-solving
  • Self-motivation
  • Memory
  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Time management 
  • Analytical skills

In many ways, computer science is often like puzzle solving. If you enjoy solving puzzles and are pretty good at it, you might enjoy and thrive in a computer science career. Some of the more specialized skills required to thrive in computer science include:

  • Programming
  • Mathematics
  • Data Analysis
  • Coding

We said that this field is best-suited to a specific type of person. Some of the passions that can help you thrive in this field include:

  • Computers
  • Puzzle-solving
  • Coding
  • Design

But, again, all this is not to say that computer engineering or computer science isn’t an accessible career for anyone. If you’re willing to work hard, you’ll find success in this field.

What sort of skills and passions are needed to thrive in a computer engineering program and career?

To thrive in a computer engineering program, a candidate is likely to have similar passions and skills to someone who thrives in computer science with a few key differences. Some of the skills that can help you to thrive as a computer engineer include: 

  • Mathematics
  • Multitasking
  • Problem Solving
  • Software and Hardware Experience
  • Teamwork 
  • Attention to Detail
  • Critical Thinking

If you enjoy getting into the circuit boards, chips, and other physical details that make up a computer system, you might be best suited for work as a computer engineer. Computer engineers often work with these components in a design or organizational role. To effectively work with these components, the computer engineer must also have experience and knowledge of the system more broadly. 

How do the educational requirements for computer science differ from those for computer engineering?

Generally speaking, a computer scientist completes a degree in computer science, whereas a computer engineer will complete a degree in computer engineering. Often, these two programs are offered at the same schools. They may even share certain courses and instructors in common. 

In either CS or CE, you can choose to study as an undergraduate or graduate student. Specific jobs or careers will have their requirements when it comes to master’s or bachelor’s degrees. However, typically speaking, you are more likely to need a master’s degree as a computer engineer than as a computer scientist. 

In terms of coursework, a computer science degree is likely to focus more on theory than a computer engineering degree. Though a CE degree will include a degree of theory, much of the work is more practically minded. To get the theory, you will need to specialize a little more than you would as a computer science major. 

Some of the best schools for computer science are:

  • Stanford
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • Princeton University
  • Cornell University
  • The University of California, Los Angeles

Some of the best schools for computer engineering are: 

  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • Stanford
  • Georgia Institute of Technology

Conclusion

Computer science and computer engineering are both closely related but distinct fields of work. Pursuing a bachelor’s or master’s degree in either can set you up for a rewarding and promising career in computers. A career in either can be very lucrative and enjoyable.

If you are considering a degree in computer science, your career path will likely lead you to work in software development, web development, programming, and coding, or analysis and security. These are some of the most common and popular fields of work for computer science graduates.

If you complete a degree in computer engineering, your career path will likely lead you to mechanical or electrical engineering, machine learning, robotics, computer hardware engineering, or programming and coding. These are some of the fields most popular for computer engineer graduates. It is also possible that you will need to pursue a master’s degree. 

Hopefully, you now have a thorough understanding of both computer science and computer engineering. Use the information we provided to think about which of these areas is right for you before pursuing a degree. 

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