Computer Science vs Computer Engineering: What Should I Study?

What are the differences between a degree in computer science vs. computer engineering? And which degree is right for you and your future?
Written by Hannah Riley, Contributor

If you're having a hard time differentiating between a computer science degree vs. a computer engineering degree, you're not alone. These degrees have overlapping curricula but also important differences.

A computer science degree focuses more on computer theory and a computer engineering degree is generally focused on physical computer hardware. 

Each degree has benefits that will help you fine tune skills for a future career in tech. Read on for a more detailed breakdown.

What is a computer science degree?

A computer science degree is a great choice for anyone wanting to learn the software side of computer technology. This degree will prepare students to specialize in hardware or software systems, A.I., data science, cybersecurity, or even video game development.

What can you expect in a computer science degree program

The courses for this degree build on a foundation of theory and math. Students learn about programming and algorithms. Computer science courses teach students to use mathematical models to solve real-world problems and create software. 

Choosing computer science as a degree may lead to careers designing apps and programs in any industry.

What is a computer engineering degree?

A computer engineering degree combines electrical engineering and computer science. This degree focuses on hardware and firmware, preparing students to build computing systems. 

As with computer science degrees, you may earn a computer engineering degree online, in person, or in a hybrid format.

Students who complete a degree in computer engineering may qualify for computer engineer, computer architecture developer, or network engineer jobs.

Subdisciplines of computer engineering include mobile device engineering, sustainable "green" energy, game hardware design, or user interface design. 

This field might be the right degree for you if you're interested in computer hardware and building computer systems from scratch.

Computer science vs. engineering: Courses

Computer science courses

Computer engineering and computer science courses overlap. Both programs require similar prerequisite classes. Some students choose to double major in both computer science and computer engineering. 

Someone pursuing a degree in computer science should expect courses in theory of computation, database administration, computer graphics, algorithms and data analysis, calculus, linear algebra, and information security. These courses feature mathematics and programming theory and hands-on practice.

Computer engineering courses

Students start with introductory courses to teach mathematics and basic programming languages. This foundation will support students as they learn the functionalities of operating systems. 

Computer engineering courses feature practical assignments and labs. A computer engineering degree requires courses in mechanics, electricity, physics, electric circuits, thermodynamics, and machine design. 

Computer science vs. engineering: Skills you'll learn

Computer science

A degree in computer science or computer engineering may be a good fit if you already have skills like analytical thinking, attention to detail, technical writing, and creativity.

You can expect to develop skills for programming, writing quality code, and designing effective algorithms in these programs.

Technical skills taught in a computer science degree

  • Computation theory
  • Creating efficient algorithms
  • Problem-solving
  • Writing code
  • Learning programming languages

Computer engineering

In this degree program, you can expect to learn about a computer's wiring and architecture. Computer engineers need analytical and critical thinking skills to create and test operating systems. 

Technical skills taught in a computer engineering degree

  • Circuit design
  • Device creation
  • Computer architecture design
  • Microprocessor design

Computer science vs. engineering: Careers after graduation

Computer science students and computer engineering students can expect some overlap in career options. Both can seek jobs in telecommunications, manufacturing, and business. Additionally, both groups enjoy the possibility of earning a high salary. 

Many computer science and computer engineering graduates begin their career in software positions because of high industry demand. 

Computer science careers

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median salary for computer scientists is $126,830 as of May 2020. Competition for high paying computer science jobs can be intense, especially at prominent tech companies.

To improve your chances of landing an interview and potentially your dream job, you may want to research tech internship opportunities. Now may be a great time to enter a computer science degree program, as the BLS projects change in employment to grow 22% from 2020 to 2030.

Popular computer science careers include: 

  • Computer scientist
  • Web designer
  • Data scientist

Computer engineering careers

If you're looking for a degree that teaches skills demanded by high-paying engineering and information technology roles, look no further than a computer engineering degree

The BLS reports the median salary of a computer engineer at $119,560 as of May 2020. It projects computer engineering jobs will grow 2% from 2020 to 2030. 

A computer engineering graduate could pursue a career in robotics, aerospace tech, or telecommunications. The computer engineering career is often competitive, but offers average pay more than twice the national mean.

Popular computer engineering careers include: 

  • Computer engineer
  • Systems engineer
  • Quality control engineer

Computer science vs. computer engineering: Which degree is right for me?

Don't worry if you're still stuck deciding between a degree in computer science or a degree in computer engineering. As overlapping degrees, neither will confine you to a specific career. 

Employers typically see the degrees as interchangeable. Both prepare graduates with in-demand skills for tech jobs.

To help guide your decision, consider whether you prefer working with software vs. hardware. Review core courses and possible electives for both degrees and see which better fits your interests.

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