Which Career is Right for You: Computer Science or Computer Engineering?

Careers in computer science and engineering are expected to grow 22% faster than most other industries over the next decade. With the current median annual salary around $130,000, those looking to enter the computer industry might wonder what the difference is between computer science and computer engineering.

Computer science involves studying and innovating data processing systems. Computer engineering works to develop hardware and software products. Engineers generally have in-demand skills for a broader set of jobs. Computer scientists command higher salaries for their specialized knowledge.

I entered university as a computer science major, where I found that engineering better suited my interests and career path. But, I graduated with a different diploma (neither computer science nor computer engineering), which better prepared me for various computer science jobs over the last 20+ years. Let’s dig deeper into the differences between computer science and engineering before I reveal what’s the best degree program.

A male computer scientist and a female computer engineer stand back to back working on a problem.

Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering: What’s the Difference?

The terms “computer science” and “computer engineer” are often used interchangeably. However, there are some crucial differences.

What Is a Computer Engineer?

A computer engineer designs systems, components, or devices that work together. This includes designing software applications and hardware systems. Engineers will go as far as working at the border of electrical engineering when producing physical electronics like smartphones and internet of things (IoT) products.

In general, engineers usually work on real-world problems producing solutions that can be sold in various markets.

What Does a Computer Scientist Do?

Computer scientists focus on theoretical questions and abstract conceptual parts of computing.

These professionals study algorithms, data structures, programming languages, databases, operating systems, networking, and artificial intelligence that go into innovations.

Computer Science is the study of computing devices, including hardware and software. This includes everything from programming language design to operating system functionality. A computer scientist might develop mathematical models that describe how computers operate to predict the behavior of machines or software systems.

Computer sciences also encompass the study of how people interact with computers. User interface (UI) designers and user experience (UX) improvements are products of a computer scientist’s experimentation, understanding, and application of derived principles to computing systems.

The difference between computer science and computing engineering is like the difference between a carpenter and an architectural designer. While you could say that a carpenter builds things, a carpenter doesn’t necessarily know why he’s making something. An architect designs buildings, but she doesn’t necessarily understand the mechanical aspects of construction.

Software development is used in both computer science and computer engineering.

Programming is how we translate our requirements into computer code executed by a computing device like a laptop, desktop, smartphone, game console, and even websites.

Generally, computer engineers spend more time doing software development than computer scientists do. The coding skills of an engineer are more widely leveraged in any industry, as most enterprises are increasingly relying on computers.

A computer scientist will know how to develop software but may also spend time researching areas like artificial intelligence or cryptography. For these professionals, programming helps facilitate research and solution design rather than being applied to a specific product or service headed out the door.

Two males, one a computer engineer the other a computer scientist working together in a dark lab.

Is Computer Engineering Computer Science?

In many contexts, “computer science” is often an umbrella term for several IT-related disciplines, including computer engineering.

A sound engineer will have some training and understanding (if not practical application) of theory and abstract concepts more heavily emphasized and used by a pure computer science position.

In the same way, a computer science professional will leverage software engineering practices and principles when developing new solutions that optimize the underlying math and data processing.

The Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering (BSCE) program covers computer architecture, operating systems, networking, embedded systems, and mobile computing. Students learn to write code in different programming languages and, more importantly, problem-solving and computer science fundamentals.

A Bachelor of Science in Computer Science (BSCS) provides students with a deeper understanding of computer science concepts, like algorithms and deep mathematics. Graduates typically go into roles in IT departments, where they manage large amounts of data. Some choose to pursue careers in cyber security, while others find employment in startups and companies innovating new fields like fintech (financial technology like cryptocurrency) and cyber security.

Many employers generally accept candidates with a computer-related degree, as specific titles can vary depending on the university and program of study. The critical part to remember is that your ability to apply your knowledge to solving real-world problems is what employers most want.

Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering: Roles and Responsibilities

Many responsibilities when entering computer engineering or computer science will inevitably overlap depending on the company.

Computer Engineer’s Responsibilities

Software engineering deals with developing applications (apps) and websites. To bring products and services to life, engineers are required to:

  • write technical design documents,
  • program test cases,
  • develop source code,
  • debug outputs,
  • provide documentation, along with
  • implement or deploy software, and
  • support and maintain it.

A software engineer works closely with project managers, developers, designers, testers, analysts, and end users to produce quality software. They work in a team environment with constant communication about what needs to be done next.

Strong written and verbal communication capabilities are required, along with excellent problem-solving skills. Software engineers must communicate effectively with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures.

Computer Scientist’s Role

A computer scientist focuses on finding what hardware and software tools are worth building or how to increase the efficiency of existing software-based systems. A computer science professional might be a part of a research and development (R&D) team or attached to an engineering department on efficiency or code review.

The Computer Scientist job (yes, that was my first job title) is tasked with a lot of upfront research and, at times, being a bridge between management and engineering.

A lot of conceptual work occasionally led to prototyping and eventually adjunct engineering on the production-grade system.

Is Computer Engineering Harder Than Computer Science?

Computer science is more complex than computer engineering. While a computer engineer’s job can be difficult, the engineering process can be well-defined and repeatable. Computer scientists are tasked with forging new paths in the computing field or producing bespoken improvements which are more obscure.

The difference between computer engineering and computer science is pretty small. I’ve had both job titles, and the level of effort is similar in many cases.

Often, the tasking of one position will switch between the two disciplines depending on the needs of the company (or project) you’re working for.

For me, the difference is delineated by the prescriptive or free-form nature of the work.

Professionals entering the computing field should explore the theoretical and practical differences and decide which discipline best suits their personality, aptitude, and career goals.

A female and male tech professional sit at computers with money raining down around them.

Who Gets Paid More, Computer Scientists or Computer Engineers?

A computer scientist in the US receives an average base salary of $109,233, while a computer engineer is paid an average of $80,783. A 30% difference reflects variance in work type and other industry, market, and company-specific factors.

For example, computer science majors work for tech-heavy companies and startups, while computer engineering majors tend to go into industry.

A Bachelor of Computer Science will lead to higher overall pay than a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. This is primarily because CS graduates are more likely to work for tech companies like Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft.

Graduates should expect a lower median salary for a computer engineering degree when working in a non-tech industry like banks, insurance firms, pharmaceutical companies, retailers, etc.

Even as more of an engineer now, my pay has increased by 73% (adjusting for inflation) despite not doing a computer scientist’s conceptual, theoretical work. Pay is not the entire equation, and I have a secret.

Do not get a computer science or computer engineering degree. Let me explain…

What Is a Computer Information Systems Degree?

A Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems (CIS) prepares students for careers in computer science-related professions with the valuable addition of business fundamentals.

CIS students generally take a slightly less heavy math theory load in exchange for what amounts to a minor in Business Administration. Graduates are exposed to the fundamentals of business management, financial accounting, statistics, and even psychology and business ethics. These additional courses prime new professionals to demonstrate how their knowledge of computing fits with the goals of a hiring company.

Seriously, check out a BSCIS and Computer Engineering and Computer Science degrees.

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Mike Chu

Mike is a web developer and content writer living as a digital nomad. With more than 20 years of devops experience, he brings his "programmer with people skills" approach to help explain technology to the average user. Check out his full author bio by clicking here.

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