Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering: The Ultimate Guide

If you’re interested in computers, you may want to consider majoring in computer science or computer engineering.

Both fields can lead to interesting and lucrative careers.

  • You’ll design and build the hardware and software that make up computers, cell phones, cell phone applications, websites, video games, and more.

Although these majors can lead to similar career opportunities, there are several key differences in the expertise and function of each role.

In this article, we’ll look at the similarities and differences between computer science and computer engineering.

We’ll discuss the major itself, possible careers, and earning potential.

By the end of this guide, you should have an idea of which computer-based major is right for you.

What’s the difference between computer science and computer engineering?

To put it simply, computer science is more about software, while computer engineering is more about hardware.

Another common explanation is that computer science is more theory-based, while computer engineering is more applied in nature.

These explanations oversimplify the difference a bit, and we’ll take a more in-depth look throughout this guide.

But if you’re looking for a brief summary of the key differences, think software and theory vs. hardware and application.

What are the similarities between computer science and computer engineering?

There is overlap between computer science and computer engineering.

  • Together, these disciplines enable computers to read, write, and use data in service of a goal.
  • Computer scientists and computer engineers often work on different aspects of the same projects.

To earn a degree in either field, you’ll need to take courses on basic computer operations, programming, and mathematics.

A Helpful Example: The iPhone

Let’s look at an example most of us are familiar with: the iPhone.

Both computer scientists and computer engineers work on designing these phones at Apple, but they serve different purposes.

  • Computer engineers design the chips that are home to the integrated circuits that make components like the screen, memory, microprocessor, cell radio, and controls work properly.

They also determine how to get these different components to work together.

  • On the other hand, computer scientists write the operating system.
  • The operating system manages the memory and various applications, network communications, and the encrypting of data to keep your iPhone safe and secure.

So, the computer engineers design the component pieces, and the computer scientists transform this hardware into the device you use to make phone calls, send text messages, check Instagram, surf the Internet, and more.

Despite the differences between computer science and computer engineering, the two fields complement and are essential to one another.

Now, let’s take an in-depth look at each field.

I. Computer Science

What is computer science?

Although people often think computer science is exclusively about programming, that’s not the case. Computer science is divided into four key areas:

  • Theory
  • Programming languages
  • Algorithms
  • Architecture

Computer science focuses on computational theory.

  • That includes the data, architecture, algorithms, and programming languages that make up computer software.

In general, computer scientists code operating systems, protocols, and instructions. They develop methods to process, store, interpret, and communicate data securely.

What do computer science majors learn?

Computer science majors will likely take courses on:

  • Advanced Software Development
  • Networking and Communications
  • Computational Problem-Solving
  • Human and Computer Interaction
  • Operating System Design
  • Data Structures and Algorithms
  • User Interface/User Experience Design
  • Data Security
  • Information Management
  • Systems Fundamentals

Computer science majors will also take mathematics courses such as algebra and calculus.

  • In addition, they may complete electives in marketable areas such as mobile application development, web and multimedia design, software testing, game theory, or data mining and business intelligence.

While the undergraduate major is broad, computer science graduate students choose a specific area of focus.

Some of the best colleges for computer science are:

What job opportunities do computer science majors have?

Popular careers for computer science majors include:

  • Software engineer
  • Mobile application developer
  • Computer scientist
  • Web designer
  • Systems analyst
  • Data scientist
  • User Interface/User Experience designer (UI/UX designer)

A bachelor’s degree is sufficient for many computer science careers. However, you may need a master’s degree to advance to lead engineering and management positions.

An advanced degree can lead to higher level positions that come with higher salaries.

What is the average salary for computer science majors?

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2018 Salary Survey, computer science majors earn an average starting salary of $79,077.

Of course, this salary will vary based on factors like which career path you choose and where you live and work.

And it will increase as you gain more experience.

  • For instance, web developer earns a national median salary of $58,000, while software developers earn $80,500.
  • Senior software engineers can make $98,000, and software development managers net closer to $115,000.

Computer scientists are also in increasingly high demand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 60 percent of occupations with the most new jobs are in computer science.

Placement rates for computer science graduates are close to 85 percent, and five of the top ten fastest-growing occupations for college students are in computer science.

II. Computer Engineering

What is computer engineering?

Computer engineering is considered a blend of computer science and electrical engineering.

  • In fact, many computer engineers major in electrical engineering during undergraduate school (sometimes with a minor or double major in computer science), then attend graduate school for computer engineering.

Essentially, computer engineering combines computer science theory with electrical engineering, then puts it into action.

  • Computer engineers design and prototype processing units and circuits that form the connection between the computer’s hardware components and the software it’s running.

They explore how microprocessors are designed and optimized, how data can be communicated between electronic components, how software is written and optimized for specific hardware platforms, and more.

Computer engineers focus on software design, hardware design, and systems design that integrates both hardware and software.

What do computer engineering majors learn?

Computer engineering majors will likely take courses on:

  • Electronic Circuit Design
  • Artificial Intelligence and Robotics
  • Engineering Technology
  • Database Systems
  • IT Project Management
  • Essential Software Development
  • Computer Scripting
  • Digital Signal Processing
  • Computer Architecture and Design
  • Very-Large-Scale Integration (VLSI)
  • Embedded Computer System Design
  • Microprocessor Design and Interfacing

Computer engineering majors also take courses in physics, numerical problem-solving tools, and simulation methods.

They may complete elective courses in marketable areas like mobile device engineering, Computer Aided Drafting and Design (CADD), biomedical engineering, game hardware design, or user interface design.

Some of the best computer engineering programs can be found at:

What job opportunities do computer engineering majors have?

Popular careers for computer engineering majors include:

Advanced study (e.g. graduate school) is not typically required for computer engineers, but it may be necessary for some careers in hardware engineering.

It can also make you a more competitive job applicant with better prospects.

Additionally, an advanced degree gives you the opportunity to advance to senior, high-paying positions like IT strategist or chief technology officer.

What is the average salary for computer engineering majors?

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2018 Salary Survey, computer engineering majors earn an average starting salary of $69,824.

  • This salary will vary based on your chosen career and your location.

As with any career, your salary will increase as your experience increases.

  • Top-earning computer engineers make about $160,000 annually. Computer hardware engineers earn an average of $115,120, and systems managers bring home about $139,220 a year.
  • Electrical engineers earn $97,970, and quality control engineers earn $67,000. As you can see, you’ll have a diverse range of careers and salaries at your fingertips.

As technology advances, so does demand for technology-related careers. Emerging industries, investments in technology start-ups, and the growing demand for mobile technology is also driving job growth.

It’s important to note, however, that there are more opportunities for software engineers than for hardware engineers.

Career growth for hardware engineers is projected to reach seven percent nationally over the next decade (about average), while career growth for software engineers will rise to about 20 percent, more than twice the national growth rate for all occupations.

Conclusion: Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering

The chart below summarizes the key differences between computer science and computer engineering that we’ve discussed in this guide.

Computer ScienceComputer Engineering
Areas of ExpertiseSoftware development, programming languages, networking and communications, data structures and algorithms, user interface/user experience design, some mathematicsHardware engineering, software development, electronic circuit design, microprocessors, database systems, digital signal processing, computer architecture and design, some mathematics
Degree RequiredBachelor’s, with advanced degree for senior positionsBachelor’s, with advanced degree for senior positions
Potential CareersSoftware engineer, computer scientist, web designer, systems analyst, UI/UX designerElectronics architect, electrical engineer, hardware engineer, quality control engineer
Starting Salary$79,077 on average$69,824 on average
Job Outlook (projected growth over next 10 years)19% growth rate7% growth rate

Both careers involve knowledge of computers, mathematics, and how to enable computers to read, write, and use data to achieve a set goal.

However, computer science focuses more on software, while computer engineering emphasizes hardware and is closely tied to electrical engineering.

If you know that you’d like a career involving technology, both are lucrative and growing careers that are worth looking into.

And with the rate technology is growing, who knows what exciting projects computer scientists and computer engineers will work on next?