The terms “computer science” and “computer engineering” are sometimes used interchangeably. But in reality, these are two completely different fields—and it’s important for prospective students to understand the nuances of computer science vs computer engineering.
On this page, we’ll highlight how these two fields differ, uncovering what you might want to consider when deciding between a career in computer science or computer engineering.
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So, for starters, what is computer science? At its core, this field focuses on writing code that integrates data, data structures, algorithms, statistical models and more in an efficient manner. For example, many computer science professionals spend their days creating algorithms that can achieve complex tasks—whether that’s emulating a human brain or determining the best route for an upcoming Uber ride.
Computer engineering, on the other hand, is a field at the intersection of electrical engineering and computer science. Computer engineers research how to build all varieties of computing systems, from smartphones to integrated circuits.
It’s easy to get confused when researching computational degree programs since different schools use different terminology, and some programs even combine computer science and computer engineering into one department or major.
What Is Computer Science?
Computer science focuses on topics in computational theory. These include the virtual aspects of computers, focusing on software rather than hardware. As a field that is closely aligned with mathematics, computer science applies theoretical ideas to solve real-world problems.
Computer science degree programs may include courses such as analysis of algorithms, operating system principles, computer architecture and software engineering. A degree in computer science will also cover basic hardware and software topics, including computer organization and architecture.
If this sounds like a good fit for you, take a look at some online computer science graduate programs.
What Is Computer Engineering?
In contrast, computer engineering focuses on hardware, not software—with students learning how to build devices through a combination of physics, electrical engineering and computer science. People who are curious about processes and interested in applying that knowledge to build new computer structures may be drawn to a computer engineering program.
The work of a computer engineer involves understanding how we can harness the laws of physics and electronics to create better computer components. Unlike software engineers, computer engineers are more likely to spend time in a lab than they are writing code. Your computer engineering degree may cover a wide array of topics including computer architecture, computer networks and physics. However, some computer engineers learn and use programming skills, so degrees in computer engineering often cover programming topics such as software design.
From aerospace to life sciences and mobile devices to robotics, there are a number of different career options for computer engineers. If computer engineering is a field that interests you, spend some time exploring online computer engineering master’s programs.
Similarities and Differences Between Computer Science and Computer Engineering
Are you still wondering what the difference between computer science and computer engineering is? Let’s take a closer look.
Degrees in computer science and computer engineering consist of different core curricula. Courses in a computer science degree generally focus on the theory of computation, languages and environments. Meanwhile, a degree in computer engineering focuses on physics, electronics and computer architecture. You might find yourself taking the following courses:
Computer Science Courses
- Design and Analysis of Algorithms: In this course, students learn how to analyze the efficiency of algorithms using concepts from the theory of computation such as big O notation. In addition, students learn how to write code that is optimized for its use case while also analyzing the efficiency of code.
- Introduction to Operating Systems: This course covers the way operating systems manage and execute code in order to make software run. It also covers topics including process and thread management, concurrent programming, resources management and distributed services.
- Software Engineering: Students taking this course learn how to apply the theory of computation to practical problems by creating software solutions. They will cover topics such as effective design and testing, engineering compromises and team-based development.
- Data Analysis: This course provides students with the tools and skills needed to apply statistical methods to large datasets using computational methods. The course also addresses topics such as data creation, storage, access, processing and presentation.
Computer Engineering Courses
- Mechanics: This course covers the fundamentals of physics. It explores the laws governing movement, energy and waves.
- Electricity and Magnetism: This introductory physics-related course is designed to teach students how to predict, describe and understand different electromagnetic phenomena that influence the world.
- Calculus III: This course covers multivariate calculus and vector fields, providing techniques that help students describe and predict many natural and physical phenomena.
- General Physics: This course will cover the basics of physical phenomena, including particles, work, gravitation and motion.
- Electric Circuits: This course covers the basic concepts in the design of electronic systems. Students will learn to apply their knowledge to build functional circuits and understand computer architecture and integrated circuits.
- Waves, Optics, Thermodynamics: This course applies calculus to understand the mechanics and outcomes of waves and related phenomena. Students will learn to calculate the energy of waves, apply the laws of thermodynamics and understand physics experiments.
- Digital Logic, Machine Design: In this course, students will explore how electrical circuits can be used to perform logic operations. Students will learn to design and build the type of circuits used in computing systems.
Computer Science Skills Learned
- Designing efficient algorithms
- Finding optimal, scalable solutions to problems
- Managing data efficiently
- Designing useful and effective software
- Managing software development projects
- Understanding the theory of computation
- Writing high-quality code
- Proficiency in various programming languages and environments
Computer Engineering Skills Learned
- Designing integrated circuits
- Designing microprocessors
- Understanding the physical phenomena that electronic devices rely on
- Creating efficient and effective devices and computing systems
- Designing computer architecture
Similarities Between Computer Science and Computer Engineering
Though computer science and computer engineering are distinct fields, there is some overlap. Computer science and computer engineering professionals use computers to solve problems, relying on data and human interaction. Programs in both fields also share many of the same prerequisites and coursework.
On top of having similar scopes, computer scientists and computer engineers often collaborate to create products. Hardware and software are important elements of computing systems—so any electronic device you use, from your laptop to your car, may have been developed and designed by a combination of computer scientists and computer engineers. To create the well-functioning devices, businesses may look to highly skilled employees in both of these areas.
Choosing between computer science vs computer engineering can be difficult, but earning a degree in either one of these areas may open the door to a number of possibilities. For more insights to help inform your decision, read our guide to specializing in a computational field.
Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering Job Outlook
Computer scientists are likely to work in software development, computer programming, network and database design, web design and testing—with many professionals writing code quite frequently. Roles in such areas are based on a sound understanding of the theory of computation and the ability to apply this knowledge to real-world problems. Some potential job titles for graduates with a degree in computer science include software developer, database administrator, web developer or project manager.
Computer engineers, on the other hand, focus on developing, designing and manufacturing microprocessors, integrated circuits and other computing systems. Computer engineering graduates may pursue jobs in the telecommunications space, robotics, aerospace technology and other areas. Careers in computer engineering focus on designing the physical systems that enable digital technologies. Graduates of computer engineering programs may end up assuming roles such as embedded software engineer, electrical design engineer, hardware engineer or network engineer.
Wondering about computer science vs computer engineering salary and career outlooks? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), computer scientists earned a median salary of $126,830 in May 2020 while computer engineers earned a median annual salary of $119,560. From 2019 to 2029, employment of computer scientists is projected to increase by 15%. The BLS notes that computer hardware engineering jobs are projected to increase by 2%.
Should I Study Computer Science or Computer Engineering?
Still looking to settle the computer science vs computer engineering debate? Ultimately, the decision will come down to your individual passions, skills and professional goals. Both fields provide opportunities for you to solve real-world problems with innovative solutions.
Once you pick a pathway, earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science online or a computer engineering degree can be a natural next step for learning core concepts that will eventually help you translate theory into practice.
Remember: The decision between computer science and computer engineering is entirely yours to make.
Last Updated: July 2021