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Computer Science vs Software Engineering
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Computer Science vs. Software Engineering: Decoding Jobs

9 minute read | February 5, 2024
Monica J. White

Written by:
Monica J. White & reviewed by Akita Emmanuel

Monica J. White

Reviewed by:
Akita Emmanuel

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Nowadays, it seems like everyone is trying to join the tech industry. Terms like programmers, coders, software engineers, and computer scientists are often thrown around interchangeably, creating a labyrinth of confusion for those venturing into the field for the first time. It’s difficult to know if these titles are synonymous or if they represent distinct roles with unique characteristics.

In this article, we unravel this maze of terminology by delving into the specific differences between two prominent roles: software engineering and computer science. From the varied responsibilities to the essential skill sets, educational paths, and salary structures, we aim to provide clarity on these intertwined yet distinct domains. Read on to discover how you can determine which tech role is the better fit for you.

Is There a Difference Between Computer Science and Software Engineering?

Yes! There is a considerable difference between computer science and software engineering. While computer science encompasses a broader study of algorithms, theory, and computational principles, software engineering specifically focuses on designing, developing, and maintaining software systems. In essence, computer science lays the theoretical groundwork for understanding computation, whereas software engineering is the practical application of that knowledge to create tangible software solutions. 

Computer Science vs. Software Engineering: The Discipline

Let’s start with a simple definition of each of the two disciplines. 

What Is Computer Science?

Computer science, put simply, is the study of computers—the systematic study of algorithms, computation, and information processing. Computer science focuses on the theoretical aspects of computation, seeking to understand the principles governing algorithms and the structure of computational systems. Computer scientists explore a range of topics, including data structures, artificial intelligence, and computational theory.

What Is Software Engineering?

Software engineering is the practical application of engineering principles to the systematic design, development, testing, and maintenance of software systems. Software engineers engage in the entire software development life cycle, ensuring the creation of robust, scalable, and efficient software. Their focus extends beyond code creation to encompass project management, quality assurance, and collaboration to make sure projects come together and achieve their purposes. 

Computer Science vs. Software Engineering: Applications

Let’s take a look at the actual applications of computer science and software engineering. 

What Are the Applications of Computer Science?

One notable example of a computer science application is artificial intelligence (AI). Computer scientists utilize algorithms and machine learning to create intelligent systems capable of speech recognition, image processing, and decision-making. Applications range from virtual personal assistants like Siri to advanced AI models used in healthcare for diagnostics and personalized treatment plans.

What Are the Applications of Software Engineering?

Software engineering plays a pivotal role in creating the software systems we rely on, such as web browsers like Google Chrome. Software engineers design, develop, and maintain the intricate codebase that enables smooth browsing, security features, and constant updates. Other examples include word processors, online banking solutions, phone apps, and so much more. 

Computer Science vs. Software Engineering: Degree

What about degrees? Can a software engineering graduate become a computer scientist and vice versa?

What Does a Computer Science Degree Cover?

A computer science degree is a comprehensive exploration of theoretical and practical aspects of computing. It typically includes studies in algorithms, data structures, computer architecture, programming languages, and theoretical foundations of computation. Graduates with a computer science degree are well-equipped for a wide range of careers, including software development, data analysis, artificial intelligence, and system architecture.

What Does a Software Engineering Degree Cover?

A software engineering degree focuses on the systematic application of engineering principles to software development. Coursework includes software design, development methodologies, quality assurance, and project management. Graduates with a software engineering degree are prepared for specialized roles such as software engineer, software architect, project manager, and quality assurance engineer. The college degree emphasizes practical skills and a holistic understanding of the software development life cycle.

Computer Science vs. Software Engineering: Understanding the Career

One of the best ways to distinguish between computer science and software engineering is to consider what the jobs entail and what kinds of products or services they work on.

Computer Scientist

Let’s look at computer scientists first.

What Does a Computer Scientist Do?

Computer scientists engage in the exploration and innovation of computational systems. They design algorithms, analyze complex problems, and develop solutions through programming and mathematical modeling. Their responsibilities often include researching new technologies, creating algorithms for various applications, and contributing to advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

What Are the General Requirements To Become a Computer Scientist?

Becoming a computer scientist typically requires a strong foundation in mathematics, programming languages, and problem-solving. A bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field is common, while advanced positions may require a master’s degree or Ph.D. Strong analytical skills, proficiency in multiple programming languages, and an aptitude for logical thinking are essential for success in this field.

Software Engineer

Software engineers, on the other hand, focus on very different goals. 

What Does a Software Engineer Do?

Software engineers are the architects of software solutions, responsible for designing, coding, testing, and maintaining software systems. They collaborate with cross-functional teams, analyze user needs, and ensure the creation of reliable, efficient, and scalable software. Software engineers contribute to the entire software development life cycle, from conceptualization to deployment and maintenance.

What Are the General Requirements To Become a Software Engineer?

To become a software engineer, a bachelor’s degree in software engineering, computer science, or a related field is typically required. Proficiency in programming languages, strong problem-solving skills, and an understanding of software development methodologies are crucial. Additionally, effective communication and collaboration skills are valued as software engineers often work in team-oriented environments.

Computer Science vs. Software Engineering: Average Salary

Considering everything we’ve looked at so far, what do you expect the differences in annual salary to be like for these two disciplines? 

How Much Do Computer Scientists Make?

According to Glassdoor, the total pay range for a computer scientist in the United States is between $136,000 and $229,000 per year. The average annual salary is around $176,000.

Computer Science vs Software Engineering, computer scientist salary

How Much Do Software Engineers Make?

Software engineering salaries range between $113,000 and $176,000, with an average annual wage of $140,000. It’s important to note, however, that as software engineers progress their careers, they often move into roles with different titles. For the title “senior software engineer,” for example, Glassdoor shows top software engineering salaries of as much as $282,000.

Computer Science vs Software Engineering, software engineer salary

Computer Science vs. Software Engineering: Other Careers To Consider

Both computer science and software engineering degrees can be very versatile. Here’s a look at the computer science and software engineering roles you can apply for with these qualifications.

What Jobs Can I Apply for With a Degree in Computer Science?

A degree in computer science opens the door to a diverse array of career opportunities. Graduates can pursue roles such as software developer, systems analyst, database administrator, network architect, cybersecurity analyst, or AI engineer. The broad knowledge base acquired in a computer science program equips individuals to delve into areas as varied as operating systems, software architecture, and machine learning, making them versatile candidates for various positions in the tech industry.

What Jobs Can I Apply for With a Degree in Software Engineering?

A degree in software engineering offers specialized expertise suitable for roles like software engineer, systems architect, quality assurance engineer, or software development manager. Graduates are well-prepared for careers in software product development, where they contribute to creating and maintaining robust, scalable, and efficient software solutions. The focus on software engineering programs ensures proficiency in software testing, architecture, and the systematic development of software products.

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Should I Pursue Computer Science or Software Engineering?

Here are some things to think about when considering whether you want to pursue software engineering jobs or computer science jobs.

You Should Pursue Computer Science if…

If you find joy in solving complex problems, exploring algorithms, and diving into the theoretical underpinnings of computation, computer science could be an excellent fit for you. People with a penchant for mathematics, logic puzzles, and a curiosity about the inner workings of technology often thrive in this field. If your career aspirations involve delving into artificial intelligence, machine learning, or developing innovative algorithms, a career path in computer science could fit perfectly with your goals. Strong analytical skills, mathematical aptitude, and a passion for continuous learning are key strengths in this domain.

You Should Pursue Software Engineering if…

If you enjoy bringing theoretical concepts to life through practical application, have an interest in creating tangible software solutions, and possess strong problem-solving skills, software engineering might be the ideal field for you. Designing, coding, and optimizing software systems are the kinds of interests most professionals have in this field. Career goals centered around software product development, software architecture, and leading software engineering projects align well with a software engineering focus. Effective communication, collaboration, and a systematic approach to problem-solving are crucial strengths for success—so if you think you have or could develop these skills, software engineering could be something you can excel at. 

How Do I Choose Between Computer Science and Software Engineering?

The good news here is that you don’t have to choose straight away. There are a lot of engineering fundamentals and programming languages you can start to learn that fit into both disciplines. As you start to become more familiar with the fields, you can think about the aspects below as you progress toward a decision. 

Scope of Work

When deciding between computer science and software engineering, consider your interests. If you lean towards pure technical problem-solving, diving into algorithms, and exploring the theoretical foundations of computation, computer science may be your calling. On the other hand, if you’re leaning more toward software development and you thrive in collaborative environments, software engineering offers a holistic approach where you contribute to the entire software development life cycle.

Career Objectives

Try thinking about your overall career objectives too. Both computer science and software engineering offer paths into management and technical leadership, but what kind of projects would you prefer to work on? Software engineers often work with lots of non-technical departments and make products for consumers, whereas computer scientists are more likely to stay in a very tech-focused bubble, working on products or services for other engineers to use.

Talk to a Specialized Career Counselor

Seeking guidance from a specialized career counselor can provide valuable insights. Career counselors possess in-depth knowledge about the skills required for each profession and can help you align your strengths and interests with the demands of computer science or software engineering. While there are lots of resources online to help you decide, nothing beats the professional and personalized advice of a career counselor. 

Consider a Mentor

Connecting with a mentor actively engaged in computer science or software engineering allows you to gain practical insights into the day-to-day realities of each role. A mentor can share experiences, discuss industry trends, and provide guidance on navigating challenges. This firsthand perspective can significantly inform your decision-making process and help you make a well-thought-out choice based on the practicalities of each field.

Computer Science vs. Software Engineering FAQs

Here are the answers to all your software engineering and computer science questions.

Is Computer Science Harder Than Software Engineering?

The difficulty of computer science versus software engineering is subjective and depends on individual strengths and interests. Computer science often involves more theoretical concepts and mathematical foundations, which can make it seem more challenging if you’re naturally strong in those areas. Software engineering, while still demanding, is also considered a largely creative role and requires more out-of-the-box thinking than academic training.

Which Degree Is Best for a Software Engineer?

The ideal degree for a software developer or engineer is typically in software engineering, computer science, or a related field. However, the specific degree matters less than the skills and practical experience gained during the program. Employers often value hands-on training, practical knowledge of software development, and proficiency in relevant programming languages.

Do Companies Hire Software Engineers With No Degree?

Software engineers with degrees are still very common, but it’s not an essential qualification. More and more companies in the tech industry are removing degrees as hard requirements for employment, allowing candidates to prove their skills through experience, portfolios, interviews, and software engineering certifications.

Is Computer Science Math Heavy?

Computer science involves varying levels of mathematics depending on the specific focus. The extent to which math is emphasized in computer science programs can vary, and students can often tailor their coursework based on their mathematical comfort and interest levels. Software development modules are also often available, allowing students to tailor their education to what suits them best.

Since you’re here…
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About Monica J. White

Monica is a journalist with a lifelong interest in technology, from PC hardware to software and programming. She first started writing over ten years ago and has made a career out of it. Now, her focus is centered around technology and explaining complex concepts to a broader audience.