Computer Science vs. Software Engineering

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Those interested in a career centered around software development and computer technology often focus on one of two majors: computer science, or software engineering (sometimes referred to as software development, although the two are not synonymous). To be sure, earning an accredited degree in either of these fields will likely prepare a student for a variety of software-related roles.

However, while these two fields of study have certain similarities, they are not one in the same; in fact, they have many subtle and obvious differences that set them apart. To better understand the distinctions, please read through our basic introduction and then see our side-by-side comparison below.

Similarities, Differences and Overlap

To begin, it is beneficial to understand how these two fields of study are similar. Ultimately, both are concerned with computer software and virtually everything related. For example, those with degrees in either computer science or software engineering may specialize in programming language development, systems software, software architecture, or application development. The focus of these two fields of study overlaps in that both require the student to develop an intimate knowledge of computers, and especially computer software and its various applications.

Of course, there are differences between the two paths, although no two computer professionals explains those differences in the same way. One way to understand the differences is to examine two specific words within the given nomenclature; namely, ‘engineer’ and ‘science’ (or ‘scientist’). Engineers, by nature, are tasked with developing solutions to problems or creating more efficient processes by using tools already in existence. By extension, software engineers often find themselves creating new software by utilizing existing languages or established practices already in use. Contrary to this, scientists often hone their expertise on research and developing (and pushing) the boundaries of their given field. As such, computer scientists may assist in the creation of new algorithms or language types that will eventually be put in use to create software.

Many agree that a degree in computer science best prepares a student for abstract problem solving and research on the development of computer technology, while a software engineering degree provides a student with knowledge regarding the software development process and how to apply this as an engineer. That said, the two fields of study are actually overlapping circles on a Venn diagram, where each does indeed emphasize different areas of software development (one more practical, the other more theoretical), with a common focus on achieving a depth of computer and coding knowledge.


Arizona State University
  • Software Engineering (BS)
  • Engineering Science (MSE) in Software Engineering
Southern New Hampshire University
  • Online BS - Computer Science
  • Online BSCS - Software Engineering
Syracuse University
  • Online MS - Computer Science

Side-by-Side Comparison

Beneath this paragraph is a side-by-side comparison of software engineering and computer science, including information regarding their status in universities and colleges, the topics students should be prepared to study, the specializations students may pursue, and more. Individuals who are interested in pursuing a software-related career would be wise to review the following information before selecting a major.

Computer Science Software Engineering
How do the fields define and differentiate themselves? Computer science takes a broad approach to the study of the principles and use of computers that covers both theory and application. This field involves the understanding and application of both abstract and concrete knowledge.

Software engineering is a field largely concerned with the application of engineering processes to the creation, maintenance, and design of software for a variety of different purposes.

What department is the program typically part of within the educational institution? The computer science program is generally contained in the engineering department in four-year universities. The software engineering program is most often housed in the engineering department in four-year universities.
What bodies of knowledge will students focus on in pursuit of this degree? In general, curriculum courses may focus on 18 different knowledge areas, as described by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM):

  1. Algorithms and complexity
  2. Architecture and organization
  3. Computational science
  4. Discrete structures
  5. Graphics and visualization
  6. Human-computer interaction
  7. Information assurance and security
  8. Information management
  9. Intelligent systems
  10. Networking and communications
  11. Operating systems
  12. Platform-based development
  13. Parallel and distributed computing
  14. Programming languages
  15. Software development fundamentals
  16. Software engineering
  17. Systems fundamentals
  18. Social issues and professional practice
According to Software Engineering 2014, a set of curriculum guidelines developed by the Joint Task Force on Computing Curricula, the IEEE Computer Society, and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), studies in software engineering will focus on certain core topics, including:

  1. Computing essentials;
  2. Mathematical and engineering fundamentals;
  3. Professional practice;
  4. Software modeling and analysis;
  5. Requirements analysis and specification;
  6. Software design;
  7. Software verification and validation;
  8. Software process;
  9. Software quality; and security.
Is hardware training part of the curriculum? Understanding the interaction between hardware and software will be included in curricula; however, specific training on hardware development generally will not. In general, students in this field will not receive training on hardware development; however, they will gain knowledge on the interplay between hardware and software.
Is algorithmic training part of the curriculum? Algorithmic training should be part of a computer science curriculum, pursuant to the 2013 Computer Science Curricula offered by the Joint Task Force on Computing Curricula Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and the IEEE Computer Society. Students will likely take classes on algorithms; however, it will not be a focal point of the degree.
Is project management of software development part of the curriculum? Project management is often included in the computer science curriculum, sometimes as part of a software engineering course. Students studying software engineering will likely take courses on project management, both in undergraduate and graduate programs.
What specializations,if any, are formally available as part of the program? Depending on the institution, a wide array of specializations may be available, including a focus on artificial intelligence, mobile and internet computing, security, real-world computing, and theory. While pursuing a degree in software engineering, students may have the opportunity to focus on a number of different specializations, including network-centric systems, modeling and simulation, games and entertainment systems, digital and embedded systems, and other areas.
What established occupations will students be prepared for after receiving a degree? A degree in computer science may prepare students for careers as computer and information research scientists; computer network architects; computer programmers; systems analysts; information security analysts; software developers; or web developers, all of which are described in detail by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, established positions related to software engineering may include careers in software development; computer network architecture; computer systems analysis; web development; and information research.
What emerging occupations will students be prepared for after receiving a degree? Emerging positions in the field of computer science may include careers in cloud computing; robotics and artificial intelligence; application development; and forensic analysis. By nature, this list will continue to grow in the future. Emerging occupations related to software engineering depend on the state of software and technology in the future. That being said, those with a degree in software engineering may find work in artificial intelligence, app development, and software development for any future technologies that arise.
Name eight schools that offer online degrees in these fields. The following is a list of 8 schools that offer online degree programs in computer science:

  1. Oregon State University
  2. University of Illinois
  3. University of Maryland Global Campus
  4. Florida State University
  5. Champlain College
  6. Penn State World Campus
  7. Drexel University
  8. California State University Online
The following is a list of 8 schools that offer online degree programs in software engineering:

  1. Penn State World Campus
  2. Brigham Young University – Idaho
  3. Colorado Technical University
  4. Arizona State University
  5. Herzing University
  6. Walden University
  7. North Dakota State University
  8. Carnegie Mellon University
Bottom Line: Specifics of Each Ultimately, while it is impossible to place a single label on this field of study, largely due to the ever-changing nature of technology, those studying computer science should expect to become familiar with computers, their functions, and their general application. While some software programming may play a part in this area, computer scientists may also be tasked with developing new coding languages,or researching new technology to extend the boundaries of the industry. Overall, computer science mixes both concrete and abstract concepts as they relate to computers and technology. Software engineering, much like other engineering disciplines, aims to utilize general applications of computers and software to create efficiencies or solve problems. As such, software engineers can expect to create and maintain existing software for a number of different purposes. While software engineers will generally not find themselves in research-based positions, they should expect to become extremely familiar with the development of software, as well as how to use the variety of tools in their arsenal to create useful finished product.

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