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.

Originally, computer science was a sub-branch of mathematics dealing with the basics of a computer in a theoretical manner. In terms of specialization, computer science is more malleable with an emphasis on science and math. Software engineering on the other hand is a field that is concerned with the application of engineering processes to the design, maintenance, and creation of software for several different purposes. Software engineers design customized applications as per the requirements of their organization.

Determining which career path is the best fit for you, comes down to your preference. While both these professions are related to computers, the emphasis is completely different. Therefore, you should consider your interests before thinking about where you see yourself many years from now.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for software developers was $110,140 in May 2020, with the lowest 10 percent earning $65,210 or less, and the highest 10 percent earning $170,100 or more. Besides, it is expected that the number of software developer jobs nationally will rise 22 percent from 2019 to 2029, which is much faster than the average for all occupations (4 percent).

The BLS projects that by 2029 there will be 531,200 new computer-science-related jobs available. This indicates that employment for these occupations is projected to grow 11 percent from 2019 to 2029.

While these two fields of study have certain similarities as well, they are not the same; in fact, they have some 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: Computer Science & Software Engineering

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.

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Of course, there are differences between the two paths, although no two computer professionals explain those differences in the same way. One way to understand the differences is to examine two specific words within the given nomenclature: 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 to 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 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.

Side-By-Side Comparison: Computer Science & Software Engineering

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 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 different knowledge areas such as:

  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

An example would include an online bachelor’s program in computer science offered by Oregon State University where they offer courses in programming fundamentals, network security, software engineering, databases, computer forensics, operating systems, and cryptography.

Software engineering students may focus on core topics such as:

  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

An example here would be The Pennsylvania State University that offers an online master of software engineering (MSE) program. It includes courses such as software construction, requirements engineering, software systems architecture, software system design, software project management, and software testing.

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 would most likely be part of a computer science curriculum. 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 several 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; computer support specialists; 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 – Online Bachelor of Science in Computer Science (180 credits)
  2. University of Illinois – Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science (36 credit- hours)
  3. University of Maryland Global Campus – Online Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science (120 credits)
  4. Florida State University – Online Computer Science Bachelor’s program (120 credits)
  5. Champlain College – Online Bachelor’s Degree Program in Computer & Information Systems (120 credits)
  6. Penn State World Campus – Online Bachelor of Science in Information Sciences and Technology (125 credits)
  7. Drexel University – Online Master Of Science In Computer Science (45 graduate credits)
  8. California State University Online – Online BS in Computer Science Degree (60 credits)
The following is a list of 8 schools that offer online degree programs in software engineering:

  1. Penn State World Campus – Online Master of Software Engineering (36 credits)
  2. Harvard University – Master of Liberal Arts, Software Engineering degree (48 credits)
  3. Colorado Technical University – Bachelor of Science in Information Technology – Software Systems Engineering (184 credits)
  4. Arizona State University – Online Bachelor of Science in Software Engineering (120 credits)
  5. Herzing University – Bachelor of Science in Software Development (120 credits)
  6. Walden University – MS in Information Technology Software Engineering specialization (30-semester credits)
  7. Stevens Institute of Technology – Master of Science in Software Engineering (30 credits)
  8. Brandeis University – Master of Software Engineering (30 credits)
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 several 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 products.

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