Exploring the career fields of computer science and computer engineering can be a little confusing. There is a lot of overlap in the skills and knowledge within each.
Practitioners of both fields work with computers. So what differentiates them?
Let’s dive in and take a deeper look at the similarities and differences of each field.
Computer science is the study of computing processes and programs that interact with data.
Computer scientists use software, code, and algorithms to manipulate, store, and communicate digital information. Some computer scientists primarily study the theory of computation, while others design new software systems or work to enhance existing systems.
In general, computer scientists focus more on computational processes, including algorithms, coding languages, computer programming, software development, databases, machine learning, and computational theory. This field is typically much less focused on hardware compared to the field of computer engineering, although some computer scientists do build computers.
Examples of projects that a computer scientist might work on include speech- or pattern-recognition software, operating system development, advanced internet security protocols, financial database systems architecture, or the machine learning capabilities of self-driving vehicles.
Common topics of study in computer science courses include:
- Computer programming using various programming languages
- How to work more effectively within various operating systems
- Troubleshooting issues on a software level
- Database systems
- Networking and security
- Parallel computing
- Systems software
- Artificial intelligence and machine learning
Career Opportunities in Computer Science
Job opportunities in computer science are expected to grow. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that jobs in computer science will increase by approximately 24% between 2016 and 2026 due in large part to growth in the computer software industry, including new applications needed for mobile technology, an increase in cloud computing systems, a growing emphasis on cyber security, and the increase in computer systems and applications used in the healthcare industry.
Top occupations for computer scientists include:
- Software development
- Computer networking and systems
- IT management
- Database systems and architecture
- Data storage and analysis
- Advanced business intelligence
- Cyber security
- Web and application development
- AI and machine learning
Computer Science Salary Information
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer and information research scientists earn an average salary of $114,520, computer network architects earn an average of $104,650, and software developers earn $103,560 on average.
The discipline of computer engineering combines and integrates several different fields, including electrical engineering, computer programming, electronics, and computer hardware development.
This field of engineering not only focuses on how computer systems work but also how they integrate into larger systems.
Computer engineers focus much more on the applied aspects of computer hardware, computer systems, and electrical engineering and don’t typically delve into computational theory. Emphasis is placed on the “big picture” of how things work, and the relationships between hardware and software. This allows engineers to create products that benefit people, businesses, and the environment, such as new robotics and electronics, more resilient computer hardware for military applications, or more efficient smart products that use less energy.
Computer engineering is essentially a multi-disciplinary field that bridges both computer science and electrical engineering via hands-on design, prototyping, development, and testing.
Common topics of study in computer engineering courses include:
- Up-to-date industry trends and technology capabilities
- How to apply creativity, in-depth knowledge, and information to solving a wide range of problems
- High-performance computing and embedded systems
- How to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems using computer engineering principles, methodologies, and tools
- How to create computer-based simulations and develop prototypes using modern modeling software
- How to understand the ethical, economic, environmental, and societal impacts of your work
Career Opportunities in Computer Engineering
Computer engineering master’s program graduates are consistently in the top five most coveted degrees for employment according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook report. According to the U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce, engineering and computer occupations are expected to grow from 7.3 million to 8.2 million jobs between 2016 and 2026, an increase of 11.7%.
Top occupations for computer engineers include:
- Computer hardware development and manufacturing
- Developing and testing new microprocessors
- Creating faster, more powerful computing systems
- Power and energy
- Speech- and pattern-recognition
- Autonomous vehicles
- Parallel computing
Computer Engineering Salary Information
According to Payscale.com, the median annual salary for computer hardware engineers is $81,257 and the average salary for a computer software research and development engineer is $98,241. According to ZipRecruiter, computer engineers working in the US can expect to earn an annual salary of $92,040 on average.
Computer scientists are generally more interested in the analysis and manipulation of data, software application development, database systems, artificial intelligence, and computational theory.
Although computer engineers may also write software and handle data, the field of computer engineering is generally more focused on the development of physical computing components, circuitry, electronics, robotics, and embedded systems.
Take a smart watch for example. A computer scientist may understand and develop the software that makes the watch work. Meanwhile, a computer engineer may develop the physical components, such as the display, motherboard, processor, battery, physical user interface, etc. Both require problem solving skills, attention to detail, and troubleshooting. And both must often work together, along with other skilled specialists, to create a finished, working prototype.