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Computer Science vs Computer Engineering: What’s the Difference?

While computer engineering and computer science often overlap, there are many differences. Learn more from Rice.

Computer Scientist with expertise in Computer Engineering to innovate the Internet of Things

Although people often use the terms interchangeably, Computer Science (CS) is the holistic study of all aspects of computers with an emphasis on secure software systems, whereas Computer Engineering (CE) is a separate education and career track focused on designing and building secure hardware systems. Whether you choose computer science or computer engineering, both fields of study will allow you to wield significant influence over the digital and data innovation transforming every industry.

Before we get into specifics for each field, we must first define the term computer, as the meaning has broadened and evolved. While most people still think of computers as personal desktop or laptop devices, the advent of more sophisticated sensors and microprocessors means that any programmable “smart” device or product connected to the Internet of Things can be considered a computer, by extension. This includes smartphones, smart TVs, wearables, home devices like Amazon Echo and Nest Thermostats, and even the future U.S. power grid (“Smart Grid.”) Due to the exponential growth in the number of connected devices and their problem-solving applications, the world needs more computer science and computer engineering professionals.

Both computer engineering and computer science professionals work with different types of computers and smart devices. Computer science and computer engineering have many similarities, but they are distinct areas. Before you can choose the right program for your interests and goals, you need to understand what’s unique about each concentration.

What is Computer Engineering and What Does a Computer Engineer Do?

Computer engineering is the process of designing and building connected computer hardware. Computer engineers are directly responsible for the creation of hardware systems used throughout the world every day. Everything with computer components like cell phones, laptops, desktop computers and even game systems fall under the purview of computer engineering.

Computers and connected devices are the new digital infrastructure upon which everything we know could eventually be built. Computer engineers will help "architect" this new world in collaboration with civil and electrical engineers, who focus on the physical world.

Computer engineers need to understand how electrical engineering, physics, and broader computer science fundamentals intersect. They build the computers and systems that run the software and programs that software engineers create. They create high-quality machines, work to improve their components, and identify ways to make existing equipment work more efficiently.

Is Computer Science the Same as Computer Engineering?

No, computer engineering and computer science are not the same. In the simplest terms: computer engineers work with firmware and hardware, while computer scientists innovate complex software systems, machine learning based algorithms, and more. Computer science is the study of all modern aspects of computers, mainly focused on software. As a computer scientist, you’ll design large-scale software systems, machine-learning algorithms, and use advanced programming skills to problem solve and innovate.

A computer scientist (or software engineer) will work with the computer engineer to make sure the machine's firmware can communicate and function with the software programs s/he creates. The fields of computer science and computer engineering may differ, but they work together every day. Professionals with a master’s in computer science may be able to go on to work in computer engineering fields with the right training and experience and vice versa.

The ever-increasing number of computers and smart, programmable devices is driving the rapid demand for computer science professionals. Within the landscape of possibilities, what new ethical, efficient systems will computer scientists devise to benefit society?

Computer Engineering vs Computer Science: Career Paths

Computer engineering and computer science allow you to pursue different career paths with different pay grades. The explosion of data has significantly increased the impact software can have on a business and why many working professionals are turning to computer science to find engaging, in-demand careers.

What Can You Do With a Master of Computer Engineering?

With a master’s in computer engineering, you’ll be able to work as a hardware engineer to design new machines (think robotics and other tech devices) and components (for example, memory chips) as well as find ways to optimize existing technology to make it safer, faster, more connected, and more secure. You’ll use your skills to create functional hardware and firmware elements and can apply your skills across different industries.

Types of careers that individuals who pursue a master’s in computer engineering include:

  • Computer Hardware Engineer: Computer engineers design machines like computers, servers and chips, hardware systems, and equipment including circuit boards, routers, and processors.
  • Computer Network Architect: Computer engineers can design and build networks like cloud infrastructures, local area networks, and intranets.
  • Computer or Information Systems Manager: Computer engineers can plan and install software and hardware and direct computer-related activities in an organization.

While Computer Engineers can make a decent salary, the career field is only projected to grow 5% between 2021-2031 compared to occupations like software and data engineering that are projecting 21% growth over the same period. Why the average job outlook growth? Centralization of computer component development may mean interesting opportunities for existing computer hardware engineers, but fewer total computer engineering jobs available.

What Can You Do With a Master of Computer Science?

Due to the explosion of available data and processing power, software is one of the greatest areas of opportunity for innovation and a primary reason computer science skills are in high demand. Like a degree in computer engineering, a master of computer science is a versatile, "generalist" degree that opens up many career paths across industries. You’ll gain comprehensive insight and experience that will allow you to advance in the field and tackle exciting career opportunities, whether that’s improving self-driving cars, leading research and development (R&D) at a biotechnology company, or envisioning a completely new software infrastructure, just to name a few.

Rice Master of Computer Science alumni exemplify the diversity and versatility of what you can achieve with a master of computer science degree. Alumni have gone on to be Data Scientists, Full Stack Senior Software Engineers, Machine Learning Engineers, Data Engineers and more at leading tech companies in every industry. Other master’s in computer science careers include:

  • (Senior) Technical Product Manager: Top tech companies often prefer an advanced degree in a technical field to enter into a product management role. These computer scientists lead a team of engineers to ideate, build and iterate the next big innovation in their field.
  • Cybersecurity Architect: Build defenses and address vulnerabilities within complex computer systems, protect organizations from a fast-growing number of online attacks, and manage the teams that secure the systems.
  • AI / ML Expert: Develop machine learning algorithms that enable computers to learn from or adapt to new data. For example, Rice Online MCS offers 4 specializations to support students’ career path needs, including a Machine Learning specialization. Career outcomes include a Machine Learning Engineer at JPMorgan Chase and Senior Software Systems Engineer at Meta.
  • Site Reliability Engineer: Create, maintain, and improve scalable and reliable software systems, often working on complex, large-scale systems and incorporating automation.
  • RPA Developer: Leverage robotic process automation to create, design, and develop automated processes that maximize efficiency and scale successful initiatives.

Computer Engineering vs Computer Science: Necessary Skills and Education Paths

Because the computer science job market is growing much faster than other occupations – 21% projected growth until 2031 compared to the 5% growth for Computer Hardware Engineers – the CS focus allows for more opportunity and upward mobility. You may be able to pursue computer engineering roles with your computer science degree as well as branch out into other roles with the training you’ll receive. You'll also stand to earn much more as you gain practical experience.

In this section, we’ll look at the educational backgrounds, work experience, and required skills for computer science and computer engineering occupations.

What Skills Are Needed for Computer Engineering?

Whether you're pursuing a master of computer engineering or a master of computer science degree, you'll need excellent communication skills, strong analytical skills and an ability to work well with diverse teams of engineers, developers, computer scientists, and business professionals.

However, those pursuing a master’s degree in computer engineering will need a few additional skills unique to the concentration. Skills needed for computer engineering include:

  • Familiarity with networking: Though the primary responsibility of a computer engineer is to create hardware, they need to know how computers communicate with each other and understand how to utilize internet connectivity to their advantage.
  • An understanding of the principles of electrical engineering: To create new hardware and devices, computer engineers need a firm understanding of how electronics work to get that hardware to perform appropriately. That comes from a detailed understanding of the principles of electrical engineering.
  • Computer science fundamentals: Computer engineers have computer science knowledge, including writing algorithms, understanding data structures, experience with programming languages and understanding computer architecture.
  • Math: Computer engineers need a strong background in math including linear algebra, number theory, and graph theory in order to manage data structures.
  • Determination and patience: It’s normal for hardware to go through several iterations before it’s ready for software developers and users to utilize. Through each iteration, bugs and issues will pop up. Computer engineers need patience and determination to make updates and changes until the hardware is functional.

Education Needed for Computer Engineering

Though it’s possible to land entry-level positions with a bachelor’s degree, you may need a master’s degree in computer engineering if you want to advance into more senior or complex technical innovation roles, maximize your earning potential, or switch careers. Your coursework toward a master’s of computer engineering degree will help you develop these skills through lessons in mechanics, advanced mathematics, electric circuits and more. Taking Elective courses can help you pursue your passions in addition to making you a more marketable job applicant when you begin applying for Computer Engineering jobs.

What Skills Are Needed to Pursue a Computer Science Career?

Because computer science careers offer greater choice than computer engineering careers, a wider range of skills are required. These include:

  • Knowledge of computers and technology: Computer scientists need to understand machine architecture and how computers and operating systems work.
  • Programming: While coding isn’t a computer scientist’s primary job, it is a necessary skill. You will need an understanding of different programming languages, algorithms, and data structures.
  • Data Analysis: Computer scientists need to be able to manage many different forms of data. This includes skillful data collection and organization and manipulation of large datasets using technology and databases.
  • Communication: Computer science positions require the ability to collaborate and communicate. Computer scientists need to learn technical writing and hone their presentation and data visualization skills.
  • Math: Math helps you understand data structure and programming languages and supports effective problem-solving. Computer scientists need skill in statistics, calculus, linear algebra, and other advanced mathematics.

Education Needed for Computer Science

Earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science allows students to gain core computer science fundamentals. The curriculum includes data structures, algorithms, software design, computer architecture, and the techniques and methods computer scientists use in different industries.

A master’s degree in computer science further develops your skills to equip you for advanced computer science roles in business, government, or industry, or to switch careers (assuming you have basic-intermediate programming skills). In a master’s program, you can further explore specialties that interest you, such as machine learning, robotics, information systems management, human computer interaction, and software design. You’ll also gain advanced training in software engineering, data analytics, and computer systems, as well have opportunities to apply your knowledge to solve real-world problems.

Which Pays Higher: Computer Science Or Computer Engineering?

While pay varies by region, Computer Hardware Engineers earn an annual median salary of $119,560 - 128,170. With a master of computer science, you can expect to earn around $131,490 per year when you’re starting out.

Computer Science (CS) vs. Computer Engineering (CE) Degree Programs

If you're considering both CS and CE degree programs, how do you decide which to pursue? You might be wondering, which pays higher, computer science or computer engineering, or wonder which degree is easier. The truth is that when it comes to picking a degree program, it largely depends on what you want to focus on. If you want a more well-rounded and diverse skill set that will help you advance your career in software, data and machine learning across any number of industries and applications, pursuing a master’s of computer science may make sense. If you're more interested in building innovative machines, computer engineering may be the right path for you.

Do you need a computer science degree to be a software engineer or computer engineer? No, but the degree program will deepen your understanding of why things work the way they do, increase your confidence, and open doors to leading employers. Pursuing a master’s in computer science can also increase your salary potential, and make it easier for you to secure work in a field you’ll find intellectually stimulating, with a lower chance of needing to significantly upskill/reskill later.

Computer Engineering vs Computer Science: How to Decide Which Masters Degree is Right for You

Before you make a decision between pursuing a master’s in computer engineering or a master’s in computer science, you need to pinpoint what you want from your degree program. This means thinking about your long-term goals, your desired salary, and identifying the things that you’re most interested in.

Once you decide on a program type or concentration, you’ll want to choose a school that will fit your learning needs and desired career outcomes. The MCS@Rice program will not only give you the knowledge you need to succeed in your chosen career path, but you’ll also work with experts in the industry and receive the one-on-one, individualized attention you need to truly cement new knowledge and skills.

Our online master of computer science program combines a best-in-class online experience with real-world applications to keep you engaged and maximize your education:

  • Flexible self-paced lectures, engaging live sessions and small class interactions for working professionals looking to switch careers or enhance their skill set
  • Holistic approach to computer science fundamentals and high-demand job skills to drive innovation in many fields and applications
  • Experiential projects throughout the program and a comprehensive capstone project based on real-world data develops transferable skills that will help you gain a competitive edge in the job market
  • Expert educators that provide hands-on learning opportunities and are dedicated to the success of their students
  • Business acumen and project management skills for leadership roles at top companies

Learn more about how the MCS@Rice online degree program can meet your goals for a rewarding computer science career.

Demand is surging for computer science skills across industries and applications.
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