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Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering

Are you interested in pursuing a career in technology? There’s good news for you—jobs in technology are on the rise and are expected to increase in demand over the next decade.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of people working in computer and information technology occupations is expected to grow 12% by 2028, which is “much faster than the average for all occupations”.

If you’ve spent any time researching jobs in technology, you may have heard about two different fields in tech—computer science and computer engineering. But, do you know what the differences are between these two fields?

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That’s the question we are going to answer in this article. First, we’ll break down the basics of computer science and computer engineering. Then, we’ll discuss how these fields compare and what the job market outlook is like for each of these areas of technology.

What Is Computer Science?

Computer science is the study of how instructions are processed and communicated by computer devices such as desktops, phones, and embedded systems.

Computer science, which descended from fields such as mathematics and electrical engineering, is focused on the theory behind what makes our computer systems work. 

People who work in computer science spend their time understanding the algorithms that power computers, and how we can interact with computers. This involves learning about the anatomy of a computer and using programming to give instructions to a computer that a machine can read and interpret.

Computer science major programs, which teach skills in this discipline, are focused on analyzing algorithms, understanding the principles on which computers are based, and understanding the architecture of a computer. Degree programs in computer science also cover programming, which involves writing software for a computer.

What Is Computer Engineering?

Computer engineering is focused on how to build devices using technology.

The computer engineering field, unlike computer science, is focused primarily on computer hardware and understanding how to build the systems on which software is run. This field is closely associated with both engineering and physics and is best suited for people who are interested in the hardware side of building technology.

Because computer engineering is focused on hardware, computer engineers need to use their knowledge of physics and electronics to create components and systems. For instance, a computer engineer may spend their time studying how to create a Central Processing Unit (CPU), and understanding how it could be improved. For the most part, computer engineers will spend their time in a lab, rather than writing code.

At university, computer engineering degrees will cover topics ranging from computer architecture to practical electronics to physics. In addition, computer engineers also need a solid foundation of programming skills, which can still come up in computer engineering work. So, computer engineers will also learn about topics such as software design, but to a lesser extent than computer scientists.

Computer Scientists vs. Computer Engineers: Responsibilities

To gain a better understanding of how computer science and computer engineering compare, we should analyze the responsibilities for each type of worker.

If you are looking to work in a career such as systems administration or web development, computer science is definitely a field you should pursue. On the other hand, if you are looking to get more involved with hardware development—and building the systems that power software—then computer engineering is the way to go.

The typical responsibilities of a computer scientist include:

  • Using programming languages such as SQL and Python to solve problems
  • Understanding and implementing data structures
  • Designing, developing, and evaluating software
  • Managing operating systems such as Linux and Windows

Computer engineers have a different range of responsibilities which are more focused on hardware than software. These include:

  • Using their understanding of how computers work to build hardware
  • Working with software to understand its specifications and the hardware needed to make a system work
  • Building a PC system and repairing and maintaining that system
  • Working with embedded systems to solve engineering problems

Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering: Degree Comparison

As we have discussed, there are a number of differences in the day-to-day responsibilities of computer scientists and computer engineers. So, it’s no surprise that what you will learn when pursuing a degree in one of these two fields will be different.

Computer science courses are primarily focused on the theory behind computers, and how to develop software using programming languages. A few of the topics you can expect to see on a computer science degree syllabus include:

  • How to analyze and design algorithms
  • How to work with operating systems
  • How to analyze data using programming
  • How to solve practical software problems using programming

Computer engineering courses, on the other hand, are more practical in nature and combine a wider range of fields. Here is a list of a few of the topics you can expect to be taught in a computer engineering course:

  • Electricity and magnetism, and how it related to computers
  • How to build an electric circuit
  • The basics of physics
  • Calculus and how it relates to computing
  • Digital logic and machine design

Both computer scientists and computer engineers will practice analytical thinking and problem-solving skills on a daily basis, although the ways in which these skills are reinforced vary because of the different responsibilities handled by people in these fields.

Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering: Job Outlook

When evaluating these fields, you’ll likely be wondering, “What does the job outlook look like for computer scientists vs. computer engineers?” That’s a great question.

Both computer scientists and computer engineers are able to access a number of excellent career opportunities in their work, and having a degree in either field will set you up to earn higher salaries than you otherwise may be able to have earned without a degree.

Computer scientists are likely to work in software development and programming-related fields. For instance, a computer scientist may use their degree to enter a career in web design, web development, or data analysis. These fields are all focused on software and involve having a core understanding of the fundamentals of computing and how to write programs.

Computer engineers, on the other hand, are likely to be employed in engineering-focused positions. For instance, a computer engineer may be involved with designing and developing embedded systems, integrated circuits, and components for a computer. Often, computer engineers will work in fields like technology systems, robotics, and transportation.

According to Glassdoor, the average computer engineer in the United States earns a total salary of $92,046 per year. The average computer scientist, on the other hand, earns a total of $99,050 per year. Both of these salaries are impressive amounts, which shows the significant earning potential of someone who pursues a career in either of these fields.

In addition, working in either of these fields can open up new career opportunities for you in the future. For example, you can use your skills as a computer scientist to advance to a more specialized career in tech such as a data engineer, database administrator, or web developer. This will give you even more leverage in your career. 

Computer engineers could also go on to specialize in markets such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and engineering for the Internet of Things devices, which are all high-growth markets.

Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering: The Bottom Line

Both computer science and computer engineering are fields related to computing. However, the exact responsibilities held by those working in these fields are fundamentally different.

Computer science is more concerned with the theory behind computing, and using coding languages to solve problems. Computer engineering, meanwhile, is focused on building the hardware and architecture that powers computers.

Even though these fields are different, they are dependent on each other. Without computer engineers, we would have no laptops or smart cars or smartphones on which software can be built and executed. Without computer scientists, we would not be able to use the technology built by computer engineers.

As a result, there are often overlaps between these technical disciplines. Sometimes, for example, a computer engineer will need to write code to run on their hardware, and a computer scientist may need to delve deeper into the architecture behind a piece of hardware.

If you’re more interested in theory and programming, computer science is a great field to pursue. But, if you prefer more practical problems, and are interested in the intersection of engineering and computing, computer engineering may be worth exploring. Whatever field you choose to explore, make sure you conduct thorough research.

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