Computer Science vs. Software Engineering: Key Differences
At first glance, computer science and software engineering share some similarities. Both deal with the building blocks that make computers work, and both are high-paying and fast-growing occupations. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the following:
Jobs for software developers are slated to grow 26% by 2031, far surpassing overall occupational growth of 5%.
Computer and information research scientists will see growth of 21%.
However, there are significant differences between computer science and software engineering roles in terms of day-to-day duties, educational requirements, and career paths. Understanding the differences can help students decide which field and educational path to pursue.
What Is Computer Science?
Computer science is the study of computers and computer systems. It includes hardware, software, and applications. Below are some common professional responsibilities of computer scientists.
Computer scientists conduct research into areas, such as data structures, programming language theory, and computational complexity to create theoretical models that can be applied to computing problems.
A computer scientist modifies the architecture of existing systems or designs and executes new ones. Systems can range from hardware, such as a processing chip, to software like an operating system.
Subdisciplines such as robotics and artificial intelligence extend computer science further into everyday life tasks—from performing physical labor to piloting cars.
What Is Software Engineering?
Software engineers work almost exclusively with software. They bring together engineering principles and programming languages to create applications for computers, mobile devices, and smart equipment. Below are typical responsibilities for software engineers.
Software engineers identify what tasks users want an application to perform and what features they want or need to do so efficiently.
The heart of software engineering is creating the design and specifications for a piece of software. The design describes its component pieces, types of code, and how the pieces fit together.
Software engineers work with teams of programmers to translate a design into a functioning program. They may also work with other professionals, from data scientists to marketers.
At every stage of development, testing assesses whether a program performs its intended functions, while uncovering and fixing bugs in its code.
The final stage of creating software is documenting every stage of development so that later engineers can maintain and upgrade the program.
What Are Key Differences in Computer Science vs. Software Engineering?
When building software, it helps to have a working knowledge of computer science, like machine and programming language fundamentals. Likewise, computer scientists benefit from understanding the needs of software developers. However, although the two professions can overlap, they differ in important respects.
Computer scientist—works with hardware and its interface with software
Software engineer—focuses on software
Types of Software
Computer scientist—designs operating systems to work with hardware, like a new processor
Software engineer—designs applications to run on operating systems
Types of Coding
Computer scientist—creates programming languages
Software engineer—uses programming languages to create computer programs
Computer scientist—works with theoretical and mathematical concepts
Software engineer—works with hands-on and applied concepts
What Are Key Differences in Career Paths for Computer Science vs. Software Engineering?
Besides differences in duties, significant differences exist in career paths for computer science vs. software engineering.
Computer Science Careers
Starting with a college degree, computer science can lead to a wide variety of occupations.
In private industry, a computer science job typically requires a master’s degree in computer science or a related field. In government agencies, some jobs require only a bachelor’s degree.
A computer science degree can go in several directions:
Becoming a computer and information research scientist, who finds new uses for technologies, solves computing problems, or designs computer systems
Specializing in fields such as artificial intelligence, data analysis, or cybersecurity
Becoming a computer and systems information manager or an information technology director, overseeing all computer activities for an organization
The median annual salary for all computer and information research scientists was $131,490 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Those who design computer systems made $161,870.
Software Engineering Careers
Compared to computer science, software engineering can be easier to enter and offers different job options.
Some software engineers earn a bachelor’s degree in the field, specializing in computer and/or information technology. However, the field also offers faster paths to entry-level jobs.
Self-study to learn programming basics
Short-term intensive programs, such as coding bootcamps, which teach both specific programming skills and fundamental concepts of software engineering
As workers gain experience, some tech employers will help pay for further education.
Software engineers typically begin in one area of software, such as front- or back-end web design, mobile apps, or games. From there, a career often follows these steps:
Junior software engineer—writing and debugging pieces of a program
Senior software engineer or team manager—supervising other software engineers
Product manager—responsible for an entire software project
Chief information officer—overseeing all software research and development for a company
Software developers in all industries earned a median annual salary of $120,730 in 2021, according to the BLS. In the field of software publishing, the median annual salary was $130,180.
Take the First Steps in a Computing Career
Both computer science and software engineering can lead to high-paying and high-demand computing careers. A foundation for starting out in either field or advancing your prospects mid-career can be an intensive program, such as Fullstack Academy’s Live Online Coding Bootcamp.
Fullstack Academy’s program can prepare students for an entry-level computing job in as little as 17 weeks, with a combination of programming languages, hands-on projects, and career coaching. Find out how Fullstack Academy can help launch your career in computing.