North Central College computer science students taking a class.

Computer Science vs. Software Engineering

Reviewed by Jacob Imm

Jan 12, 2022

Computer Science vs. Software Engineering

Every day, Americans use technology that relies on software and computing. In fact, if you’re reading this sentence on a laptop or smartphone right now, you’re one of those software product users. But not many people understand the inner workings of these ubiquitous devices and the software design that makes them run. 

Fields like computer science and software engineering uncover the secrets behind these familiar machines and each computer program they use, paving the way for new technology. If that idea appeals to you, you might consider a career where every computer program is your business.

In this guide, we’ll look at computer science vs. software engineering to find the similarities and differences between the two fields, including what to expect in college, what you’ll need to know to get a graduate degree and beyond.

What Is Computer Science?

The term computer science refers to the family of studies involving computers and their related systems. Often shortened to CS, the field covers both theoretical and applied issues relating to computer hardware and software.

As a science-based discipline, computer science focuses on discovery and understanding. By analyzing and redefining algorithms, a computer scientist works to create new technological solutions or improve existing ones.

In a rapidly changing world driven by technology, computer science is an important—and exciting—field of study.

How to Pursue a Degree in Computer Science 

The logical first step for you in pursuing a computer science career is to study the subject in college. As the need for computer scientists grows, more and more schools have adopted CS programs, helping students prepare for a changing, technology-driven world. If you’re a detail-oriented critical thinker with an appreciation for technology, you could be a strong CS degree student.

The broad nature of a computer science degree makes it an excellent choice for anyone interested in working with computers. When you study for a CS degree in college, you’ll explore a wide range of topics, likely including:

  • Statistics
  • Mathematics
  • Computer programming (coding)
  • Machine learning
  • Cybersecurity
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  • Computation theory
  • Ethical considerations

In some ways, studying computer science in college is like visiting a computer science buffet—you’ll get a little of everything and then you can decide if there’s one area you want to focus on.

Computer Science Major

Computer science is an extensive field; therefore, the best way to get the most from the subject is to pursue a major. With an average of four years of full-time study, depending on the institution, a computer science degree program should give you a solid foundation in many of the essential concepts needed to succeed professionally.

Though you might expect to graduate from a computer science program with a bachelor of science degree (BS), many schools—including North Central College—offer the choice of a bachelor of arts degree (BA) or BS in computer science.

Whether you choose a BA or a BS, you’ll probably be required to take several core courses that focus on computer science basics. Class names and topics will vary from school to school, but to give you an idea of what to expect, here are the required courses at North Central College:

  • CSCE 160 - Introduction to Computer Programming
  • CSCE 210 - Data Structures
  • CSCE 220 - Computer Organization and Design
  • CSCE 230 - Discrete Structures
  • CSCE 306 - Object-Oriented Software Development
  • CSCE 340 - Design and Analysis of Algorithms
  • CSCE 420 - Operating Systems
  • CSCE 494 - Senior Capstone (a final, cumulative project)

Additionally, you’ll likely study ethics, communication and digital media. From there, a BA may require language credits, while a BS involves extra math and business courses.

Computer Science Minor

Like many institutions, North Central College also offers a computer science minor. When you minor in CS, you’ll take on a handful of fundamental courses that give you a general understanding of the discipline.

Minoring in computer science is ideal for those whose career trajectory involves computers in any capacity—even if you don’t envision technology as the primary focus of your career. Minors usually require between 20 and 30 credit hours, again depending on your school.

Whether you major or minor in computer science, your choices after graduation will likely come down to enrolling in a master’s program or searching for a job.

Career Paths in the Field of Computer Science 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that jobs in the technology sector will grow 13 percent from 2020 to 2030—faster than the national average for other occupations. With over 600,000 new jobs in the next 10 years, there’s never been a better time to work as a computer scientist).

Depending on the subfield you choose, your day-to-day work as a computer scientist may include:

  • Planning and carrying out experiments on new technology
  • Developing predictive models
  • Building and presenting reports of your findings
  • Designing new or improved computer hardware solutions

If work like this sounds interesting, computer science may be the career path for you. You can choose from a wide variety of career paths. Some of the most common are:

  • Web Developer
  • Database Administrator
  • Computer and Information Research Scientist
  • Information Security Analyst

These are just a few examples. With computer science jobs available across virtually all industries, you can easily find a career that combines computer science with your other passions, whether they be in health care, gaming, education or another field.

If you want to learn more about computer science read our linked blogs, “data science vs. computer science”, “computer science vs. information technology” or “computer science vs. cybersecurity.”

What Is Software Engineering?

Software engineering is considered a subset of computer science. The field focuses on developing software solutions from start to finish. Software engineers work with programming languages to write, edit and test new software programs.

All computers, tablets and other devices rely on the instructions that software provides. A software engineer is in charge of the design and maintenance of these instructions.

How to Pursue a Degree in Software Engineering

If you like figuring out technology, problem-solving and working in a team, you may enjoy focusing  on software engineering in school.

Prospective software engineers cover various topics in college courses, such as:

  • Coding
  • Algorithms
  • Math and statistics
  • Operating systems
  • Object-oriented design
  • Electrical engineering
  • Logic and critical thinking

By the end of your degree program in software engineering instruction, you’ll be able to build computer programs and apps from scratch and figure out how to repair and improve them, as well.

Find out more about North Central College

Software Engineering Major

Specialized software engineering majors are less common than computer science programs, but they do exist, generally resulting in a BS. A full-time software engineering program usually takes four years to complete.

Given the similarities between computer science and software engineering, many core course requirements are the same (with software engineering having slightly more focus on coding). These courses generally include:

  • Introduction to Computer Programming
  • Data Structures
  • Discrete Structures
  • Object-Oriented Software Development
  • Operating Systems

You’ll likely also take math and ethics courses, plus any other general requirements. You can get a taste for what a software engineering major looks like on the North Central College computer engineering program.

Software Engineering Minor

Some colleges offer minors in software engineering, focusing on the fundamentals of programming and design. A software engineering minor can usefully complement a major in science or business.

Career Paths in the Field of Software Engineering

In many cases, a bachelor’s degree in computer science is sufficient to work in software engineering jobs. With that said, a specialized software engineering major or graduate degree will likely give you a leg up when pursuing a job in this specific field.

Here are some of the more common careers a software engineering student can pursue:

  • Web, game or software developer
  • Software engineer
  • Computer programmer

In these roles, you’ll take on important responsibilities like:

  • Writing code, testing it, then rewriting it
  • Collecting and analyzing user data to make changes
  • Maintaining software after initial release

As technology is intertwined with many aspects of our lives, software engineers can also work in fields as diverse as public transportation, aviation, government and many others.

Differences Between Computer Science and Software Engineering

The most obvious distinction between computer science and software engineering is the scope of the fields. Computer science is wider-reaching, while software engineering focuses more on the development and deployment of computer programs. Additionally, computer science may take a more abstract approach to computing, while software engineering emphasizes concrete applications of coding.

With that said, many of the skills remain the same between the two fields. Both disciplines rely on programming languages, algorithms, discrete mathematics and critical thinking. One thing is for sure: working in either field will allow you to make a difference in the world of technology.

Computer Science Salary vs. Software Engineering Salary

Before we dive into prospective salaries, it’s worth noting that these figures represent the median wage for the whole country. All locations, levels of experience and educational backgrounds are taken into account. Your starting salary may not match the wages listed below, but you’ll have the potential to reach (and surpass) these heights.

Computer science careers are known for boasting above-average salaries compared to other jobs, making them an attractive option. With a bachelor’s degree in CS, you can likely find work as a:

  • Computer Systems Analyst – If you like finding creative solutions to existing problems, you may enjoy the challenge of optimizing a company’s systems. You could make around $93,730 per year according to the BLS in 2021. 
  • Database Administrator – Businesses rely on customer and internal data to operate smoothly. You can design and maintain the systems that allow this for an average salary of $98,860 a year, also according to the BLS.

With a master’s degree, you might even find work as a computer and information research scientist. The BLS records the national average annual salary for this position at more than $125,000/year.

Software engineering jobs are some of the most lucrative and sought-after, with options like:

  • Software Developer – A developer plans the overall function of a piece of software, making recommendations, then writing and testing the program. The median annual salary for these employees is $110,140/year nationally according to the BLS.
  • Computer Programmer – Programmers write and test much of the code that happens in the software’s background. Computer programmers often work to make the design of a developer a reality, and the BLS says they make around $89,190 a year nationally.

No matter which route you take, you’ll find yourself in a field that continues to expand—with salaries to match.

Start Your Technology Degree

When planning out your future, the choices you make matter—and those choices start with attending a reputable school. That’s why you should look for a place like North Central College.

Whether you decide to enroll in their computer science degree program or explore software engineering in their computer engineering program, you’ll receive hands-on training from knowledgeable professors using the latest technology. With opportunities for internships, job placements and semesters abroad, you’ll have everything you need to succeed in life after college. Visit North Central’s website to find out more.

Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 11 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University. 


 

Sources:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Computer and Information Technology Occupations. Occupational Outlook Handbook. 8 Sept. 2021.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Computer Systems Analysts. Occupational Outlook Handbook. 8 Sept. 2021.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Database Administrators and Architects. Occupational Outlook Handbook. 8 Sept. 2021.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Computer and Information Research Scientists. Occupational Outlook Handbook. 8 Sept. 2021.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Software Developers, Quality Assurance Analysts, and Testers. Occupational Outlook Handbook. 8 Sept. 2021.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Computer Programmers. Occupational Outlook Handbook. 8 Sept. 2021.