Tools used in study of computer and electrical engineering at North Central College.

Computer Engineering vs Electrical Engineering

Reviewed by Jacob Imm

Feb 18, 2022

Computer Engineering vs. Electrical Engineering: What's the Difference?

“If computers run on electricity, how can there be a difference between computer engineering and electrical engineering?”

It’s a valid question—and, much like identifying differences in mechanical engineering vs. electrical engineering, it’s one with a somewhat complicated answer. While computer engineering and electrical engineering are two different fields, there’s a significant amount of overlap in responsibilities and areas of study. Both disciplines are equally technology-focused, lucrative and exciting, but they’re not as interchangeable as you might think.

To help you understand the differences—and similarities—between the two, we’ll explore everything you need to know about computer engineering vs. electrical engineering, including education requirements, job responsibilities and potential salaries.

Two Distinct Branches of Engineering

As their names suggest, computer engineering and electrical engineering are focused branches of a broader discipline: engineering. As such, they share the common goal of using science to plan, build, maintain and improve things.

The most significant difference between electrical and computer engineering is what they plan, build, maintain and improve.

Computer engineering focuses on computer hardware and computer software.

The field exists at the intersection of computer science and electronic engineering, so computer engineers often work closely with software developers. With that in mind, some programming is involved in computer engineering, though the focus is still centered around hands-on work.

It’s also important to note that in today’s society, the term “computer” applies to far more than your laptop or personal computer. As smart devices become the norm, everything from a pacemaker to a car has an integrated computer—and computer engineers are bound to be involved in the design of all of them.

Electrical engineering, on the other hand, is the study and implementation of all things that are powered by electricity. Though this definition includes computers, it’s not limited to machines that process data. Any equipment that generates or runs on electricity falls under electrical engineering.

Ultimately, you can think of computer engineering and electrical engineering as forming a sort of Venn diagram. Though the two disciplines often work on the same kinds of projects or to meet common objectives, they differ in the medium for their work.

Comparing Education Requirements

Although computer engineering and electrical engineering are separate degrees, both disciplines involve rigorous and rewarding study. Below, we’ll explain the path toward earning a degree in these fields.

Computer Engineering Education

If you find computers fascinating, enjoy solving logical problems, and have a knack for numbers, a future in computer engineering may be for you. Through self-led study and intensive college programs, you can become a successful, professional computer engineer. Here’s how:

Pre-College

You don’t have to wait for college to start studying computing; many high schools offer specialized programs or courses that focus on technology. Even if your school doesn’t have technology-specific classes, you should still take as many upper-level math and science courses as possible.

You can also get a jump start on learning computer programming languages and basic computer anatomy by drawing on online resources, community resources, and library materials.

And, of course, any chance to practice logic and critical thinking will benefit you in the long run. An idea that may help practice logic and critical thinking would be to join an academic team, such as a debate team. Debates about relevant issues will help students to think both critically and logically to get their point across.  

Undergraduate Degree

The minimum requirement for most computer engineering jobs is a bachelor’s degree—ideally one in computer engineering, though a computer science degree may also be acceptable depending on the position you are seeking. As with most undergraduate degrees, you should expect to spend around four years, full-time in college to finish with a bachelor of science (BS) degree.

While computer engineering is a narrower discipline than electrical engineering, there are still various concentrations within the field. For example, the computer engineering degree program at North Central College focuses on robotics and automation. As such, you’ll find a variety of computer science and engineering courses in the program like:

  • Introduction to Computer Programming
  • Computer Organization and Design
  • Object-Oriented Software Development
  • Computer Architecture
  • Digital Logic I
  • Microcontrollers
  • The Engineering Method
  • Engineering Calculations
  • Professional Ethics

Some schools emphasize different areas of computer engineering, but you can expect to take many of the same undergraduate courses regardless of your focus.

Further Education

A master’s degree is not needed for most computer engineering roles, but those looking for more opportunities may wish to earn an advanced degree in the field. When you enroll in a graduate program, you can often choose from concentrations like communications, solid-state technology, control engineering, and more.

Depending on your career trajectory, you may also need vendor certifications. These specialized courses provide professionals with in-depth expertise in specific software. The following certifications can boost your chances of landing a job, and don’t be afraid to check job listings to look for further examples:

  • Linux Foundation Certified Engineer
  • Azure Fundamentals (Microsoft)
  • Red Hat Certified Engineer
  • Certified Secure Software Lifecycle Professional (ISC2)

Electrical Engineering Education

Want to know how to become an electrical engineer? If you’re an outside-the-box thinker interested in the inner workings of technology, you’ll likely find the path to working in electrical engineering to be challenging and fulfilling. Best of all, you can start on the road to becoming an electrical engineer even before you get to college.

Pre-College

Even before you apply for college, you can get a solid start learning about electrical engineering by reading and watching sources that cover: 

  • Assembly and disassembly of simple electronics
  • Basic circuit design
  • Translating technical information for a non-technical audience
  • Drafting and design

You can capitalize on your time in high school, too. Be sure to sign up for as many math and science courses as you can—a strong understanding of calculus and trigonometry will benefit you greatly when it’s time for your first year of college. Or, see what community resources or programs are available in your area that can help you expand your knowledge on the subject. 

Find out more about North Central College

Undergraduate Degree

As with computer engineering, the general requirement for an electrical engineer is a bachelor’s degree. If you study full-time, you can typically earn a bachelor of science in electrical engineering in four years.

Because computers and electrical equipment work hand-in-hand, your course load will generally include a blend of computer science and electrical engineering classes. To give you an example of what to expect, here are some of North Central College’s electrical engineering courses:

  • Introduction to Computer Programming
  • Introduction to Electrical Engineering
  • Circuit Analysis I & II
  • Microcontrollers
  • Analog and Digital Signals
  • Motors and Actuators
  • Electronic Controls
  • Introduction to Engineering
  • Engineering Calculations

The overlap between computer engineering and electrical engineering is especially apparent when comparing course lists; you’ll notice that many of these classes are the same as those listed above. Of course, there is a stronger emphasis on electrical engineering skills throughout an electrical engineering program compared to computer engineering.

Further Education

Although most electrical engineer job openings don’t ask for a master’s degree, further education can unlock lucrative career opportunities. Should you return to school for a graduate program, you can concentrate on topics like:

  • Circuitry and Systems
  • Photonics
  • Signal Processing 

Once you have your master’s degree, you will be better equipped to apply for specialized jobs or management roles.

Another option for electrical engineers is the Professional Engineer exam. This four-year work experience program gives engineers the training needed to work in many government jobs.

Comparing Skills and Job Responsibilities

Exact responsibilities vary from job-to-job and industry-to-industry, but we’ll provide a general overview of what computer engineers and electrical engineers do.

Computer Engineering Responsibilities

The most “traditional” role for a computer engineer is building and testing computer parts. Other responsibilities include ensuring that these components work with the appropriate software.

With that in mind, well-rounded computer engineers also dabble in software development and computer programming. In a business setting, computer engineering graduates may write instructional manuals for new users or improve company embedded systems through testing.

Regardless of position, computer engineers must have a thorough understanding of computers and their parts.

Electrical Engineering Responsibilities

Electrical engineers will, among other things, design and test all kinds of electrical embedded systems—from communications technology to spacecraft. Their work requires an in-depth knowledge of circuitry, motors, power generation and some software.

Electrical engineers are also more likely to be out in the field, visiting worksites to analyze and solve technical problems. In general, electrical engineering can be more public-facing than computer engineering, as work more commonly involves meeting with clients to discuss projects.

Comparing Salaries

Because our modern world runs on computers and other electrical power systems, both computer engineering and electrical engineering are in demand and receive above-average compensation. Although exact salaries will depend on location, years of experience, and your chosen industry, we can give a general idea of average wages for several careers.

Computer Engineering Wages

Computer engineering degrees apply to a wide range of jobs that encompass hardware and software competencies, and most of them have generous salaries. Some of the many roles you can apply for include:

  • Computer Hardware Engineer – The bottom 10% of earners—usually entry-level workers—can make around $70,000 per year, while the median annual salary for all computer hardware engineers is $119,560 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
  • Software Developers and Quality Assurance Analysts – Even the lowest 10% of engineers earn $65,210 annually, while the median salary is $110,140 per year according to the BLS.
  • Computer Systems Analyst – Starting wages hover around $56,000 and can quickly reach the median salary of $93,370 per year according to the BLS.

Electrical Engineering Wages

Whether they work in the field, the lab, or an office, electrical engineers are usually paid a competitive salary. Here are some wage statistics for popular jobs:

  • Electrical and Electronics Engineer – At the bottom end, electrical engineers earn $64,870 per year, while the median annual electrical engineer salary is $100,830 according to the BLS.
  • Aerospace Engineer – Working on the electrical components of planes, engineers can earn a median wage of $118,610, with starting salaries coming in at around $72,000 according to the BLS.
  • Electrical Engineering Technologist – As one of the few electrical engineering jobs that usually requires only an associate’s degree, these technologists have a median annual salary of $67,550 according to the BLS.

Study Engineering and Get Your Career Started Today

As you can see, electrical engineering and computer engineering are quite similar, as they share many of the same fundamental skills. In fact, some positions will accept a degree in either discipline.

Nevertheless, it’s best to decide between them early and follow the path that appeals to you the most, as a relevant degree is essential to landing your dream job. If your interest lies in computing and software, computer engineering is likely the answer. If you have more of a general fascination with electronic devices and their function, you may prefer electrical engineering.

Whether you choose computer engineering or electrical engineering, be sure to choose a school like North Central College that offers comprehensive programs for both areas. North Central’s engineering programs focus on robotics and automation, preparing you for the future of technology. Visit their state-of-the-art facilities on a campus tour to learn 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: 

Computer Hardware Engineers : Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Published September 8, 2021. Accessed November 17, 2021.  https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/computer-hardware-engineers.htm.

Software Developers, Quality Assurance Analysts, and Testers : Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Published September 8, 2021. Accessed November 17, 2021.  https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/software-developers.htm.

Computer Systems Analysts : Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Published September 8, 2021. Accessed November 17, 2021. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-systems-analysts.htm.

Electrical and Electronics Engineers : Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Published September 8, 2021. Accessed November 17, 2021. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/electrical-and-electronics-engineers.htm.

Aerospace Engineers : Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Published September 8, 2021. Accessed November 17, 2021. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/aerospace-engineers.htm.

Electrical and Electronic Engineering Technologists and Technicians : Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Published September 10, 2021. Accessed November 17, 2021. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/electrical-and-electronics-engineering-technicians.htm.