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

28 May, 2021

two businesswomen working on computers in an officeComputer science and computer engineering both play a pivotal role in building the technology that transforms the world. Furthermore, computer systems are rapidly becoming an integral component of not only our daily lives, but of the many systems and equipment that keep entire industries running. For example, services like Amazon Prime’s two-day shipping are only possible because Amazon uses sensors to monitor its stock in warehouses, and because the company uses software to carefully manage supply and predict demand.

But Amazon isn’t the only place where computer engineering and computer science come together. Whether considering pocket-sized devices like smartphones or massive industrial equipment like wind turbines, building any device with an embedded computer or software requires experts with both computer science and computer engineering education.

Computer Science vs Computer Engineering Salary

Because nearly every industry relies on computing technology—from healthcare, retail, and renewable energy to transportation, gaming, and telecommunications—professionals with computer science and computer engineering skills are well-compensated. As of 2023, computer hardware engineers earned a median annual salary of $144,128, while computer scientists in 2023 earned a median annual salary of $122,752.

Professionals who wish to advance their careers or transition into one of these high-paying fields may consider earning a master’s degree in computer science or computer engineering. However, it is important to understand the differences between the two disciplines when deciding which path is right for you.

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Key Differences Between a Master’s in Computer Science vs Computer Engineering

MS in Computer Science

  • Focus on software and the theoretical application of computing
  • Primarily involved with software, data and computer networks
  • Courses include topics such as data structures and algorithms, programming languages, and hands-on experience writing code

MS in Computer Engineering

  • Focus on integrating software and hardware, and the practical application of computing
  • Can involve computer hardware and software as well as electrical systems
  • Courses include topics such as architecture and design, digital control system modeling and analysis, physics, and signal processing

MS in Computer Science: Focusing on Software and Theoretical Computing

Computer science degree graduates will generally focus on designing the software that runs on computers. Because they have an extensive theoretical background, many computer scientists also solve problems such as improving system performance, developing the most effective ways of storing data in a given technology environment, and discovering more efficient ways of allocating computing resources to tasks.

MS in Computer Science coursework offers students a combination of foundational theory and applied technical skills. Students take courses in algorithms, various programming languages (e.g. Java, C++, Python, Perl, etc.), applied data analysis, and software engineering. Professionals with a master’s in computer science are prepared for careers in a range of industries with job titles including Software Developer, Computer Scientist, Mobile Application Developer, Security Engineer, Web Developer, and more.

MS in Computer Engineering: Bridging the Gap Between Hardware and Software

To put it simply, if computer science professionals bring ideas to life through software, computer engineers bring ideas to life by integrating hardware and software. While computer scientists may develop software for computers or computer-based devices, computer engineers are often responsible for developing and implementing the hardware for these devices.

MS in Computer Engineering courses include education in system design, computer architecture, hardware design, electrical engineering and often offer elective options that teach high-demand skills in software engineering, artificial intelligence, high-performance computing, and wireless communication and networks. Graduates with an MS in Computer Engineering are prepared for roles including Computer Hardware Engineer, Computer Systems Engineer, and Wireless Communications Network Engineer.

Overlap Between Computer Science and Computer Engineering

Despite some of the differences between computer science and computer engineering, there is significant overlap between the disciplines. Both a master’s in computer science and a master’s in computer engineering often offer courses in computer architecture, mathematics, and programming.

While computer scientists primarily design and implement software, computer engineers need to understand software capabilities and requirements for optimizing hardware. Additionally, as embedded systems are used in everything from smartphones and GPS receivers to smart cars and medical equipment, computer engineers integrate both the hardware and embedded software in these devices. Because these technologies are constantly evolving, many master’s in computer engineering programs offer specializations in software engineering and artificial intelligence, preparing graduates for roles such as Software Engineer, Senior Software Engineer, Embedded Software Engineer, and Senior Embedded Software Engineer.

University of Arizona Online Master of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering

Ranked among the top 40 electrical and computer engineering departments in the country according to U.S. News & World Report, the University of Arizona’s Online Master of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) program is a perfect fit for working engineers looking to enter a more design-oriented role and play a central part in the creation and planning phase of new technologies.

The online engineering programs offered by the University of Arizona are flexible and varied, offering a comprehensive path to professional development for engineers in several different industries. Through longstanding partnerships with some of the foremost technology companies in the country, graduates have gone on to pursue advanced positions in global organizations that pursue constant innovation and shape the future of the world.