Computer Science vs. Software Engineering: What’s the Difference?

Industry Advice STEM

Many technology professionals know that earning a graduate degree can help them advance in their careers. Case in point: Across all industries, workers who hold a master’s degree earn 18 percent more than bachelor’s degree holders over the course of their careers, and those who work specifically in the technology industry can see a salary increase as high as $30,000 after earning a graduate degree.

It can be difficult to know which degree is the right one to pursue, however, given the many IT and tech programs available.

Two degrees that prospective students often consider and compare when choosing a degree are computer science and software engineering. Though these degrees are in many ways related, they are also different in key areas; these differences make each program better suited to individuals pursuing particular careers or goals.

Below, we explore the similarities and differences between computer science and software engineering so that you will better be able to determine which degree program is the right one for you.

Download Our Free Guide to Breaking into Computer Science

Whether you have a technical or non-technical background, here’s what you need to know.


Computer Science and Software Engineering

Before choosing a degree to pursue, it’s important to first understand what we mean when we refer to “computer science” and “software engineering.”

Computer science is the study of computers, including how they work, how they are used, and the underlying processes that enable them to function. At a high level, the field is comprised of four interrelated subject areas: theory, programming, architecture, and algorithms.

At the undergraduate level, students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in CS will typically be exposed to concepts and lessons from all of these categories to gain a broad understanding of computer science. At the graduate level, though, students will often choose a single area of focus that allows them to develop a deeper understanding of the area most related to their interests or career goals.

Many master-level computer science programs will segment this further by offering specific concentrations or specializations. For example, the Northeastern University Master of Science in Computer Science program offers eleven specializations for students to choose from, including:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Computer-human Interface
  • Data Science
  • Game Design
  • Graphics
  • Information Security
  • Networks
  • Programming Languages
  • Software Engineering
  • Systems
  • Theory

At both the graduate and undergraduate level, most computer science programs will include a heavy emphasis on applied mathematics, as having strong mathematical, analytical, and computing skills are essential to the kind of work expected of graduates.

Software engineering is the study of software and software systems, primarily focused on how they are built, managed, tested, debugged, maintained, and continuously improved. It involves the application of the principles of engineering to the development of software.

As such, individuals pursuing a graduate degree in software engineering will typically study much of the same foundational topics as students of computer science. The main difference, however, is in the emphasis and application of this learning.

Put simply, while an MS in Computer Science is a science degree, an MS in Software Engineering is an engineering degree. This means that software engineering, by nature, is more focused on the design and development of software products, and typically requires a deeper understanding of various engineering principles that are not necessarily required to pursue a degree in computer science. For example, in many cases, students in software engineering will learn about the principles of electrical engineering.

Choosing Which Degree is Right for You

Ultimately, choosing between earning a degree in computer science vs. software engineering will depend on your own personal career goals and aspirations. The advice below can help you to determine your best path forward.

1. Think in terms of skills.

When choosing between computer science and software engineering, it’s important for you to think about skills: Both those that you already have and those you wish to develop further.

Computer science is rooted in math, theory, and logic. Those who already have strong mathematical skills may find it easier to succeed in computer science than those with more limited math skills. At the same time, those who would like to further develop their math and logic skills, or who would like to develop expertise in an advanced field such as artificial intelligence or machine learning, would also likely find computer science to be the degree that will best help them do this.

Software engineering, on the other hand, places much more emphasis on the hands-on application of your knowledge and skills to bring a piece of software from conception through launch and maintenance. Those with strong project management skills, then, may find themselves more comfortable in this type of work. Similarly, those who would like to strengthen their project management skills and learn about the overall product life cycle would likely benefit from a degree in software engineering.

2. Seek opportunities for hands-on experience to test the waters.

If you are unsure which degree program makes the most sense for your career goals, it would be wise to seek out a program that emphasizes hands-on, experiential learning.

Whether in the form of internships or co-op work programs, this experience can help you test the waters in at least one—and perhaps multiple—different positions, offering insight that you can use to better align your education to your passions and interests.

If you’re unsure about whether or not a particular program offers the kind of experiential learning that you’re looking for, you should reach out to an academic advisor with any questions that you might have.

3. Remember that your decision isn’t black and white.

Computer science and software engineering are different fields of study. But the fact remains that they are both built upon the same core knowledge and principles. In fact, it’s not uncommon for some programs (like Northeastern’s) to offer a Master of Science in Computer Science with a concentration in software engineering.

It’s for this reason that those who hold a master’s degree in computer science and those who hold a master’s degree in software engineering can often be found working in similar capacities and even hold many of the same job titles.

Ultimately, the degree you earn is just the starting point for your career in the technology industry. While it provides the necessary foundation for a successful career, other factors—such as hands-on experience and a robust network to leverage—are also important to consider.

Not sure whether you should pursue a master’s degree in computer science or a related field? Download our guide below to learn more about how you can break into the tech industry, including the different educational paths that can help you get there.

Download Our Free Guide to Breaking into Computer Science