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

Debating Software Engineering vs. Computer Science? Though related, Software Engineering is a subset of Computer Science, the holistic study of all aspects of computers. Read more now.

Computer Scientist working on complex Software Engineering and Systems

Software Engineering and the other "branches" of Computer Science - from Machine Learning to Cybersecurity, Computer Engineering to Human Computer Interaction - all offer high-growth career paths and fascinating academic areas of study. While related, Computer Science offers a broad “generalist” understanding of all interconnected aspects of modern computers, while Software Engineering (or Development) focuses on the design and implementation of large-scale, complex software systems - for example, a personalized recommendations algorithm.

Which pursuit is right for you, based on your unique goals, interests and long-term aspirations?

In this guide, we’ll get into more specifics about what each path entails to help you make an informed decision when planning your education path and career trajectory. Both pursuits require basic-to-intermediate programming (coding) skills, but beyond that, do you want to zero in on the immediate, practical skills (like programming algorithms) without needing the "why", or do you need to know "why" things work the way they do, zooming out to see the bigger picture of low- vs. high-abstraction programming languages and where to integrate machine learning? Do you want the long-term career mobility and versatility a broad Computer Science platform provides, or do you want to focus on building products and services as a Software Engineer or Developer?

While it may be a decade or two before programming fundamentally changes, in the future software engineers will become designers, guiding AI as it writes code. Currently, there’s a tremendous shortage of programmers. This technology will help fill that gap and increase production.

- Read more about Rice CS's breakthrough machine learning research.

What is Software Engineering?

Software engineering is the process of developing new software to solve problems, help individuals accomplish tasks, and deliver solutions to meet different needs across a range of industries. The main focus is on designing and implementing programs and using different programming languages to help make those solutions widely available to users across different platforms.

As a software engineer, you’ll work primarily with algorithms, programming, user's needs, and problem solving. Some software engineers use their skills to create mobile apps, software, and algorithms for businesses. Others create games and programs designed for consumers. You will likely work alongside computer engineers who maintain the systems and hardware that your software will run on.

How Does Computer Science Differ?

Computer science provides a broad, generalist understanding of all facets of computers, software, systems and how emerging technologies like AI/Machine Learning integrate into or augment existing frameworks and paradigms. The career applications are broader: you may choose to work on networks, improve cybersecurity, build databases, create machine learning algorithms, and run functional analysis of different systems.

Software engineering is more focused on the design of large-scale systems, digital products and services. Software engineers decide what user problem the software needs to solve, prioritize features and functionality, prototype and test in an iterative cycle of constant learning and improving. Computer science goes far beyond designing large-scale systems and CS graduates are equipped to work on emerging technologies across a range of industry applications. A master’s in computer science can enable students to pursue careers in growing fields such as robotics, automation, and infrastructure development. MCS@Rice alumni have gone on to work as data scientists, software engineers, business strategists, software security architects, and more.

Software Engineering vs Computer Science: Career Paths

When choosing between the different fields, it’s important to look at the types of careers you’d be able to pursue once you graduate with a degree. While both fields offer unique and challenging opportunities, graduating with a master of computer science degree will give you more options and more potential career paths to choose from compared to a master of software engineering degree.

What Can You Do With Software Engineering?

Software engineering typically has a lower barrier to entry than computer science because the main function of programming can be learned at the certification or bachelor degree level. Though pay will depend on the type of position and location, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median software developer salary is $110,140.

Software engineering is a diverse field and there are many different career paths that you can pursue. The specialty you choose largely depends on the tasks you enjoy, but some of the most popular focus areas include applications software development and systems software development.

Some of the career options you can pursue with a master of software engineering include:

  • Web Developer: Web developers are responsible for building websites, writing/updating code, and making sure sites continue working with the latest devices, varying internet speeds, and device types.
  • Mobile App Developer: Mobile app developers use their software engineering skills to write and develop mobile apps, games, and more. They can specialize in a single platform like iOS or Android or develop cross-compatible apps.
  • Quality Assurance Engineer: Quality assurance engineers make sure systems, software, and programs run smoothly by monitoring for bugs and viruses and implementing solutions to address those issues.
  • Database Administrator: Database administrators are in charge of monitoring and managing databases for private companies and government entities alike. Each day, they manage tasks like data organization, data recovery, and troubleshooting for users.
  • Applications Software Development: Build applications for the most common operating systems like iOS, Linux, Windows, and Android with the goal of creating a fully functioning program for end users.
  • Systems Software Development: Create, implement, and maintain the software and hardware for those operating systems. This means writing new programs and finding ways to integrate existing programs into the system for the end user.

What’s the Difference in Career Paths Between Software Engineering and Computer Science?

The main difference between software engineering and computer science career paths lies in the variety of positions you’re able to secure. A degree in software engineering limits the job search to software engineering positions. Computer science covers software engineering and opens up a broader range of topics to develop a more diverse skill set that makes pursuing jobs across different tech spaces easier.

So, which pays more: software engineering or computer science? With a master’s degree in computer science, the median salary for Computer and Research Scientists is $126,830. Compared to a software engineer, you’ll have more growth potential and upward mobility, which also increases your earning potential. That’s because the degree program gives you the knowledge you need to pursue senior and leadership roles in software engineering, data science, machine learning, artificial intelligence and more.

Because the computer science program covers more diverse subject matter, you’ll be better prepared to tackle more complex problems that someone with a narrower focus (like software engineering) may not be prepared to handle.

Some examples of master’s in computer science careers include:

  • (Senior) Product Manager: Top tech companies often prefer an advanced degree in a technical field to land a complex product management role. These computer scientists lead a team of engineers to dream up and create the next big innovation.
  • Cybersecurity Architect: Build defenses and address vulnerabilities within complex computer systems, protect organizations from a fast-growing number of online attacks, and manage the teams that secure the systems.
  • AI / ML Expert: Create and develop machine learning algorithms that enable computers to learn from or adapt to new data.
  • Software Development Director: Work with enterprises to manage the end-to-end software development process.
  • RPA Developer: Leverage robotic process automation to create, design, and develop automated processes that maximize efficiency and scale successful initiatives.

Software Engineering vs Computer Science: Necessary Skills and Education Paths

The outcomes you can expect when you graduate from a software engineering program or a computer science program can vary greatly. Each program helps you develop a different skill set and the skills you develop and master during your program can impact the types of jobs you can qualify for.

What Skills are Needed for Software Engineering?

Software engineers create programs and build software for businesses and consumers.

Some of the required skills for a software engineer include:

  • Programming, or Coding: As a software engineer, you’ll need to have a firm understanding of at least one computer language to enable you to build programs. You’ll use this language to program and code software to accomplish various tasks.
  • Strong Computer Science Fundamentals: Software engineers need basic knowledge of computer science concepts, including writing algorithms, understanding data structures, experience with programming languages, and understanding computer architecture.
  • Problem-Solving: Though it’s possible for software to work perfectly right out of the gate, it’s highly unlikely. You’ll need to test the programs, identify errors, and come up with scalable solutions prior to and after implementation.
  • Communication: As a software engineer, you’ll interact with teams of developers, executives, and consumers. This means you’ll need strong written and verbal communication skills so you can explain programs, inquire about issues, and provide technical support to solve those issues.
  • Organization: Keeping track of each stage of development for each program you’re building means you’ll need to stay organized each day. If you don’t, you risk projects falling behind schedule which hurts your productivity and the business you’re working for.

For most software engineer positions, employers will expect applicants to have at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science or some software engineering experience.

What are the Different Skills Needed for Computer Science vs Software Engineering?

A degree in either computer science or software engineering can help you get a great job. But the wider range of skills you can acquire in a computer science program can result in more career options once you graduate, over a long span of time.

In the MCS@Rice program, you gain these skills:

  • Depth and Breadth of Computer Science Understanding: You'll deeply understand and be able to articulate the "why" behind every facet of modern computer systems - from programming languages to AI and machine learning, cybersecurity to advanced algorithms and software.
  • Engineer Mindset: Computer scientists need to understand machine architecture and how computers and operating systems enable scalable solutions that can fit a wide variety of business use cases.
  • Adaptable Programming Understanding: While coding isn’t a computer scientist's primary job, it is a necessary skill. To develop your career trajectory, you will master a range of in-demand programming languages including Python, Racket, Ruby, Java and more.
  • Data Analysis: Computer scientists need to be able to architect solutions that rely on and run data of all sizes and shapes. This includes data collection and organizing and manipulating data with databases and other technology.
  • Communicating Solutions: Computer scientists will collaborate with developers and executives in various roles. As such, computer science positions require the ability to collaborate and communicate.
  • Advanced Mathematics: Math helps you understand data structure and programming languages and supports effective problem-solving. Computer scientists need skill in statistics, calculus, linear algebra, and other advanced mathematics.

Most computer scientists will have at least an undergraduate bachelor's degree in computer science, although degrees in science and engineering are also common. Increasingly, students with bachelor's degrees in social sciences or the humanities are pursuing Computer Science degrees, as long as they have basic-to-intermediate programming knowledge.

Consider a Master of Computer Science to Flex Beyond Software Engineering

Today, innovation and digital transformation go far behind software engineering. A master’s-level education in computer science equips students with the versatility to work in any number of emerging technologies like AI and Machine Learning. Advanced computer scientists have the breath of knowledge that allows them to quickly pivot, applying their core understanding and skills to almost any field or industry.

To understand the distinction between Programmers, Software Engineers and Computer Scientists, consider the differences between a line cook, a sous chef, and a Michelin-star head chef. A line cook can follow an existing recipe and execute it well, and a sous chef can devise menus and direct the food preparation process, but the Michelin-star head chef will create new recipes and pioneer new techniques and fusions as society evolves. Many programmers and software developers can only write the programs that other computer scientists tell them to, which can limit how much they can drive innovation in their field.

Top companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google hire CS master's students to help solve society's most complex and challenging problems. Rice’s online Master of Computer Science was designed by our world-class Faculty, who provide unique 1:1, individualized attention to our students and are recognized for their extensive research achievements, thought leadership and decades of teaching experience. Our rigorous, non-thesis curriculum helps you develop core understanding and real-world skills that make you fluent in many facets of computer science and in demand by employers.

Along with important core courses, you’ll also gain differentiating competencies including:

  • An engineering mindset to solve problems in the most efficient and systematic way
  • In-depth exposure to a variety of emerging technologies including AI/ML, Cybersecurity, Data Science, Data Visualization, and more
  • Business acumen and project management skills for leadership roles at top companies

Learn more about how the MCS@Rice online degree program can meet your goals for a rewarding computer science career. Explore our curriculum offerings and our best-in-class student experience.