Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering [Which Master's Degree Is Better?]

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The computing world occupies a vast landscape of disciplines and professions. Even when you know that you want to build a career in computers, it's challenging to get started unless you have some sense of where you're going. There are so many options, it's easy to get lost.

Deciding which direction to pursue is no casual choice. To advance to the upper ranks in many computing disciplines, you will likely need at least a master's degree. Earning one requires a considerable investment of time, money, and effort.

One of the first forks in the road you will encounter is the choice between computer science and computer engineering. The two disciplines are interrelated but undeniably distinct. However, the dividing line is often blurred.

The standard delineation is that computer science focuses on software, while computer engineering focuses on hardware. That's a tidy summary, but unfortunately, it's not accurate: hardware design and development play a significant role in computer science, and computer engineers both write software to operate their hardware and design hardware with the demands of current software in mind. A Venn diagram of computer science and computer engineering would show a substantial area of overlap.

It might be more accurate to say that computer scientists focus on operating systems while computer engineers focus on the physical components. Within those constraints, both design, code, and test software, and both draw on their knowledge of computer architecture to do their work effectively. Both attempt to solve a fundamental problem: what tasks that currently require human activity can be automated so that humans can better spend their time on other things?

So how do you choose one over the other? According to Indeed, you'll make good money whether you decide to become a computer scientist or a computer engineer: over $100,000 a year. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the labor market growth rate for computer scientists should be significantly faster (at 15 percent) than for computer engineers (2 percent), but that is offset somewhat by the fact that there are more than twice as many jobs for the latter as for the former.

In the final analysis, it's probably best to pursue the type of work you find most engaging and suited to your talents. Do you love complex math and abstract puzzles? Computer science is probably a better fit. Are you more of a hands-on, break-it-and-rebuild-it sort of person? You'd probably make an excellent computer engineer.

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

One way to figure out whether you're better suited to computer science or computer engineering is to consider the master's programs for each. Do you better fit one's admissions requirements? Do you find one's curriculum much more compelling? Are you attracted by a particular specialization that is only offered in one of the disciplines?

Note that there are no absolutes when it comes to master's programs because degree naming conventions vary considerably from university to university. Some schools offer a Master of Science in both computer science and computer engineering. Others offer a Master of Engineering in computer science. There may be substantial overlap in the curricula of these and other programs because schools are free to name their degrees as they see fit and design curricula and requirements the same way. You should always review the coursework of each program you're considering to see whether it aligns with your interests and goals instead of relying on degree names alone.

Admission and degree requirements

Applications to SMU Lyle's graduate programs in computer science and computer engineering—and to most competitive computer science master's programs—require the following items:

  • A completed application form
  • Undergraduate transcripts reflecting a minimum GPA of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale, and a minimum of one year of college-level calculus.
  • A professional resume or CV
  • Letters of recommendation or professional references
  • A personal statement explaining your reason for pursuing the degree at the institution to which you are applying
  • Standardized test scores (GRE with a minimum quantitative score in the 80th percentile and, for international students who earned degrees at non-English-instruction institutions, the TOEFL or an equivalent exam)

Specific to SMU Lyle's Online MSCS-AI program, applicants must submit:

  • A bachelor’s degree in one of the quantitative sciences, mathematics or computer science or in one of the engineering disciplines. Students whose undergraduate major was not computer science are considered for admission but may be required to complete prerequisite courses before commencing master's-level coursework.
  • Two professional references, one of whom should be a current or former supervisor who can speak to your character, work experience, and ability to succeed in the MSCS-AI program.
  • SMU Lyle Online may waive the GRE requirement for MSCS-AI applicants with two or more years of computer science-related work experience.

For SMU Lyle's computer engineering master's program, applicants need:

  • A bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, computer science, or a closely related discipline. Applicants with undergraduate degrees in other disciplines may be admitted to the program with articulation coursework.
  • A minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0 in the student's junior and senior years.
  • A reasonable level of mathematical maturity.

Curriculum

It's impossible to summarize a typical computer science or computer engineering curriculum because, as you'll see below, each discipline subdivides into multiple specializations. Computer science and computer engineering master's programs typically require all students to complete a couple of standard core courses. Students then take courses in their area of specialization, followed by electives that may be specialization-focused or focused on related disciplines.

Students in SMU's Online Master of Science in Computer Science with an Artificial Intelligence Specialization must complete the following core courses:

  • File Organization and Database Management
  • Algorithm Engineering
  • Operating Systems and Systems Software
  • Computer Architecture
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Machine Learning in Python

From there, students choose from specialization electives such as:

  • Data Mining
  • Information Retrieval and Web Search
  • Knowledge-Intensive Problem-Solving
  • Machine Learning and Neural Networks
  • Mobile Applications for Sensing and Learning
  • Natural Language Processing and Internet Applications

Students in SMU's on-campus Master of Science in Computer Engineering (MSCpE) complete the following core courses:

  • Computer Networks and Distributed Systems
  • Digital Computer Design
  • Microcontroller Architecture and Interfacing
  • Digital Systems Design

The rest of the computer engineering master's program at SMU is specialization-based. Depending on which concentration students choose, they might take:

  • Advanced Computer Architecture
  • Advanced Network and System Security
  • Computer Networks
  • Data and Network Security
  • Digital Systems Design
  • Fault-Tolerant Computing
  • Internetworking Protocols and Programming
  • Microcontroller Architecture and Interfacing
  • Parallel and Distributed Processing
  • VLSI Algorithms

Specializations

Both computer science and computer engineering are massive subjects encompassing numerous specialization areas. Each school offers its own menu of specialization or concentration options. What and how many specializations a school makes available depends on the size of its department, the demands of the local employment market, and the research interests of faculty.

Students pursuing an on-campus Master of Science in Computer Science at SMU, for example, can specialize in:

  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • Cybersecurity
  • Software engineering
  • Theory of computation

The university also offers the MSCS in artificial intelligence online.

Other computer science master's specializations include:

  • Bioinformatics
  • Computational perception/robotics
  • Computer graphics
  • Data science
  • Database administration
  • Distributed systems
  • Game design
  • Graphics and visualization
  • Health informatics
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Information security
  • Mobile computing
  • Networking
  • Operating systems
  • Programming languages
  • Real-world computing

Students pursuing the M.S. in Computer Engineering at SMU can specialize in:

  • Architecture
  • Design automation
  • Networking

Other schools offer some of these computer engineering specializations as well:

  • Aeronautics
  • Applied technology
  • Biomorphic systems
  • Computer communications and networks
  • Control systems
  • Cybersecurity
  • Data structures and algorithms
  • Hardware and computer architecture
  • Integrated circuits and microsystems
  • Language and speech processing
  • Manufacturing systems
  • Neuromorphic engineering
  • Photonics
  • Quality systems
  • Software development
  • Sustainable systems
  • VLSI systems

As you can see, there is some overlap between the available specializations in these two disciplines.

Program length

Most master's degree programs can be completed in two years of full-time study. Accelerated one-year programs are available but—be forewarned—extremely intense. You probably shouldn't even consider a one-year program if you don't already have a solid background in your field of choice.

If you are currently a computer science or computer engineering undergraduate, check to see whether your school offers a 4+1 BS/MS program, which enables you to earn your bachelor's and master's degrees in five years. These, too, are very intense programs. Talk with other students in the program to know what you're getting into before you commit.

Part-time programs typically take two to six years to complete. Most online programs, such as the Online MSCS with AI Specialization at SMU Lyle, cater to part-time students who—although they continue to work full-time while they study—complete their degree in two years.

Cost

Master of Science in Computer Science programs charge anywhere from $500 to $3,000 per academic credit. Programs typically require 30 to 36 credits to graduate, meaning you'll pay anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000 in tuition for this degree. In addition, you will pay various fees; many online programs, for example, charge a technology fee. The Online MSCS: AI at SMU charges $1,350 per credit tuition for a total program cost of $40,500. You should file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine whether you qualify for financial assistance. Federal and private loans are also available.

Computer engineering master's programs may charge as little as $400 per credit hour to $3,000. As a result, this degree can cost anywhere from $12,000 to $100,000, plus fees. As for computer science graduate students, financial assistance is available.

Is it worth the investment? According to the Social Security Administration, people with master's degrees earn between $500,000 and $600,000 more over their lifetime than people with bachelor's degrees (and over $1 million more than high school graduates). A graduate degree also qualifies you for a broader range of job opportunities, increasing the likelihood of finding work you find satisfying and fulfilling. Attending a nationally recognized university—like SMU—enables you to build a network that further improves your career prospects.

Career paths and earning potential

As previously mentioned, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects rapid growth in the computer science job market—15 percent—over the next decade. Computer engineering should continue to grow at a slower rate (2 percent) but offers more jobs overall. Both professions are somewhat conducive to remote work, meaning they are less affected by the pandemic than others have been. The continued computerization of nearly all activities bodes well for the future; growth means opportunity, and there should be plenty of growth in this sector.

That's especially true of artificial intelligence. CNBC recently reported that artificial intelligence engineer hiring has increased by 32 percent since 2019, with median salaries ranging from $124,000 to $150,000. Dice Insights contends that "there will continue to be a huge demand for AI/ML engineers as well as AI developers, ML scientists, AWS or Azure data scientists" going forward. Now is an excellent time to be in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

What sorts of job titles can you expect to qualify for with an M.S. in Computer Science? Note that salary data—collected from job posting websites—are self-reported and not scientifically calculated. They are estimates and should be considered accordingly.

A Master of Science in Computer Engineering puts you on track for the following careers:

M.S. in Computer Science vs. M.S. in Computer Engineering: which is for you?

We've provided the information you need—program details and career opportunities—to determine which option is best for you. Obviously, only you can decide because only you know your unique talents, interests, and ambitions. Know that whichever path you choose, opportunities for a fulfilling and remunerative career await you.

As we've already discussed, artificial intelligence is a particularly promising field, with rapid advances driving opportunities and job market growth. SMU Lyle Online is one of only a handful of schools offering an artificial intelligence computer science master's program online. If you would prefer to continue working while pursuing your MSCS, online learning can make that easier. If you want an artificial intelligence master's but don't live near an excellent school that offers one, the Online MSCS: AI from SMU solves your problem without requiring you to relocate.

While you're learning online in this part-time program, you'll be able to continue working and earning. Additionally, you'll have the opportunity to apply what you learn immediately to real-world situations at your job. Remote learning also means no trips to campus, saving you hours of commuting and relieving you of the stress of traffic and parking. Your classroom will be anywhere you have access to a computer and wifi.

SMU's Online M.S. in Computer Science with an Artificial Intelligence Specialization offers an unusual number of curricular options. Many online curricula consist mainly of core curriculum and required specialization courses; they offer few electives (some offer none at all). Lyle's 30-credit master's program includes only 12 required credits: two core courses and two artificial intelligence courses. The other 18 credits are yours to do with as you wish; you can dig deeper into a range of artificial intelligence topics or explore a related field to fashion your own AI area of expertise. You can commit 6 credits to a thesis if you like, or you can follow the no-thesis option and add more electives.

Your coursework at SMU Lyle Online will include weekly live sessions with faculty and classmates. These virtual classes, facilitated by Zoom, help forge strong relationships among students and between students and instructors. Online office hours provide additional opportunities for you to confer and network with faculty.

SMU Lyle Online takes a holistic approach to education, emphasizing concepts and practices with broad applications across industries and situations. The curriculum stresses practical, hands-on learning in real-world situations with a focus on design thinking to ensure students graduate with the ability to design projects and implement innovative solutions. An emphasis on AI's ethical consequences encourages students to consider this rising technology's moral and social impacts.

The Lyle School of Engineering enjoys national and regional renown. And it's open to students of varying skill levels because the curriculum includes the programming training you need to earn your master's degree. Start your application now—and you'll be on your way to an increasingly in-demand career.