Network Engineering vs. Software Engineering: Which Master's Degree Is Best for You?

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The lines between tech disciplines have grown increasingly blurry. Software-powered solutions and the cloud dominate areas of information technology and computing that were once hardware-focused. Employers expect technologists across fields to have programming skills. And emerging technologies like artificial intelligence are changing what advancement looks like in tech. This isn't a problem for people with their careers mapped out as clearly in the long term as in the short term, but it can be for computer science bachelor's degree holders and technology professionals who aren't sure what they want to do next.

"Network engineer" and "software engineer" represent two separate and distinct career pathways, but both come with higher-than-average salaries and career stability. The work is interesting, and there are ample educational and certification opportunities in both networking and software. Choosing between them isn't always easy, as evidenced by the many threads on sites like Quora, Reddit, and StackExchange, in which users ask for help solving the network engineering vs. software engineering question. Reading through those posts can certainly be interesting, but when you're the one trying to answer that question, learning as much as you can about each discipline is much more illuminating.

Whether you belong in a Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE) program like that offered by SMU Lyle Online or in a Master of Science in Software Engineering (MSSE) program like the Lyle School of Engineering's on-campus program is something only you can decide. This guide digs into both disciplines in depth so you can carefully evaluate each before making your final decision.

What Is Network Engineering?

Network engineering is concerned with designing, configuring, deploying, monitoring, and maintaining computer networks and networking infrastructure. Professionals in this field do work that combines elements of IT, operations, cybersecurity, automation, and programming, such as:

  • Creating infrastructure strategy and budgets
  • Building computer networks based on user requirements
  • Integrating new technology into existing networks
  • Updating or replacing out-of-date networks
  • Implementing network security measures
  • Monitoring, testing, and enhancing network performance
  • Overseeing capacity planning and scaling as networks grow
  • Troubleshooting network issues and outages

The ROI of a network engineering degree is the same across industries because network engineers work in every field that uses computers (which is almost all of them). Open positions are abundant—particularly in technology hubs where data centers are plentiful—because network engineer and related roles like network administrator and network architect are hard to fill due to skill shortages. In the past, networking was historically treated more like a trade, and professionals learned how to set up physical local area networks and wide area networks on the job. Today, companies increasingly expect networking engineers to have full-stack skills, advanced technical skills, coding skills, and business management skills professionals gain in degree programs.

Masters in Network Engineering programs help students stand out in crowded job markets and transition into senior-level and management networking positions.

What Is Software Engineering?

Software engineering is a discipline that applies engineering principles and approaches to software development, but many people use titles like software engineer and software developer interchangeably. Some sources assert that software engineers design and deploy software systems. In contrast, software developers build individual applications, but Merriam-Webster defines software engineering as "a branch of computer science that deals with the design, implementation, and maintenance of complex computer programs"—and complexity can mean many different things. In general, software engineers are responsible for developing, maintaining, and managing software-based applications and systems throughout the product lifecycle or overseeing the processes involved.

Like network engineers, software engineers work in nearly every industry. Many work for technology companies, but firms in banking and finance, manufacturing, healthcare, retail, and government also employ front-end engineers, back-end engineers, web developers, application developers, and full-stack engineers.

What Is the Difference Between Network Engineering and Software Engineering?

The primary differences between these disciplines have to do with scope and necessary skills. Network engineers deal with the nodes or endpoints involved in moving digital data between devices. They are experts in network protocols, network topology, and increasingly, virtualization and automation. Software engineers deal with the layers of abstract instructions that tell digital devices what to do. They are experts in programming, testing, and solving problems with systems.

Software engineer is technically the broader role because programmers can use their skills to develop everything from user interfaces to operating systems to databases. But network engineers have to know enough about different areas of IT and information systems management to create, maintain and scale the complex computer systems that enable both technologists and laypeople to do their jobs, and the knowledge base associated with networking is much broader. Consequently, the educational requirements for network engineers and software engineers are quite different, though both benefit from graduate degrees and certifications.

The Educational Requirements in Network Engineering vs. Software Engineering

The bachelor's degree is the most common entry-level credential in both network engineering and software engineering, but advancing in these disciplines often involves earning a specialized field-specific master's degree. Completing a graduate program in your chosen discipline can help you stand out from the crowd, qualify for senior-level roles and earn more. Here's how the advanced degree pathways differ in network engineering and software engineering.

M.S. in Network Engineering

Masters in Network Engineering programs help students stand out in crowded job markets and transition into senior-level and management networking positions. At SMU, core courses and electives also prepare MSNE candidates to sit for salary-boosting certifications like the Cisco, Juniper, Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, Openstack, and the Linux Foundation.

Admission Requirements

The ideal network engineering master's applicant has a bachelor's degree in computer science, mathematics or an engineering discipline—plus some programming experience. SMU Lyle Online does consider applicants with undergraduate degrees in disciplines other than computer science with the caveat that students accepted into the program may need to take articulation coursework or satisfy a competency requirement in addition to satisfying the program's graduation requirements.

Length of Program

Most MSNE programs take about two years to complete. The flexibility of SMU Lyle's part-time Online M.S. in Network Engineering allows students to complete the program in as long as six years or as short as 20 months by taking one to three classes per semester.

Curriculum

The curriculum in the typical MSNE program covers network design, network management, network security and advanced wireless networks. SMU Lyle School of Engineering students take four core network engineering courses and seven electives (including advanced network engineering courses) designed by program faculty in response to industry trends like virtualization and employer demand. Courses currently include:

  • Introduction to Networks
  • TCP/IP Network Administration
  • Network Protocols
  • Cloud Engineering
  • Advanced Cloud Engineering
  • Switching and Routing With Lab
  • Wireless, Cellular and Personal Telecommunications
  • Multiprotocol Label Switching
  • Internet Telephony
  • Software Defined Networks
  • Advanced Topics in Wireless Communication
  • Wireless Networks
  • Switching and QoS Management in IP Networks
  • Telecommunications Network Security
  • Network Analysis, Architecture and Design
  • Telecommunications Network Management
  • Optical and DWDM Networks
  • Network Automations and Programmability
  • Data Center Network Engineering with Lab
  • Development and Operations (DevOps) for Network Engineers
  • Advanced Network Design with Lab

In addition to coursework, students complete hands-on lab work and experience-building project work with companies and organizations like CITI, AT&T, and Verizon.

Tuition

The program's total cost is just $43,500, making the Online MSNE an excellent investment considering that a network engineer with a bachelor's degree might earn about $75,000 while networking master's degree holders earn closer to $100,000. Graduate degree holders earn this wage premium because their skills are up-to-date. They have real-world experience and have the credentials many employers require in managers and senior-level employees.

After earning an MSNE, some network engineers opt to pursue doctoral degrees—either to boost their chances of landing a position at companies like Amazon, Google, Cisco, and Juniper or because they want to conduct original research into network engineering. If the idea is intriguing, be aware that no doctoral-level programs in the United States are dedicated solely to network engineering. There are, however, computer engineering and computer science PhD programs that offer networking as a specialization.

Choosing the right path is ultimately a matter of knowing what kind of work you enjoy and what kind of education you will need to do it.

M.S. in Software Engineering

While software engineering boot camps abound, advancing with a graduate degree is much easier. Some companies even limit hiring for senior-level and executive positions in development and IT to candidates with credentials like the MSNE.

Admission requirements

Many software engineering master's programs look for applicants with bachelor's degrees in computer science, software engineering, or related technology fields. Most expect applicants to have some programming experience. At SMU, the admission requirements for the on-campus M.S. in Software Engineering include a minimum of two years of professional experience in software development and maintenance and the ability to write programs in a high-level language like Java, C++, or Python.

Length of Program

Most MSSE programs require that students complete about 30 credit hours of coursework over about two years. SMU's 30-credit hour on-campus software engineering master's program takes 20 months to complete.

Curriculum

The coursework in the typical MSSE programs teaches advanced technical skills and software engineering processes. Lyle School of Engineering students take four core courses and six electives (including 12 credit hours of advanced elective classes) based on Software Engineering Institute guidance. Available courses include:

  • Software Testing and Quality Assurance
  • Software Project Planning and Management
  • Software Requirements
  • Software Architecture and Design
  • Intellectual Property and Information Technology
  • Service-Oriented Computing
  • Advanced Application Programming
  • Data and Network Security
  • Software Generation and Maintenance
  • Object-Oriented Analysis and Design
  • Software Metrics and Quality Engineering
  • Software Acquisition, Legal and Economic Issues
  • User Interface Design
  • Software Reliability and Safety
  • Advanced Topics in Software Engineering

Tuition

The total cost of SMU's Master of Science in Software Engineering is $36,000 plus general student fees and course fees, and the ROI of this degree is similar to that of the MSNE. The typical software engineer earns around $87,000, while the MSSE is associated with salaries of more than $100,000.

Some software engineering master's holders earn PhDs, though most students pursuing doctoral degrees in software engineering aspire to work in research or academia. When they work in industry settings, they are often in roles requiring niche-area expertise or in R&D.

What are the Similarities Between the MSNE and the MSSE?

Given how different networking and software development are, it should come as no surprise that there is little overlap between MSNE and MSSE programs. However, network engineers use skills essential in software engineering and vice versa. The increasing use of automation in networking and software-defined networking may change how universities teach networking in the future. Currently, both academic pathways:

  • Attract potential students with professional experience
  • Prefer applicants to have undergraduate degrees in computer science or other technical disciplines
  • Require enrollees to have programming experience
  • Prepare students to take the exams they need to pass to earn salary-boosting professional certifications
  • Lead to higher salaries and increased access to opportunity

The Job Outlook in Network Engineering vs. Software Engineering

The demand for network engineers is high and will grow by 6.5 percent over the next 10 years. According to market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies, which analyzes hundreds of millions of job postings in real-time, employers posted 147,000 jobs for network engineers in the past 12 months and the median salary associated with those positions was about $102,000. The highest-paid network engineers can earn more than $135,000, and top-paying sectors for network engineers include:

  • Computer systems design
  • Corporate management
  • Educational services
  • Finance and insurance
  • Information technology

These companies pay network engineers some of the highest salaries:

  • Boeing
  • Facebook
  • General Dynamics Information Technology
  • Northrop Grumman
  • SAIC
  • USAA
  • Vectrus
  • VISA

Meanwhile, the demand for software engineers looks higher on paper—838,000 jobs posted in the past year and 30.7 percent growth—but keep in mind these figures include both high-profile, high-paying positions at Big Tech firms and relatively low-paying programmer gigs in fields other than tech. Top-paying sectors for software engineers overlap to some degree with those of network engineers and include:

  • Software publishing
  • Manufacturing
  • Corporate management
  • Computer systems design
  • Insurance

These companies pay mid-level software engineers some of the highest salaries:

  • Airbnb
  • Box
  • Doordash
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Lyft
  • Netflix
  • Pinterest
  • Roblox
  • Stripe

The most important takeaway is that employers are creating jobs for both network engineers and software engineers much faster than the average across all occupations—and paying them more, too. Both careers can be incredibly lucrative.

Career Paths in Network Engineering vs. Software Engineering

Any overlap between these disciplines disappears when you look at titles.

Entry-level titles in network engineering include:

  • Junior network engineer
  • IT engineer
  • Managed services engineer
  • Network administrator
  • Network engineer I
  • Network implementation technician

Senior titles in network engineering include:

  • Cloud network engineer
  • Network architect
  • Principal network engineer
  • Senior network engineer
  • Senior network manager
  • Virtualization engineer

Entry-level titles in software engineering include:

  • Application developer
  • Computer programmer
  • IT project manager
  • Junior software engineer
  • Multimedia programmer
  • Product manager
  • Quality assurance analyst
  • Software architect

Senior titles in software engineering include:

  • Director of software development
  • Engineering fellow
  • Lead software engineer
  • Principal engineer
  • Senior software engineer
  • Software architect
  • Software development manager
  • Technical lead
  • Vice president of product management

Competition for early-career positions can be fierce in both disciplines, but companies across industries struggle to fill more senior roles because they can't find qualified applicants. That suggests earning either an MSNE or an MSSE can help you become a leader in your field—whichever field you choose.

Should I Become a Network Engineer or a Software Engineer?

There is no one correct answer because the question itself is subjective. You may earn about the same amount throughout your career—more than the average for all tech jobs combined—whether you specialize in network engineering or software engineering, and a master's degree can prepare you for technical and managerial roles in both fields. That means the answer to the network engineering vs. software engineering question comes down to what you want your career to look like.

Software is the more unpredictable field in that developers can work on many different types of projects requiring very different skills, while networking professionals might use the same technical skills regardless of industry. That doesn't mean network engineering isn't an evolving field, however. Cloud computing, virtualization, and Machine Learning are changing networking, which means there is plenty to learn.

Some people in the many network engineering vs. software engineering threads assert that one or the other is the more stressful field, but that ignores the fact that career stress has more to do with environment than role. There are lots of burnt-out software engineers and lots of network engineers who enjoy the excitement of not knowing what technical challenge they will face on any given day and the satisfaction of building a system that works really well. Choosing the right path is ultimately a matter of knowing what kind of work you enjoy and what kind of education you will need to do it.

Just keep in mind the bar is getting higher in both career pathways, and network engineers have to be experts in their field just like software engineers. Advanced degrees are more common than ever before in both disciplines, and the technology world is evolving at a breakneck pace. If you decide network engineering is for you, chances are you will earn more and advance more quickly with a graduate degree like the Online M.S. in Network Engineering from SMU Lyle because you will have the skills necessary to work in a networking landscape where the only constant is change.

Ready to learn more about how to enhance your career with an Online Masters in Network Engineering from SMU Lyle? Here's what you need to know about our admissions and application requirements, tuition, and the online student experience.