If you want a degree that leads to working with computers, there are three main paths you should explore: computer science, information technology, and computer engineering. These are the pillars of the technology field, and most other tech degrees are iterations of them.
These fields are highly interconnected, so many of the foundational courses, principles, and skills you’ll learn in these programs will overlap. And while you can probably land a job in computer science with an IT degree, and vice versa, each program has a different focus.
To give you a framework for understanding the differences, here’s a one-word summary of each degree type:
Computer science: software
Information technology: networks
Computer engineering: hardware
Obviously, that’s just scratching the surface, so let’s get into the nuances of each program. The exact differences will vary from school to school, but we’re going to look at some of the unique courses each program may offer, careers they lead to with salaries (courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics), and the skills employers want you to have in each field.
Overview of a computer science degree
Computer science uses a variety of coding languages to communicate with computers. These languages are comprised of algorithms and unique mathematical systems, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses for solving various problems. To utilize these languages effectively, computer scientists have to understand exactly how and why computers work the way they do.
Like all sciences, computer science comprises both the theoretical and practical applications of its subject—in this case, computing. You’ll explore what’s possible through computing and how to navigate the intricate relationship between hardware and software. With a blend of technical expertise and critical thinking skills, computer scientists develop software and operating systems to solve unique, complex problems. This includes apps and operating systems for mobile and desktop, as well as web-based apps, and more.
This requires an in-depth knowledge of hardware and its functions, and that’s where computer science is sometimes conflated with computer engineering. Computer science majors need to be intimately familiar with hardware because it drastically alters what you can do with programming and software. But unlike computer engineering, your studies won’t focus on designing, engineering, or manufacturing that hardware.
The coding languages you’ll learn will completely depend on the particular computer science degree program you take. Some programs make it easy to see which languages you’ll learn, but for a lot of them, you’ll need to talk to an advisor first. Most likely, you’ll only become proficient in a couple of languages, and you’ll be exposed to several. When it comes time to look for jobs though, the companies you apply to may rely on languages you didn’t learn in school. So you’ll probably have to learn some on the side (this is super doable).
Here are some of the main coding languages you might learn:
What kind of courses do you take in computer science?
Computer science courses will certainly overlap with IT and computer engineering, but your curriculum will likely focus on topics like:
- Operating systems
- Software engineering
- User interface
- Programming languages
- Discrete mathematics
What kind of careers does a computer science degree lead to?
Most jobs for computer science majors fall under one of three main career paths: software development, systems engineering, or web development. There are lots of variations of these jobs.
A software developer designs and codes programs—everything from tools like Microsoft Office to video games and mobile apps.
A systems engineer designs the operating systems that provide the building blocks for software. If an operating system doesn’t have the capabilities a piece of software needs, it won’t work as well—or maybe at all.
Every website is coded to look and behave in a particular way. Some generic platforms like WordPress or SquareSpace make it possible for anybody to create a website without knowing much about coding (thanks, of course, to a developer), but for a website to have more advanced functionality or perform complex tasks—which most companies need their site to do—a web developer has to code it.
Here are median salaries for each of these careers, as reported by the Department of Labor:
- Software developer: $100,000 per year
- Systems engineer: $106,000 per year
- Web developer: $66,000 per year
Since there’s often a lot of overlap in the curriculum, a computer science degree can also lead to careers in IT and computer engineering.
What skills should I have to get a computer science job?
To do well in computer science, you need to be highly analytical. If you enjoy using formulas and algorithms to solve problems in math and science, that’s going to serve you well in computer science. Since you’ll need to be proficient in several coding languages, some computer science programs encourage students to learn Spanish, French, or another spoken language. This can help you pick up new languages faster.
Companies also want to see computer science majors with good communication skills. Everybody has to work with people. And since you have a highly technical role, it’s easy to forget how to communicate the value, purpose, and functionality of what you’re doing. When marketers, salespeople, customer service reps, customers, or executives have questions about the tools you make, can you give an answer they can understand?
Overview of an information technology degree
Information technology plays an integral role in an organization that uses computers. Without it, employees would flounder in the mind-numbing deluge of data and software. Even with IT professionals on their side, some people are bound to get brain cramps every time their hardware or software fails to function as designed.
This is when IT saves the day. Information technology professionals help organizations organize their data in the most efficient ways possible, making it easily accessible to employees while protecting it from everyone else. They are experts in harnessing the full capabilities of software and hardware to help organizations achieve their goals.
What kind of courses do you take in information technology?
An IT degree program gives you a solid grasp of how to build, maintain, and protect networks, as well as how to choose the right hardware and software to get the job done. You’ll spend a lot of time learning about how to utilize databases and manipulate technological infrastructure. Depending on the school, your IT program could offer specializations in topics like:
- Network and security
- Information management
- Enterprise computing
- Software development
- Health information technology
- Mobile and web development
What kind of jobs can you get with a degree in information technology?
Information technology majors are best set up for roles that involve building, protecting, and/or evaluating networks. This includes jobs like system administrators, network engineers, IT specialists, and systems analysts. IT professionals tend to be the ones who actually implement and install the hardware and software organizations need.
Here’s the median salary for each of these careers:
- System administrator: $79,000 per year
- IT specialist: $62,000 per year
- Computer systems analyst: $87,000 per year
An IT degree can also give you the foundational skills you need to work in software development and other computer science–related professions.
What skills should I have to get an IT job?
IT professionals tend to work closely with people who aren’t exactly computer-savvy. Your expertise in networking and database management is vital, but so are your people skills. Many companies are looking for people with a background in information technology and good customer service skills.
If you’re not a people-person though, don’t panic. Customer service is a skill. Like all skills, you develop it through practice.
IT roles tend to be where organizations turn when things break. And no matter how good you are at your job, things will break. Power outages and human error (from other humans, of course) can cause huge problems for organizations that rely on their databases and technology. You need to be cool under that kind of pressure—and you also need to have the critical thinking and problem-solving skills to resolve issues quickly.
Overview of a computer engineering degree
Without computer engineering, there would be no computers. This is the field that took technology that used to fill an entire room and put it in your pocket. Computer engineers are constantly designing and developing powerful components like circuit boards, microchips, video cards, processors, hard drives, and routers.
A computer engineering degree blends the principles of engineering with the technical needs of computer science to produce the physical pieces that make the digital world possible. Computer engineering often works hand-in-hand with computer science to produce hardware that can support the most versatile software.
What kind of courses do you take in computer engineering?
The curriculum for computer engineering has a lot of overlap with computer science and usually shares foundational classes with other engineering programs. The courses that set it apart focus on hardware. You’ll study subjects like:
- Power and energy systems
- Computer architecture
What kind of jobs can you get with a degree in computer engineering?
A computer engineering degree is designed to get you a job as a . . . computer engineer. You’ll have the necessary knowledge for other computer-related careers, but your background in hardware sets you up for the most lucrative computer-related profession.
Most computer engineers work in manufacturing, developing parts for corporations that produce personal computers, phones, cars, and more. Other computer engineers work for the government, research firms, and system design companies.
The median salary for a computer engineer is $115,000 per year. This is one of the highest-paying careers in the country.
What skills should I have to get a computer engineering job?
To succeed as a computer engineer, you need to be incredibly detail oriented. You also need to have a thorough understanding of the integration between hardware and software. Software is constantly pushing the limits of what hardware can do, and you need to be visionary to provide people with the innovative technology they need to creatively solve problems.
So what’s the difference between these technology degrees?
If you ask me, King University describes the difference best:
“Computer engineers are architects and construction workers. They design and build a house. Computer scientists are the electricians, plumbers, and installation specialists who put lights, running water, and appliances in the house. IT professionals live in the house and use appliances effectively and efficiently for a desired effect.“
These three fields are highly related, and their differences are most clear when you look at the careers and roles they best prepare you for. If you’re already attending a school and you can choose between all three of these programs, be sure to compare their curriculum and find out what the difference looks like at your school. And if you’re not enrolled in a school yet, consider which part of the house you’d like to be part of, and choose a program accordingly.
What other kinds of technology degrees are there?
IT, computer science, and computer engineering are the main pillars of the technology field. A lot of other technology majors you’ll see are really just specializations within one of these three programs. Degrees like database administration and video game programming are essentially subsets of IT and computer science degrees. You might also see computer engineering as a specialization within electrical engineering.
To a certain extent, every school classifies and arranges their programs in their own way. The only way to know exactly what’s different about each technology degree is to look at the curriculum.
That being said, some specialized tech degrees don’t really fall under one of those three main umbrellas. Here are a few:
- Library science: this highly specialized program focuses on information architecture. It applies some of the underlying principles in an IT degree to an academic archive.
- Computer information systems: this degree blends business and computer science, and focuses on the ways technology functions within an organization and helps it reach its goals. CIS is actually one of the business degrees we don’t recommend at GradLime. You won’t take enough courses in either business or computer science to be an expert in either, so you’d probably be a more valuable asset to an organization if you choose one or the other. It’s not as bad as choosing the “general studies” route, but it’s definitely a master of none situation.
- Computer animation: this might seem like it’s part of computer science, but you’re more likely to find this in connection to graphic design programs. It can certainly be part of a computer science program, but animation depends heavily on design principles, and it’s one way to use, not develop software.
Ultimately, the computer-related degree you choose depends on what aspects of technology interest you most and what kind of career you’d like to have. We hope this article has been helpful, now the rest is up to you!