Woman considering between software engineering vs computer science mastersIf you want to earn a master’s degree in computer technology, congratulations! You’ve chosen a field that can offer both job security and exciting challenges throughout your career. Digital innovation shows no sign of slowing down: The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates computer and information technology jobs will grow faster than the average for all occupations and offer higher-than-average salaries as well.

There are a number of graduate-level areas of study that are suitable for advanced careers in computers and technology, including computer science, information technology, software development, and cybersecurity. Exploring the differences in curricula, learning outcomes, and career opportunities will help you decide which master’s degree is best for you.

In the case of choosing between a degree in computer science versus one in software development and engineering, there are many areas of overlap in coursework and career outcomes—but there are crucial differences as well, which can have implications for your professional future. As you start your journey to career advancement, it’s helpful to understand those distinctions and how each graduate program aligns (or doesn’t) with your professional goals.

Software Engineering and Computer Science: The Basics

Both degree programs offer technical preparation for careers in software engineering and computer programming. However, they diverge in their approach and areas of focus.

This table gives a high-level overview of their differences:

Software engineering Computer science
Emphasizes technical knowledge and practical skills, preferably with a curriculum grounded in the internationally accepted Software Engineering Body of Knowledge (SWEBOK). Emphasizes the theoretical concepts behind computing systems and processes while providing a technical background suitable for a range of job titles.
Focuses on developing and refining applications, tools, and programs based on current knowledge. Emphasizes innovating ideas and uncovering insights that can advance knowledge in the field.
Courses typically cover practical skills and knowledge in software systems design, engineering fundamentals, and software quality and security. Coursework stresses computation theory and a wide range of subjects that may include algorithms, machine learning, and human-computer interaction, as well as hands-on application development.
Develop hands-on, real-world applications of existing tools and processes. Gain knowledge to develop new computational tools and processes.

In short, software engineering master’s degrees accentuate applying the principles of engineering to create, design, and implement software programs, while computer science highlights the principles of how computers work.

This is illustrated in detail by comparing the core courses in the two programs at the Pace University Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems:

MS in Software Development and Engineering MS in Computer Science
  • Intro to Software Engineering
  • Software Design Methodologies
  • Requirements Engineering
  • Software Reliability and Quality Assurance
  • Contemporary Software Engineering Theory and Practice
  • Computer Systems and Concepts
  • Algorithms and Computer Theory
  • Introduction to Parallel and Distributed Computing
  • Concepts and Structures in Internet Computing
  • Database Management Systems

As you can see, the software engineering curriculum includes some theory, and the computer science curriculum includes studies in systems and programming. However, the software engineering program offers greater foundational knowledge and principles for a “how to” approach, while the computer science program includes a greater amount of theoretical and abstract ideas students can build on.

Both programs offer the chance to work in immersive, real-world environments with instructors who are prominent scholars and practitioners in their field—an essential element of your graduate education. For example, Pace’s Computational Intelligence Lab provides a place to explore and apply studies in artificial intelligence, pattern recognition, and machine learning—topics of particular interest to computer science students. Meanwhile, Blue CoLab, led by Pace professor John Cronin, develops, applies, and tests tools to monitor water quality—tasks that align with what software engineers and developers do in the workplace.

Career Outcomes

As with coursework, professional outcomes between the two degrees can overlap. Both can lead to leadership positions at organizations within and outside of tech. Some of the top industries looking for graduates with advanced engineering and computer science skills include healthcare, media and entertainment, retail, finance, manufacturing, and agriculture.

These degrees can lead to similar salary outcomes as well. According to data from Payscale, the average annual salary for professionals with an MS in computer science is $108,000, while the average for those with an MS in software engineering is $112,000.

However, while both degrees are suitable for a career in software engineering, a computer science degree may prepare students more effectively for a wider range of careers in areas such as cybersecurity, cloud computing, AI and machine learning, and computer architecture.

Seeing the types of jobs graduates of each type of program seek out may help you pinpoint which degree is more suitable for your professional path.

MS in Software Engineering Careers

Job title Average annual salary*
Cybersecurity Manager $133,565
Software Project Manager $90,224
Software Engineer $89,086
Game Developer $84,928
Database Administrator $74,359

*via Payscale

Cybersecurity managers are responsible for detecting and responding to threats to an organization’s information systems and infrastructure. They may also train employees on proper security measures.

Software project managers oversee the planning of software and web projects, including scheduling, task assignments, budgeting, and delivery.

Software engineers design and develop software solutions such as mobile and desktop applications, operating systems, and network systems to meet the needs of businesses and consumers.

Game developers use visual coding and programming to bring video game concepts to life. They may also test, enhance, and update games as needed.

Database administrators build systems to organize and store data safely and efficiently, and ensure data is accessible to authorized users.

MS in Computer Science Careers

Job title Average annual salary*
Network Architect $120,985
Machine Learning Engineer $112,832
Computer Scientist $100,384
Cloud Engineer $91,409
Information Security Analyst $77,253

*via Payscale

Network architects design and build networks to support an organization’s data communication requirements and manage their operational infrastructure. These networks can include local area networks (LANs), larger wide area networks (WANs), and intranets, which can range from localized systems to multinational networks.

Machine learning engineers research, design, and create software for AI applications and hardware such as virtual assistants, chatbots, and self-driving cars. They use algorithms to create predictive models for automated applications.

Computer and information research scientists create and improve computer software and hardware by using theories and models to address problems and needs in the marketplace, government operations, and more. They may design new technologies, such as programming languages, or find new uses and efficiencies for existing technologies, such as robotics and AI.

Cloud engineers develop and manage the technologies that enable the growing number of cloud-based services. They often serve in specialized roles in various areas of cloud engineering, such as architecture, software development, security, or automation.

Information security analysts analyze their organization’s network for potential weak points, monitor for breaches and attacks, and design and implement security practices and policies. They also research and recommend security enhancements based on evolving technologies and trends.

Which Degree Program Should You Choose?

If you’re having trouble deciding which option is best for you, consider your career goals. If you prefer a hands-on approach and are mainly interested in building and maintaining software, a graduate degree in software engineering is probably the best choice. If you enjoy math and logic and are interested in specialized fields or advancing research and technological innovations, a master’s degree in computer science may be more appropriate.

Whichever you choose, can graduate well-prepared for a successful and lasting career in technology.

About the Online Master of Science in Computer Science at Pace University

The Pace University online Master of Science in Computer Science provides hands-on training that professionals need to excel in leadership or managerial positions in computer science and systems, or to transition into the field. Students in the Pace program can choose from two pre-planned focus areas—Artificial Intelligence or Application Development—or create an individualized focus with their advisor. The program is taught by experienced practitioners and active members of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE).

About the Online MS in Software Development and Engineering at Pace University

In the online MS in Software Development and Engineering program from Pace University, you can develop the theoretical knowledge and hands-on skills you need to excel in a global marketplace. Our STEM-designated curriculum focuses on three core themes:

  • System and software design
  • Software management and evolution
  • Team resources management

You can complete this 100% online program on a full- or part-time schedule and choose from 10 electives. Pace also offers two certificate options either as part of the master’s program or as stand-alone programs:

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