Computer Science vs. Systems Engineering Programs — Which is Right for You? | Harvard Extension School (2023)

With the promise of higher salaries, job security, and stimulating work, a growing number of professionals are exploring career options in information technology (IT) and technology fields.

IT and technology jobs are critical in our increasingly digital world, and include careers in software development, data analysis, computer science and engineering, including jobs like systems engineer, mechanical engineer, and software engineer.

Those working in technology jobs are driving the next generation of innovations. They work with emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing, along with big data analytics to solve challenges that improve business, support the government, and benefit humanity, such as the work being done to reverse climate change.

People working in technology or IT fields have higher salaries and lower unemployment rates than those with non-STEM related jobs. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for computer and information technology occupations is $97,400. The median annual wage for all other occupations is $45,700 and careers in these fields are expected to grow 15% by 2031.

With so many job opportunities in these rapidly growing technology or IT industries, deciding on a career path can be challenging — and confusing. Many jobs and degree programs sound the same but are actually very different.

You may be asking yourself: What’s the difference between computer science and computer engineering? Or, what’s the difference between system engineering and software engineering?

Generally, those with technology-related degrees that aren’t related to engineering support computer networks and operating systems, work with programming languages for software programming and development, and manage data and data analytics programs to support businesses and solve problems. Software or information systems engineers design, develop, and test a wide range of hardware and software innovations, structures, and systems.

In short, engineers design and build the digital structures that solve problems, and technologists work within those structures in a variety of different capacities.Two of the more popular — and growing — IT or technology programs are computer science and systems engineering. Harvard Extension School offers master’s degree programs in both fields.

Learn more about our computer science graduate program

What is Computer Science?

Computer science is the study of computers and computational systems and focuses on work with software and software systems. Computer scientists experiment with algorithms, dive into the depths of artificial intelligence, create software, and solve complex problems.

Those with a degree in computer science can work in several different areas, including computing theory, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, data analytics and data management, computer graphics, computational linguistics, robotics, networking, programming languages, machine learning, visualization, and more.

What is Systems Engineering?

Systems engineering is the science of developing solutions to resolve problems using an integrated approach. Systems engineers build, analyze, and manage systems — which could be computer, mechanical, electrical, or chemical, to name a few.

Systems engineering is all about understanding and managing the bigger picture, says Bruce Huang, director of Harvard Extension School’s master’s degree programs in information technology.

“Think of it as being the conductor of an orchestra, but instead of musicians, you’re harmonizing complex engineering systems,” he says. “You could be working on anything from designing an efficient public transportation system to managing the systems behind a spacecraft. If you enjoy seeing how all the pieces fit together in a complex puzzle, systems engineering might be calling your name.”

People with degrees in systems engineering that focus on computing technology build and support cloud infrastructures, enterprise-wide architectures, multi-tier servers and applications, database management, and communication networks.

Which Pays More: Computer Science or Systems Engineering?

Computer scientists and systems engineers earn specialized degrees and certificates and are in high demand. That translates into job security — and higher salaries.

How Much Do Computer Scientists Make?

On average, computer scientists earn $153,000 per year. Employment opportunities for computer scientists are expected to grow 21% by 2031 — much faster than other occupations. Graduates with a degree in computer science can expect to quickly find employment opportunities with high growth potential.

How Much Do System Engineers Make?

On average, systems engineers make $116,000 per year. Employment opportunities are expected to grow by 16% over the next several years, faster than other nontechnical occupations.

Because this is a highly specialized field, graduates can expect to find their ideal position quickly. As with other technical positions, systems engineers will find high growth potential in their field.

Learn more about our systems engineering program

Which Degree Program is Right for You: Computer Science or Systems Engineering?

Technology is advancing at a rapid pace, and opportunities working with technology are only going to continue to grow. It’s an exciting time to build a career in tech – either as a computer scientist or systems engineer.

“Deciding between these fields is a personal choice, and it should reflect your passions and career goals,” says Huang. “If your heart skips a beat for programming and the thrill of crafting software, computer science will feel like home. But, if your curiosity is piqued by the prospect of managing vast systems and solving complex problems, you might find your niche in systems engineering.”

Computer Science Master’s Degree Program

If you’re excited by designing and working with software, a degree in computer science may be right for you. Harvard Extension School offers a Computer Science master’s degree, where students develop the advanced technical skills needed to solve real-world challenges.

The program focuses on advanced computer science theory and applications, and students acquire the skills to design, develop, and maintain complex computer and software systems. The program spans 12 courses, including core courses in computer topics like data structure, algorithms, and programming languages.

Students can also choose elective courses based on their interests. Options include courses in artificial intelligence, machine learning, software engineering, and cloud computing.

Program courses are offered primarily online with a three-week pre-capstone project course offered over the summer.

“Computer science is always on the move, constantly adapting, and rapidly growing,” says Huang. “Pursuing a degree in computer science opens up a world of opportunities in virtually every sector imaginable. Plus, it puts you at the cutting edge of innovation, allowing you to contribute to society’s technological advancement.”

Systems Engineering Master’s Degree Program

“Systems engineering provides a wide-angle worldview,” says Huang. “There’s a growing demand for people who can manage and understand the interconnected complexities of today’s systems. As a systems engineer, you’ll be integral to designing and managing systems in diverse sectors, from aerospace to retail to manufacturing.”

Systems engineers solve digital puzzles and build technology solutions to support a variety of projects across different industries. Harvard Extension School offers a Systems Engineering Master’s Degree Program that is flexible and customizable. The 12-course program includes curriculum that covers a wide range of topics including:

  • Cloud computing and infrastructure
  • Multi-tier servers and applications
  • Enterprise architecture
  • Database management
  • Communications networks
  • Systems analysis and design
  • Information technology management

The degree program concludes with a capstone project that allows students to apply their new skills in a real-world challenge. Program courses are offered primarily online with a three-week pre-capstone project course offered over the summer.

Support to Advance Your Technology Career

Both the Computer Science and the Systems Engineer Master’s Degree Programs offer expert instruction from Harvard faculty and industry professionals, personalized academic and career advising, and entrepreneurial opportunities through Harvard Innovation Labs.If you are thinking about advancing your technology career or making a career change into the growing tech field, learn more about the master’s degree programs in computer science or systems engineering at Harvard University Extension School.

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Which is better computer engineering or computer science engineering? ›

The key difference between the two is that Computer Science is more theoretical and a better fit for people who enjoy doing research, analysing and strategizing, while Computer Engineering is more practical. It's more suitable for people who love to build things with their own hands.

What is the difference between computer science and computer science and system engineering? ›

While computer science and computer engineering sound similar and some duties and responsibilities may only overlap, there is a key difference: Computer science focuses primarily on computer theory and software, while computer engineering focuses on computer design and hardware.

Is systems engineering like computer science? ›

What is computer systems engineering? Computer systems engineering involves the design, assembly, and maintenance of networks of computers for individuals and organizations. This interdisciplinary field combines computer science, engineering, and mathematical analysis.

Who gets paid more computer science or computer engineering? ›

Does computer science pay more than computer engineering? On average, computer scientists in the United States earn higher salaries than computer engineers. Many computer scientists have master's degrees, while a higher percentage of computer engineers have only bachelor's degrees.

Is CS harder than engineering? ›

Computer engineering is more difficult than computer science because, in addition to computer science courses, you must also take more advanced math courses, additional electrical engineering courses, and a handful of practical laboratory sessions in order to obtain your degree.

Is computer science oversaturated? ›

Is Computer Science Becoming Oversaturated? Experts Say No. Computer science and tech are far from oversaturated and the need for computer science skills will only continue to grow in tandem with the world's reliance on technology.

Can a computer scientist be a systems engineer? ›

The first step in becoming a systems engineer is to earn a bachelor's degree in systems engineering or other related fields, like computer engineering or mechanical engineering. Some systems engineers may hold a bachelor's degree in technical disciplines such as computer science.

Is computer systems engineering a good degree? ›

As a multidisciplinary field, systems engineer specialists are useful right across the job market. Biomedicine, computing, technology, manufacturing, and environmental planning are all fields that employ systems engineers.

Are computer engineers in demand? ›

The demand for computer engineers continues to grow, albeit more slowly than other computer-related occupations. The BLS projects 5% growth for this career from 2021-2031, as fast as the average growth BLS projects for all occupations.

What can I do with a computer systems engineering degree? ›

The common ones include computer system administration, computer system analytics, and computer hardware engineering. Computer systems administrators ensure that all the equipment is operating properly. The role includes running performance tests and troubleshooting issues, as well as equipment installation.

Is computer systems engineering hard? ›

Computer engineering is challenging, but individuals with an interest in computer technologies and engineering fundamentals thrive in the field. Computer engineering requires mathematical, technical, and critical thinking skills.

Which field of computer science pays the most? ›

The top 10 highest-paying jobs in computer science are:
  • Software Architect. ...
  • Data Scientist. ...
  • Machine Learning Engineer. ...
  • Blockchain Developer. ...
  • Cybersecurity Engineer. ...
  • Cloud Solutions Architect. ...
  • AI Research Scientist. ...
  • Full-Stack Developer.
Jun 6, 2023

Which field of computer science has most money? ›

Here's a look at the highest paying computer science jobs today:
  • Front-end developer.
  • Java developer.
  • Software engineer.
  • Network security engineer.
  • Mobile developer.
  • Data scientist.
  • DevOps engineer.
  • Software architect.
Jul 31, 2023

Which field of computer engineering has highest salary? ›

Here are some of the highest paying computer science jobs as per qualification along with their salary estimates.
  • Computer Scientist.
  • Full Stack Developer.
  • Principal Software Engineer.
  • Software Development Manager.
  • Site Reliability Engineer.
  • Software Engineering:
  • Security Engineering:
  • UX Design.
Jan 30, 2023

Which degree is best for computer engineering? ›

Computer degrees
  1. Information Technology and Information Systems. ...
  2. Computer Science. ...
  3. Information Science. ...
  4. Computer Animation. ...
  5. Software Engineering. ...
  6. Computer Engineering. ...
  7. Cybersecurity.
Dec 13, 2022

What is the highest paid engineer? ›

Petroleum Engineers

Is computer science engineering best for future or not? ›

You'll have a well-paid job, and your salary will increase with experience. Computer Engineering jobs are also safe from the automation process, which looks likely to take out many work opportunities in the future.

Can you become a computer engineer with a computer science degree? ›

Most computer engineering careers require a degree in computer engineering, computer science, or electrical engineering. A bachelor's serves as the minimum for entry-level positions in the field.

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