What’s the difference between a degree in computer science and a degree in information technology? Find out which degree can help you find the career you want.
To the layperson, computer science and information technology may seem like the same thing. In actuality, three fields are typically associated with the study of computers at the college level. Computer engineering, information technology and computer science are all disciplines within the same realm of study. However, each specialty focuses on specific aspects of the field, and careers within the three areas vary greatly.
Computer scientists are, in fact, scientists. They are focused with the theory of computational applications. That means they understand the “why” behind computer programs. Using algorithms and advanced mathematics, computer scientists invent new ways to manipulate and transfer information. Computer scientists are generally concerned with software, operating systems and implementation.
Like Neo in The Matrix, computer scientists can see and make sense of code. Computer science students will learn the fundamentals of different programming languages, linear and discrete mathematics, and software design and development. Computer scientists study the machine itself and understand how and why various computer processes operate the way they do.
Simply put, computer scientists can talk to computers. The field is based in mathematics—the language of computers. Computer scientists understand why computers work and can create a program or operating system that does what you want it to do. Careers in computer scienceComputer science is a rapidly growing field and is expected to see large increases in employment opportunities. High salaries are generally associated with computer science careers. If you’re pursuing a computer science degree, the following career paths are open to you:
- Applications software developer. As the creative minds behind applications and programs, software developers design and build programs and applications for computers and technological devices. Angry Birds? A software developer made that. Microsoft Office? That would be software developers again. The median salary for a software developer is $90,530.
- Systems engineer. Operating systems provide the foundation for computers and devices to function. Microsoft Windows, Linux and iOS are examples of types of operating systems. Systems engineers design and create those types of systems for use in personal computers, phones and even cars. The median pay for systems engineers is $94,180.
- Web developer. Web developers are not graphic designers. Graphic designers create the images you see on websites; web developers program the code that makes a website function. Web developers integrate the graphics, audio and video into the site and monitor the site’s traffic, performance and capacity. The median salary for a Web developer is $75,660.
To put it bluntly, computer engineers make computer parts work together. Computer engineers are responsible for the research, design and development of computer equipment like circuit boards, microchips, routers, video cards, etc. Some universities may treat this discipline as an off-shoot of electrical engineering.
It is beneficial for computer engineers to have a grasp of computer science. Computer engineers often deal with hardware-to-software integration, meaning they have to design and build processors and hardware that can support a given program. As technology advances and our devices become smaller and smaller, a main goal of computer engineers is to create microchips and microprocessors that work economically and efficiently.
Computer engineering students will study concepts in computer science, engineering and mathematics. By combining these three fields, computer engineers are able to solve hardware problems and create state-of-the-art machines that can handle the many tasks computers perform.
Careers in computer engineeringThere’s not a lot of diversity in job titles in the computer engineering world. Diversity in the job comes from the various industries that employ computer engineers. You can find employment rates and median salary information for the top four industries in which computer engineers work below:
- Federal government. As of 2010, the federal government employed seven percent of all computer engineers. The median annual pay for computer engineers working for the federal government is $102,950.
- Computer and electronic product manufacturing. The majority of computer engineers (35 percent) work in this industry. The median salary for computer engineers in product manufacturing is $101,320.
- Computer systems design and related services. Nineteen percent of computer engineers work in systems design. The median pay for computer engineers in this industry is $98,860.
- Scientific research and development services. Eleven percent of computer engineers are employed by research firms. The median salary for computer engineers in research settings is $92,080.
Information technology (IT) may adopt the monikers information systems or systems administration. Essentially, IT professionals are the users of technology. IT utilizes existing operating systems, software and applications in tandem to create a larger system that solves a specific business problem. IT constructs a network from established building blocks to carry out a task, such as an automated supplies ordering service.
Due to the nature of the work, IT professionals are more likely to interact with clients and co-workers outside of their department. They may help explain to a client how to solve technology problems or work with executives and business owners to construct a technology plan that will meet their business needs.
IT students will study network and database design in depth, and receive an introduction to basic theory and applied mathematics. Successful IT candidates will possess strong critical thinking skills; IT professionals are tasked with resourcefully and cost-effectively applying the tools at their disposal. Careers in information technologyAt every level, from mom-and-pop shops to multinational corporations, businesses need IT. Over the next decade, career opportunities in IT are expected to grow faster than average. Depending on your level of education, a degree in IT can provide a comfortable paycheck.
- Information security analysts. IT security analysts work to prevent cyberattacks by monitoring their business’s network for breaches and weak spots and to create emergency plans in the event of an attack. According to a 2012 survey by Robert Half Technology, the average salary for this position ranges between $89,000 and $121,500.
- Network architect. Sometimes called network engineers, these IT professionals design and build communication networks, such as local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs) and intranets. Robert Half Technology reports that the average salary for network architects is between $95,500 and $137,000.
- Computer support specialists. Support specialists provide advice and troubleshooting help to individuals and businesses that have questions about their software. The median salary for computer support specialists is $46,260.
- Database administrators. DBAs use software and programs to organize and store data for businesses that range from financial firms to shipping companies. Depending on the industry in which a DBA works, the median salary for this position ranges between $62,580 and $82,820.
- Systems administrators. System administrators conduct the day-to-day maintenance and operation of a business’s networks, including LANs, WANs, intranets and other communication systems. Salaries for this position vary by industry. The median annual pay for system administrators ranges between $59,230 and $74,230.
To sum it up (and maybe oversimplify a bit), computer engineers design and build computers. Computer scientists design and develop computer programs, software and applications. IT professionals then use and troubleshoot those programs, software and applications. These three professions all work together to make sure hardware, software and user interface (UI) come together smoothly so that computers can carry out the tasks businesses and individuals need from them. It might help to imagine it like this: 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. There is some overlap within these three fields. Essentially, they exist in subsections of the same discipline, performing complementary different tasks that fit together like a gear. Hopefully the distinctions between the three professional areas are now clear.