Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering: What's the Difference?

From drones to data analytics, learn how both degree programs advance the future of technology – and how to choose which path is right for you

SMU Lyle students work on a project in the Deason Innovation Gym

It was a hackathon during the pandemic lockdown that solidified sophomore/class of '23, Sofia Murillo Sanchez’s choice of major at SMU Lyle.


"This hackathon was not just an event; it was a revelation,” said Murillo Sanchez, class of '23.  “It showcased how computer science embodies a fusion of creativity and logical problem-solving – aspects I deeply value. The experience of collaborating with a diverse team to conceptualize and materialize a project encapsulated my love for creative innovation and logical reasoning.”


Much like Murillo Sanchez, graduate student Chaitanya Rathod had an interest in coding and problem-solving. But his career goals were more focused on embedded systems, including autonomous robots, electric vehicle charging stations and smart devices. 


“As artificial intelligence is being added to everything, and systems are becoming more advanced, I thought it would be good to pursue a degree that allows me to learn both the hardware and software of embedded systems,” said Rathod, a computer engineering graduate student. “The coursework is hard, but in the end, I will have more career options.”


Both computer science and computer engineering pathways prepare students for important professions that are helping to define our increasingly tech-driven world. Demand for these skills is skyrocketing, with projected growth of nearly 13% through 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


But how do you tell the difference between these similar-but-different degree paths and determine which is right for you? While there is overlap between the two programs, there are also key differences in focus areas and how students will apply their skills in the workforce.


“Tons of companies are seeking out job candidates with these skills, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Texas Instruments – it’s a very desirable expertise,” said Dr. Joe Camp, Interim Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering at SMU Lyle School of Engineering. “For a first-year student who doesn’t know the path they want to take and who is strong in math, computer engineering provides more flexibility. For someone who is interested in complicated code structures, computer science might be best.”


Dr. Jia Zhang, Interim Chair of the Department of Computer Science at SMU Lyle, with students in the lab


— Learn more about SMU Lyle's Computer Science Program —

“Computer science degrees equip students with essential skills in programming, algorithms, data structures, and problem-solving, making them highly sought after in the job market,” said Dr. Jia Zhang, Interim Chair of the Department of Computer Science at SMU Lyle. “These students will truly help shape the future of computing.”


At SMU Lyle, the computer science graduate degree program is specifically focused on designing corporate software and dealing with large data sets. Corporations are swimming in large amounts of data that need to be interpreted by complex computing systems. Computer scientists help organizations stay competitive in the rapidly evolving technological landscape.


Top computer science specializations currently in high demand include:

  • Artificial Intelligence – Implement effective AI and machine learning solutions to address organizational challenges.
  • Cybersecurity– Construct, manage and protect crucial computer systems while preventing and responding to cyber-attacks.
  • Software Engineering – Support digital transformation in business environments and improve efficiency, customer experience, data-driven decision making and overall competitiveness.

“For students interested in learning how to write high-quality, large-scale software for corporations, this degree program helps uniquely position them for success in a variety of career pathways or can help accelerate their career advancement,” Zhang said.


— Learn more about SMU Lyle's Computer Engineering Program

For example, a computer engineer might develop the intelligence within an autonomous drone, creating algorithms for autonomous navigation, obstacle avoidance, and real-time decision-making. They would build software that allows the drone to sense the environment and make smart, split-second decisions.


“Our programming objective is very different from computer scientists,” Dr. Camp said. “We’re focused on creating devices that perceive, interpret and interact with different environments using sensors, whether that device is implanted in someone’s brain or fixed onto a flying drone.”

Dr. Joe Camp, Interim Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering at SMU Lyle

Dr. Jia Zhang, Interim Chair of the Department of Computer Science at SMU Lyle, with students in the lab

Job growth for computer engineers is particularly high in three booming industries: 

  • Biomedical – Advance technology that improves human health and healthcare by designing devices, systems, and software.
  • Semiconductors – Design the ingredients for every type of electrical system, developing new technologies or improving existing ones. SMU is leading a federally funded economic development initiative to strengthen, build on and drive innovation in the existing semiconductor supply chain in 29 counties in North Texas and Oklahoma.
  • Autonomous Systems – Create systems that navigate and adapt to their environment, gaining expertise in machine learning, image processing and human-machine interaction. 

Choosing the right degree path for you


No matter which degree students choose, both computer science and computer engineering pathways will allow them to build the future of computing systems and advance in their careers.


“I perceive computer science and computer engineering as two branches of the same tree, each with unique strengths,” Murillo Sanchez said. “The choice between these two fields depends on one's preference for software or hardware. Regardless of the choice, engineering programs, especially at Lyle, ensure a robust skill set adaptable to various industries.”


About the Bobby Lyle School of Engineering
SMU's Lyle School of Engineering thrives on innovation that transcends traditional boundaries. We strongly believe in the power of externally funded, industry-supported research to drive progress and provide exceptional students with valuable industry insights. Our mission is to lead the way in digital transformation within engineering education, all while ensuring that every student graduates as a confident leader. Founded in 1925, SMU Lyle is one of the oldest engineering schools in the Southwest, offering undergraduate and graduate programs, including master’s and doctoral degrees.

About SMU
SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, community and the world.