Deciding that you want to work in computer technology is one thing, but deciding which computer technology degree is right for you is an even bigger challenge. What makes it particularly difficult is that sometimes, both of the careers you’re considering have significant advantages. For many prospective students, that’s the case when comparing degrees and careers in electrical engineering vs. computer science.
Electrical engineering and computer science are similar fields in some ways. Both involve technology, including the kind of technology that creates and powers computers. Both of these paths offer high earning potential. While these programs aren’t remotely what you might consider “easy” degrees, they both allow students to develop the technical skills and areas of knowledge that can lead to challenging and interesting careers in the tech industry or in a tech capacity within any other industry.
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Should I Study Computer Science or Electrical Engineering?
There are benefits to degrees in both computer science and electrical engineering, so there’s no clear winner between these two degrees. Which one is best for you depends on what you want out of your degree and your future career.
Let’s look at these occupations in more detail.
Electrical Engineering vs Computer Science Salary and Job Outlook
Both electrical engineering careers and computer science occupations pay wages much higher than the median salary for all occupations in America.
With a computer science degree, you’re qualified to work in any number of job titles within the computer industry, according to U.S. News & World Report. These occupations include:
- Computer and information research scientist, for which the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a median salary of $126,830 in 2020 and predicted a much faster than average 15 percent rate of job growth from 2019 through 2029
- Computer network architect, for which the BLS reported a $116,780 median salary in 2020 and anticipated job growth at a faster than average rate of 5 percent from 2019 through 2029
- Software developers and testers, for which the BLS reported a median wage of $110,140 in 2020 and expected jobs to increase by a much faster than average rate of 22 percent
- Information security analyst, for which the BLS reported a median wage of $103,590 in 2020 and predicted that job opportunities would climb by an astounding, much faster than average rate of 31 percent from 2019 through 2029
- Database administrators, for which the BLS reported a $98,860 median wage in 2020 and expected jobs to increase by a much faster than average rate of 10 percent between 2019 and 2029
- Computer systems analyst, for which the BLS reported a $93,730 median annual salary in 2020 and predicted faster than average job growth rates of 7 percent between 2019 and 2029
- Computer programmer, for which the BLS reported a median annual wage of $89,190 in 2020 and predicted that job opportunities would decline by 9 percent
- Network and computer systems administrator, for which the BLS reported a median wage of $84,810 per year and anticipated job opportunities to increase by 4 percent, on par with the average rate of growth across all jobs
- Web developer and digital designer, for which the BLS reported a median salary of $77,200 in 2020 and expected jobs to grow at a much faster than average rate of 8 percent
As you can see, most of the jobs you could get with a computer science degree have lucrative salaries, and many of them are seeing above-average rates of job growth. A six-figure or near-six-figure salary is within the realm of possibility, depending on how you go on to use your degree.
That’s also the case for electrical engineers, for whom the median wage in 2020, according to the BLS, was $100,830. The job outlook for electrical engineers is on par with the average job outlook, with the BLS expecting job opportunities to grow by 3 percent, which should translate to 9,000 new jobs. Like computer science roles, electrical engineering roles can encompass many different job titles, including electrical design engineer, electrical controls engineer, electrical project engineer, power systems engineer, circuits engineer and instrumentation and electrical reliability engineer.
It’s worth noting that, despite the similarities and overlap between these professions, the BLS categorizes electrical engineers in a separate occupational classification – architecture and engineering occupations – than the kind of computer and information technology occupations that you would be likely to work in with a computer science degree. As a whole, the computer and information technology occupations have a better overall salary and job outlook as of 2021 than the engineering occupations, with respective median wages of $91,250 and $83,160 and respective job growth rates of 11 percent and 3 percent.
Computer science generally offers a higher salary and better job growth than electrical engineering, which may make this career path seem more appealing at first glance. Though both paths have their pros and cons, the benefits of choosing electrical engineering over computer science, though substantial, aren’t always obvious.
Part of electrical engineering is the subdiscipline of computer engineering. Computer hardware engineers earn significantly more than electrical engineers overall, with the BLS reported a median wage of $119,560 in 2020.
Focus on Practical Application and Theory in Computer Science vs Electrical Engineering
There is a big argument to be made for following your passion rather than automatically choosing the career with the highest salary. If you enjoy learning complex theory, then computer science could very well be the choice for you. As a computer science major, you would spend your education taking classes in subjects such as algorithms, computer programming, numerical analysis and computation theory. This is complicated and highly technical coursework.
However, students attracted to computer science by the high salary and rapid job growth may learn, as they work toward their degree, that computation theory doesn’t interest them as much as practical application would. If that’s the case, spending a lifetime working in computer science may not be worth the pay difference between computer and information technology roles and electrical engineering roles, especially since electrical engineers still enjoy high salaries.
Electrical engineering’s emphasis on applying science, technology, engineering and mathematics principles to solving problems related to computer design may make the program more appealing to students who don’t find algorithms and theory to be all that exciting. Electrical engineers design and develop electrical equipment, test their designs and oversee the manufacture of the equipment they have invented, the BLS reported. Their work makes a tangible difference in how computers are used from the circuit level to the integration of hardware and software systems. Electrical engineering has direct applications in areas like renewable energy generation, biomedical interventions, industrial automation, space research and computer and telecommunications technologies used for personal and business use. As such, an electrical engineering degree can come across as being more versatile.
The applications of your work in electrical engineering are more concrete and, for some students, more fulfilling than many of the projects undertaken in computer science.
Breadth and Depth of Subject Matter in Computer Science vs Electrical Engineering
When choosing a degree program, it is important to consider how specialized that program is. If your degree has too narrow a focus, it might not be versatile enough for you to find a job. A degree that is too broad might fail to impress prospective employers, who often want to minimize their investment in on-the-job training. You want whatever degree program you choose to have a good balance of both breadth and depth for it to be marketable.
Both electrical engineering and computer science have breadth to their field of study, yet their focus is also somewhat narrow. A computer science major might pursue a concentration in a subject such as mobile computing, game development, cyber security or machine learning and artificial intelligence. Regardless of what types of computer technology a computer science major goes on to work on, they would almost certainly work with computers in some capacity and would use some of the same general skills in their work. Because students of computer science are so focused on computer software and application development, they might have a difficult time transitioning to another technology career.
One benefit of electrical engineering is that it is a broader field of study than computer science. Students in electrical engineering programs take courses in computer engineering, but also in engineering the digital systems and electrical circuits found in other electrical equipment. Students of electrical engineering might go on to work with computers. They can also work on power generation systems, electric motors, navigation systems, communication systems and electronic equipment, the BLS reported.
Some of the potential concentrations you might pursue in electrical engineering degree programs include robotics, microsystems and nanotechnology, data science, system-on-a-chip design, photonics and quantum technology and mixed-signal and RF integrated circuits.
Electrical Engineering vs Computer Science Opportunities With an Undergraduate Degree
Another question to consider when choosing a degree program is whether you intend to go to graduate school. Electrical engineering is a career path that doesn’t require an advanced degree. A bachelor’s degree will qualify you for entry-level roles in electrical engineering and, if you want to pursue it, a Professional Engineering (PE) license. Because there are plenty of job opportunities in electrical engineering with only a bachelor’s degree, when electrical engineers go to graduate school, it’s because they choose to earn a master’s degree or doctorate degree in order to develop more specialized skills or prepare for leadership roles – not because they must get a master’s degree to find a job.
On the other hand, a master’s degree is a requirement for most jobs for computer and information research scientists, the BLS reported. For this career path, you should plan on devoting an additional two to three years to your education beyond earning your bachelor’s degree. The extra educational requirement can add a great deal of value to your qualifications, but it also costs time and tuition dollars. If you’re eager to get out into the workforce faster and start earning a salary, an electrical engineering degree could be a more appealing choice than a computer science degree.
That said, if you don’t have your sights set on the highest paying of the computer and information technology occupations, you can still find work without a master’s degree. Bachelor’s degrees are the required level of education for most computer and information technology professions, including computer network architect, computer programmer, computer systems analyst, database administrator, information security analyst, network and computer systems administrator, software developer and tester and web developer.
While many computer scientist jobs call for a master’s degree, some jobs with the federal government – which employs 28 percent of computer scientists – exist for candidates with only a bachelor’s degree, according to the BLS.
Electrical Engineering vs Computer Engineering Opportunities
If you’re sold on the hands-on work of an engineer over the more theory-based domain of computer science, you might be contemplating a major in computer engineering. Computer engineering, like electronics engineering, is part of the larger discipline of electrical engineering. This subdiscipline is also a blend of electrical engineering and computer science subject matter, which makes it the perfect choice for students who are having trouble choosing between these two fields of study.
When you major in computer engineering, you will take engineering classes in circuits and systems, microprocessors, signal transmission, digital design and computer organization and architecture. They also take classes based in computer science, such as programming language concepts, principles of operating systems and computer science in popular programming languages like C++.
Graduates of computer engineering degree programs often go on to become computer hardware engineers, sometimes holding job titles like hardware design engineer, systems integration engineer and physical design engineer, according to O*NET. Computer hardware engineers focus on designing and developing the physical components that make up the physical components of computers, devices and networks and systems, rather than the software programs that run on these devices. Electrical and computer engineers can also work on aspects of computer technology other than hardware, including the development of artificial intelligence systems.
If you’re debating between working in hardware and software engineering, consider what skills you would prefer to use in your primary work function. Software engineering requires writing a lot of code using computer programming languages, while hardware engineering requires you to work with your hands, building electric circuits and computer components like microprocessors.