Explore Degrees for Software Engineers


Updated May 30, 2024

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Software engineering is a growing industry with high earning potential. Explore software engineer degree paths and learn how to launch your career in the field.

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Software engineers solve problems by constructing new technology solutions or enhancing existing tools. These professionals use their computer skills in creative and flexible ways, and they can earn higher-than-average salaries.

The rapid growth of cloud computing technology, open-source software, and the Internet of Things all help to drive the demand for highly skilled software engineers. Most software engineering jobs require a bachelor's degree, and leadership roles in the field may call for graduate degrees.

Use this guide to learn more about the different degrees and careers you could pursue in the dynamic and fast-growing field of software engineering.

Popular Online Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

What Is Software Engineering?

As a specialized computer science subfield, software engineering uses engineering principles to design, develop, test, and analyze computer software. Software engineering programs differ from other computer science degrees due to their integration of engineering and computer science concepts.

Software engineering benefits society by creating programs and applications that make life easier. Software engineers create digital tools that allow us to quickly access information, simplify tasks, save time and money, and connect with others.

The profession attracts analytical, creative problem-solvers with excellent math and computer skills. Software engineers often work in computer systems design, manufacturing, and software publication.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes software engineers in the category of software developers. BLS data indicates an excellent career outlook for these professionals, with a faster-than-average 25% employment growth rate projected from 2022-2032. As of May 2023, software engineers earned a median annual salary of $130,160.

Degree Paths for Software Engineers

Are you excited about pursuing a career as a software engineer? The traditional path involves earning a bachelor's in software engineering or a related field. However, many of today's largest tech companies, such as Apple and IBM, emphasize skills over formal education.

You can earn a certificate from a software engineering bootcamp to develop these skills. An associate degree in software engineering may also open up entry-level positions. If you're considering leadership or academic roles, a master's or doctoral program may offer the best option.

To determine which software engineer degree or certificate is right for you, consider your career goals, budget, availability, and current skills. The following sections provide in-depth descriptions of routes to becoming a software engineer.

Software Engineering Certificates

A software engineering certificate is a focused academic program that takes 6-12 months and can either lead to a degree or increase your competitiveness in the job market. Undergraduate certificates may transfer into bachelor's programs, and schools may allow you to stack graduate certificates into a master's degree.

What skills does a software engineering certificate teach?

Each software engineering certificate offers a unique curriculum, but common concepts may include:

  • Object-oriented analysis and design
  • Using statistical tools to measure software systems
  • Techniques to design and implement software models
  • Using denotational semantics

What careers can you get with a certificate in software engineering?

An undergraduate certificate can prepare you to pursue junior roles in web development and technical support, while a graduate certificate can prepare you for positions such as:

  • Software engineer
  • User interface designer
  • Software architect
  • Computer and information systems manager

Certificates offered by academic institutions should not be confused with tech and IT certifications, which you can earn through professional associations like CompTIA.

Associate Degrees in Software Engineering

Associate degrees in software engineering cover network management, programming, and software applications. A typical curriculum explores web development using PHP and MySQL, data analytics, Python programming, and discrete mathematics.

Students usually take about two full-time years to earn associate degrees in software engineering.

Graduates can pursue entry-level information technology positions. Some learners continue their education by transferring to bachelor's programs. Potential four-year majors include software engineering, computer engineering, and computer science.

Bachelor's Degrees in Software Engineering

Bachelor's programs in software engineering focus on engineering, advanced math, and computer programming. Enrollees develop coding, database management, and teamwork skills.

Majors in software engineering usually include courses in the design and analysis of data structures, algorithms, and client/server development. On-campus and online bachelor's in software engineering programs typically require four years of full-time enrollment and often culminate in a computing capstone project.

Graduates can pursue jobs as software engineers, developers, and computer programmers. They can also apply to master's and doctoral programs in software engineering and other related fields.

Master's Degrees in Software Engineering

Master's degrees in software engineering usually take full-time students about 15-24 months to complete. Most programs focus on software development and engineering theory and practice.

Students take advanced classes like software engineering economics, open-source software engineering, information assurance and testing, and software engineering principles and concepts.

Depending on their academic and professional experience, graduates from top master's in software engineering programs can pursue managerial and senior-level positions in software engineering and information technology more generally. Potential jobs include software developer, software architect, application developer, and computer system analyst.

Doctoral Degrees in Software Engineering

Doctoral programs in software engineering are less common than bachelor's and master's degrees. As the highest degree in the field, a doctorate in software engineering prepares graduates to pursue high-level research and teaching careers. Potential jobs include college professor, researcher, and entrepreneur.

Popular software engineering doctoral courses include applied data structures and algorithms, concurrent programming, distributed system design, and machine learning. Students can tailor the curriculum to their own research interests. Each enrollee develops expertise in a focus area by researching, writing, and defending a doctoral dissertation.

A typical doctorate in software engineering takes about four years to complete, though some may extend to five or more.

Computer Science Degrees vs. Software Engineering Degrees

Computer science and software engineering degrees offer in-depth knowledge of software systems and computer architecture. The primary difference lies in the theoretical model provided by computer science and the hands-on approach of software engineering. The following chart explores some key differences between the fields.

Computer Science Degree

  • Theoretical and broad, with a focus on computation theory and designing and creating computer systems; covers a wide range of other subjects
  • Offers numerous specializations, including artificial intelligence, data science, security, networks, and software engineering
  • Many career options, including computer scientist, systems analyst, cybersecurity analyst, cloud computing engineer, and artificial intelligence engineer
  • Ideal if you want to learn how computers work and want to take more electives in broader topics

Software Engineering Degree

  • Practical and hands-on with an emphasis on analyzing user requirements; covers developing, testing, and maintaining software applications
  • Specializations may include interactive entertainment, mobile applications, embedded systems, and game design
  • More focused career path toward software engineer, mobile application developer, web developer, software project manager, and game developer roles
  • Ideal if you want to learn how to build and maintain software

Do You Need a Degree to Be a Software Engineer?

A software engineer degree is not the only route to a career in the field. Plus, formal college education requires a significant investment of time and money.

In comparison, nontraditional methods for learning software engineering — like coding bootcamps — are sometimes more affordable and may allow students to learn at their own pace.

Professionals with specific skills often enjoy high demand in the tech industry, and although many employers prefer formal credentials, a college degree is not always mandatory.

Alternative learning methods include massive open online courses, mentorship programs, and industry internships. Aspiring software engineers can also create self-study programs using online resources.

Along with strengthening basic skills and knowledge, these modes of learning may also help learners build their professional networks. Self-trained professionals can earn industry-standard certifications in computer science to demonstrate their knowledge to potential employers, as well.

Should You Go to a Software Engineering Bootcamp Instead?

A coding bootcamp offers short-term, career-focused training that can provide a pathway to a software engineering career. Software engineering bootcamps usually take 3-6 months and emphasize real-world coding tools and projects, while a degree takes four years and includes a broader liberal arts curriculum.

Is a bootcamp or a software engineering degree right for you?

Software Engineering Bootcamps vs. Software Engineering Degrees

Benefits of a Bootcamp

  • Learn career-ready tools, techniques, and languages
  • Build a portfolio of apps
  • Opportunity to connect with cohort members from diverse professional backgrounds
  • Admission based on skills
  • Average cost of $15,000

Benefits of a Degree

  • Explore theories of computer science and software engineering, in addition to learning hands-on techniques in lab settings
  • Coursework covers principles of programming and software design, along with electives designed to broaden your overall skills
  • Opportunities to build professional network and develop lifelong working relationships
  • Admission based on grades and test scores
  • Average tuition cost of $27,675 per year

Resources for Software Engineering Majors

Steps for Becoming a Software Engineer

Steps for Becoming a Software Engineer

Best Programming Languages for Software Engineering

Best Programming Languages for Software Engineering

How Software Engineers Differ From Software Developers

How Software Engineers Differ From Software Developers

A Day in the Life of a Software Engineer

A Day in the Life of a Software Engineer

Questions About Degrees for Software Engineers

What is a software engineering degree?

A software engineering degree is an academic program focused on designing, developing, testing, and maintaining computer software or applications. Some software engineering degrees are concentrations within general computer science majors. You can pursue this degree at the undergraduate, master's, and doctoral levels.

What degree do you need to become a software engineer?

Most software engineering jobs require a minimum of a bachelor's degree in the field. However, a master's in software engineering may give you an edge in the job market or equip you for a specialized role. To become a software research team leader or college professor, you need a doctorate.

Is earning a software engineering degree hard?

As a STEM field, software engineering is a challenging academic program that requires courses in computer languages and advanced math. If you are prepared, disciplined, and focused, however, you may find the challenge worthwhile.

Is a software engineering degree worth it?

In May 2024, Payscale reported that people with bachelor's degrees in software engineering earn an average annual salary of $88,000, and those with master's degrees in the field bring in an average of $116,000. Most software engineers also reported feeling highly satisfied with their jobs.

Page last reviewed May 28, 2024.

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