Guide to Degrees in Software Engineering


Updated October 4, 2023

check mark Reviewed by

Our Integrity Network is committed to delivering content that is objective and actionable. To that end, we have built a network of industry professionals across higher education to review our content and ensure we are providing the most helpful information to our readers.

Drawing on their firsthand industry expertise, our Integrity Network members serve as an additional step in our editing process, helping us confirm our content is accurate and up to date. These contributors:

  • Suggest changes to inaccurate or misleading information.
  • Provide specific, corrective feedback.
  • Identify critical information that writers may have missed.

Integrity Network members typically work full time in their industry profession and review content for as a side project. All Integrity Network members are paid members of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network.

Explore our full list of Integrity Network members.

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. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Credit: Luis Alvarez / DigitalVision / Getty Images

The demand for capable software engineers continues to rise as businesses become more dependent on technology. The global software developer shortfall may mean a favorable job market for software professionals. Degrees in software engineering can help position graduates to pursue these opportunities.

Software-related roles are the most popular tech industry occupations. CompTIA's 2023 State of the Tech Workforce report shows nearly two million software workers in the U.S. — over a million more than any other specialization.

This guide explores associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in software engineering. Discover information on certificates, bootcamps, and other alternative educational paths.

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 by combining engineering and computer science concepts.

Software engineering benefits society with programs and applications that help to 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 2021-2031. As of 2021, software engineers earned a median annual salary of $109,020.

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 may offer the best option.

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

Software Engineering Certificates

Prospective students who may not want or need to complete degrees in software engineering can pursue certificates instead. Graduate-level and undergraduate-level software engineering certificates often demand less time and money than degrees. Many certificates in software engineering take 6-12 months.

Some students earn a software engineering certificate as a first step to help decide if they want to pursue degrees in software engineering. In other cases, computer science professionals pursue certificates to fill in knowledge gaps and develop specialized skills to advance in the field.

Popular Online Programs

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

Associate Degrees in Software Engineering

Associate degrees in software engineering cover topics like 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 like application developer. Some learners continue their education by transferring to four-year 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. Most bachelor's in software engineering programs take about four years of full-time enrollment to complete. Graduation often requires a computing capstone project.

Graduates can pursue jobs as software engineers, developers, computer programmers, and information technology managers. They can also apply to master's and doctoral programs in software engineering and 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 master's programs in the field 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 prior academic and professional experience, master's in software engineering graduates can pursue managerial and senior-level positions in software engineering. 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 engineer 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
  • Variety of 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 a wide range of 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

Popular Online Programs

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

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 often cheaper 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?

While earning a software engineering degree has its merits, these programs may not be the best option for everyone. Coding and software engineering bootcamps provide focused, in-demand skills. Typically, you learn programming languages, frameworks, debugging, and end-to-end testing. The hands-on approach results in a portfolio demonstrating your skills to potential employers.

Much like college, software engineering and coding bootcamps may offer flexible part-time or full-time options. You can also find online, in-person, and hybrid programs. Software engineering bootcamps may take as little as 12 weeks or up to 12 months or more, depending on the format and depth of instruction. Comparatively, a bachelor's degree in software engineering takes about four years to complete.

Bootcamps may also cost significantly less than traditional software engineer degrees. Research indicates that the cost of coding bootcamps usually ranges from $10,000-$15,000. In contrast, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that average tuition at four-year colleges for the 2020-2021 academic year ranged from $9,380-$32,830.

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

Popular Online Programs

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

Questions About Degrees for Software Engineers

Is software engineering hard to study?

It can be. Software engineering is a technical field, which some people find challenging. However, most students can succeed in software engineering if they dedicate time and effort to mastering the material.

Which degree is best for jobs in software engineering?

A BS in software engineering or a related field prepares graduates to apply for entry-level software engineer positions. A master's degree or Ph.D. can open the door to more advanced and senior-level positions.

Do I have to get a degree to be a software engineer?

No — a degree in the field is not always mandatory for a software engineering career. Bootcamps, online courses, and on-the-job experience can also provide the necessary skills to land a job as a software engineer.

Is a software engineering degree worth it?

The BLS projects software engineering jobs to grow by 25% from 2021-2031. With this faster-than-average rate, software engineers are in demand and often enjoy high-paying careers.

Last reviewed December 17, 2022

Recommended Reading

Take the next step toward your future.

Discover programs you’re interested in and take charge of your education.