Degrees in Software Engineering

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What Is Software Engineering?

Software engineering is a subdiscipline of computer science that systematically applies engineering principles to software development. Software engineers design, maintain, and test computer programs. Program graduates find work as software engineers and other computer and information technology (IT) roles. Software engineers usually need at least a bachelor’s degree to land entry-level positions.

Software engineering offers high salaries and strong job growth. PayScale reports software engineers made an average annual salary of $87,290 as of June 2021. Rapid technological innovation, the ongoing need for updated code, and an increase in complex projects across industries contribute to job growth for software engineers.

Software engineers design, maintain, and test computer programs.

From 2019 to 2029, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 22% job growth — much faster than the national average — for software developers, a career closely related to software engineering. The BLS also anticipates 11% growth for all computer and information technology occupations over the same timespan.

This guide explains how to become a software engineer and answers the question, “What does a software engineer do?” Keep reading to learn why a software engineering degree is worth pursuing, which education level to pursue, and how much software engineering graduates make.

Why Get a Degree in Software Engineering?

Software engineering degrees offer many benefits. Graduates gain valuable technical skills that qualify them for well-paying jobs in the tech field and beyond. Software engineers usually need a bachelor’s to find entry-level work. Earning a master’s or Ph.D. can open up advanced career opportunities, including managerial positions. Below, we describe some perks of earning a software engineering degree.

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Competitive Salaries
For software engineers, PayScale reports an average annual salary of $87,290 as of June 2021. These professionals earn even higher wages as they advance their careers, earning an average annual salary of $115,000 with 20 years’ experience.
High Demand Field
The BLS projects the computer and IT field will grow 11% from 2019 to 2029. The agency projects 22% growth for software developers over the same time period.
Versatile Skills
Software engineering graduates hold programming, math, and engineering skills that translate well to other IT positions. They also gain soft skills like communication, problem-solving, and creativity that work well even outside the tech industry.

When Is a Software Engineering Focus Better Than a General Computer Science Degree?

Choosing a software engineering degree or concentration instead of a general computer science degree is ideal for students who want to become professional software engineers.

As a specialized computer science subfield, a software engineering degree can help students differentiate themselves from other applicants. Because of the focused curriculum, software engineering graduates typically possess the programming, database administration, and operating systems management knowledge required for entry-level software engineering jobs.

When Might a General Computer Science Degree Be Better Than Software Engineering?

In some cases, a general computer science degree is a better option than a software engineering credential. Although degrees in software engineering teach skills applicable to many other IT careers, a general computer science degree can offer more versatility.

Students unsure of their career path can benefit from a general computer science program’s broader curriculum. Learners who plan to go to graduate school for computer science can also benefit from a general program.

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What About Other Computer Science Specializations?

Concentrations let learners specialize their degree to align with their career goals or personal interests. Computer science programs offer focuses in areas like cybersecurity, information security, and artificial intelligence. Other potential concentrations include cloud computing, video game design, and computational biology.

Some schools offer software engineering as a concentration in general computer science programs, while at other institutions students complete stand-alone degrees in software engineering. Learn more about computer science specializations at the links below.

Computer Engineering

Computer Engineering

Computer Forensics

Computer Forensics

Computer Programming

Computer Programming

Database Management

Database Management

Information Technology

Information Technology

Information Systems

Information Systems

Network Administration

Network Administration

Web Development

Web Development

Computer Science Bootcamps

Computer Science Bootcamps

Types of Software Engineering Degrees

There are several levels for software engineering degrees: associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. Students who earn higher degrees typically find more job opportunities and better salary potential. However, completing more degrees also requires additional work, time, and money.

Below, we describe what to expect from different software engineering degrees, including typical time to completion, potential career paths, and students best suited to the degree.

  • Associate Degree in Software Engineering

    An associate degree in software engineering or software development typically takes two years of full-time study and requires about 60 credits. An associate degree is ideal for students who want to explore the field without committing to a four-year education. Graduates with a software engineering associate degree can find work as computer support specialists or transfer to software engineering bachelor’s programs.

    Learn More About Associate Degrees in Software Engineering

  • Bachelor's Degree in Software Engineering

    Software engineering bachelor’s programs usually take four years of full-time study and require about 120 credits. A bachelor’s degree prepares graduates for computer and IT occupations like software engineer, software developer, and computer programmer. Students straight from high school often pursue four-year degrees, but working professionals seeking advancement also enroll in bachelor’s programs.

    Learn More About Bachelor's Degrees in Software Engineering

  • Master's Degree in Software Engineering

    A master’s degree in software engineering helps professional software engineers qualify for promotions and salary increases. Students with a bachelor’s in computer science sometimes pursue this graduate degree to change professional tracks and specialize in software engineering. A software engineering master’s usually takes 1-2 years of full-time study and requires about 30 credits.

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  • Ph.D. in Software Engineering

    A Ph.D. in software engineering may take 4-5 years of full-time study and typically includes advanced coursework, a practicum, and research and teaching requirements. Doctoral candidates usually complete a dissertation. A software engineering doctoral degree is ideal for students who want to become entrepreneurs, applied researchers, or university-level teachers.

Software Engineer Career and Salary Outlook

Degrees in software engineering prepare graduates for lucrative software engineering and other computer and IT careers. How much do software engineers make? Salaries vary by position, employer, education level, and prior experience, but generally software engineers are well-paid. PayScale reports that software engineers in the 90th percentile earned an average annual salary of $129,000 as of June 2021.

Software engineering graduates also pursue careers as software developers, computer hardware engineers, computer programmers, and computer and information systems managers. According to the BLS, computer and information systems managers earn $151,150 annually as of 2020, and the job is projected to grow 10% from 2019 to 2029.

Below, we explain what to expect from some potential careers for software engineering graduates, including required education, average salary, and typical job duties.

  • Software Engineers

    Software engineers use engineering principles to help develop computer programs. Typical job duties vary significantly, but software engineers often work with software developers, programmers, computer analysts, and other engineers to help computer software run efficiently. Software engineers usually need a bachelor’s degree in software engineering, computer science, or a related field.

    Required Education: Bachelor’s degree
    Average Annual Salary: $87,290

    Learn More About Software Engineers

  • Software Developers

    Software developers create and design programs, applications, and operating systems for computers and mobile devices. They work closely with computer programmers. Major employing industries include computer systems, software publishing, manufacturing, and finance. Software developers need problem-solving, communication, and technical computer programming skills.

    Required Education: Bachelor’s degree
    Job Outlook (2019-29): +22%
    Median Annual Salary: $110,140

    Learn More About Software Developers

  • Computer Hardware Engineers

    Typical job duties for computer hardware engineers include designing, testing, and updating computer hardware. Computer hardware engineers develop technology for cars, medical equipment, and home appliances. They often collaborate with software developers. Major employing industries include computer services, semiconductor manufacturing, and research and development.

    Required Education: Bachelor’s degree
    Job Outlook (2019-29): +2%
    Median Annual Salary: $119,560

    Learn More About Computer Hardware Engineers

  • Computer Programmers

    Computer programmers write code that ensures computer software and applications perform correctly. They usually need at least a bachelor’s degree, but some employers hire computer programmers with no degree who are proficient in programming languages.

    Required Education: Bachelor’s degree
    Job Outlook (2019-29): -9%
    Median Annual Salary: $89,190

    Learn More About Computer Programmers

  • Computer and Information Systems Managers

    Computer and information systems managers oversee computer-related activities for their organizations. They need a bachelor’s in computer science or a related field, but many hold a master’s or Ph.D. and significant work experience. They make recommendations for technology upgrades, determine costs and benefits, and manage IT personnel.

    Required Education: Bachelor’s degree
    Job Outlook (2019-29): +10%
    Median Annual Salary: $151,150

    Learn More About Computer and Information Systems Managers

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Additional Resources for Software Engineering Students

Accreditation for Software Engineering Schools and Programs

Attending an accredited university ensures a degree is credible. Accreditation — either regional or national — is a process that colleges undergo to ensure they meet standards of academic excellence. Regional accreditation is considered more prestigious and is reserved for nonprofit institutions. National accrediting agencies primarily evaluate technical and career schools.

Attending a regionally accredited university makes it easier for students to get financial aid, transfer credit to another institution, and apply for graduate school or post-graduate professional certifications. Search for accredited schools using the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s database of institutions.

Some software engineering programs may also hold ABET programmatic accreditation. Programmatic accreditation ensures schools’ curricula prepares students for jobs in a specific field. ABET accredits programs in computing, science, and engineering.

Paying for Your Software Engineering Degree

Higher education is a significant investment, so many software engineering majors find financial aid helpful. Students can look for scholarships, grants, loans, and work-study opportunities to help pay for their degrees in software engineering. Learn more about financial aid and scholarships for software engineers at the link below.

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Professional Organizations for Software Engineering

Software engineering majors can join professional organizations to stay up to date on developments in the industry, network with experienced engineers, and gain access to valuable resources. Membership to these groups offers continuing education opportunities, subscriptions to publications, access to job boards, and discounts on conferences and other events.

Below, we describe four professional associations for software engineering and explain what they offer.

  • IEEE Computer Society The IEEE Computer Society connects computing professionals globally. The group offers peer-reviewed publications, continuing education classes, and a digital library. Members can access plentiful networking opportunities, including international conferences.
  • Computing Research Association CRA brings together government, industry, and academic professionals to advance computing knowledge. The association maintains a jobs list, publishes research papers, and organizes conferences and career mentoring workshops.
  • Association of Software Professionals A software developer trade association, the ASP offers a monthly newsletter, discussion groups, and discounts on developers' tools. The website includes book reviews and articles about business and marketing.
  • Association for Women in Computing Founded in 1978, AWC is a professional organization for women in computing. Members can access networking and continuing education opportunities. College students can join institutional AWC chapters.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does a software engineer do?

    A typical day in software engineering may include testing software components, working with front-end developers to fix an API, or optimizing data delivery, depending on the job.

  • Is software engineering hard?

    Software engineering can be challenging, but studying hard can help students succeed in their coursework. Software engineering may come more naturally to learners with a knack for math, technology, and logical thinking.

  • Is a software developer the same as a software engineer?

    No. Software engineering encompases the entire software lifecycle, while software development focuses on a smaller part of the process. Click here to learn more about the distinctions between software developer vs. software engineer.

  • How much do software engineers make outside of the tech industry?

    Salary expectations for software engineers who work outside tech vary by industry, education level, professional experience, and employer. Region can also impact potential salary.

Feature Image: Luis Alvarez / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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