What Is a Computer Engineering Degree?
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Computer engineering programs build skills in hardware development that prepare students for in-demand jobs in systems design and electronic component manufacturing.
Computer engineers work at the junction of computer science and electronic engineering. They integrate key insights from both fields to design computer hardware and develop software applications.
Careers in software testing, database management, and network design all require a solid background in computer engineering. Aspiring professionals interested in entering similar fields can pursue a computer engineering degree or earn an industry certificate. This guide explores such opportunities and discusses job outlook and earning potential for computer engineering majors.
What Are the Differences Between Computer Engineering and Other Computer Science Fields?
Computer engineering encounters similar problems and concepts as computer science, but there are several key differences between the fields. The data below looks at some of those differences and identifies overlaps between computer engineering, web development, computer science, and other related fields.
Learn more about the computer science field, including related degrees and career paths, at the link below.
Computer Science Fields
What to Expect in a Computer Engineering Degree Program
Computer engineering programs build broad knowledge in engineering and computer science. Students learn about topics such as discrete mathematics, applied algorithms, and basic engineering mechanics. Most programs will administer a core sequence of courses to build key foundations, allowing students to specialize during later stages.
Self-motivated and analytical students make ideal candidates for these programs since computer engineering relies on the hard sciences and quantitative methods of reasoning.
These programs can be challenging. Prospective students must actively participate in class and can expect to take exams that assess their engineering skills. Depending on the program, students may also complete design projects, both individually and with a group.
Computer engineering graduates come away with a combination of hard and soft skills.
Skills Taught in Computer Engineering Degree Programs
- Critical thinking
- Collaborative teamwork
- Creative problem-solving
- Attention to detail
- Time management
- Data visualization
- Systems analysis
- Coding and programming
- Object-oriented design
- Software development
- Advanced mathematics
What Kinds of Computer Engineering Degrees Are There?
Whether you are a new student, seasoned professional, or are changing careers, computer engineering degrees offer multiple pathways to meet your needs. These paths accommodate various backgrounds and support different career goals. Learn more about each path below and find out which best suits your needs and interests.
Certificate Program in Computer Engineering
Certificate programs offer a viable alternative to higher education. They leave open the possibility of further study and give students a compact overview of computer engineering. Most programs focus on developing a set of foundational skills in key areas like computer architecture, networking, or object-oriented programming.
Because they use a condensed approach, computer engineering certificates usually take less time to complete than a degree — usually a year or less. That said, most entry-level computer engineering roles require at least a bachelor's degree.
Associate Degree in Computer Engineering
These programs develop a deeper knowledge than certificates, but are not as comprehensive as other degree options. Associate degrees build technical skills and provide instruction in written and oral communication, project management, and data analysis.
A computer engineering associate degree will usually require 60 credits and include courses in topics such as engineering computation and circuit analysis. Most students graduate within two years, and some continue their studies by transferring to four-year institutions.
Bachelor's Degree in Computer Engineering
This degree will qualify you for most entry-level computer engineering roles, including positions in hardware design and systems integration. These programs usually take up to four years to complete and teach high-level concepts like circuit theory and data infrastructure. Transfer students may be able to complete the degree in less time.
Students can pursue electives in related subjects like computer science and information systems. Depending on the school, computer engineering majors may also complete a culminating capstone project. This component gives students the chance to apply new skills to real-world computer technology problems.
Master's Degree in Computer Engineering
Advanced positions in computer engineering may require a master's degree. This is especially the case for senior-level roles in project or field service engineering. Further training can also help computer engineers keep their industry skills and knowledge up to date.
Earning a master's degree in computer engineering takes around three years, but could take longer for part-time students. Master's programs build on previous education and give students the opportunity to hone their expertise in concentrated areas of study, like network communications, hardware architecture, or cybersecurity.
Doctoral Degree in Computer Engineering
Computer engineering specialists interested in data science, research, or postsecondary education typically earn a doctorate in the field. This highly specialized course of study lasts 5-6 years, depending on the school and individual circumstances. It includes coursework in core areas, qualifying examinations that assess expert-level skill, and a dissertation project that contains original research.
Some computer engineering doctoral programs accept post-bachelor's students with professional experience. Others may require a relevant master's degree for admission. Learners can focus on new and emerging areas like mobile computing, nanotechnology, machine learning, and digital health imagining.
Accreditation for Computer Engineering Programs
Prospective schools should hold some form of institutional accreditation. This independent quality assurance measure ensures the value and worth of your degree.
Some programs may also possess specialized accreditation, which provides additional backing specific to computer engineering. This accreditation comes from organizations like the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
What Can You Do With a Degree in Computer Engineering?
Graduates can pursue enriching careers in industries that need qualified computer engineers. These may include manufacturing, scientific research and development, government and military contracting, or electronic systems design. Professionals often land roles as hardware design specialists, embedded software engineers, data scientists, or senior project engineers.
Computer engineering certificates from industry leaders such as CompTIA, Cisco, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) can help working professionals build their expertise.
Adjacent fields can also benefit from computer engineering skills. Individuals interested in web design, for example, can enroll in a coding bootcamp and use their engineering skills to help optimize the user experience on websites.
What Kind of Salary Can I Earn With a Computer Engineering Degree?
Qualified professionals in computer engineering see annual earnings well above the national average of $40,000 for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Some professionals in software development and software engineering see salaries well above the average as well.
|Career||Median Annual Salary (2020)||Projected Job Growth (2019-2029)|
|Computer and Information Research Scientists||$126,830||15%|
|Computer Hardware Engineers||$119,560||2%|
|Computer Network Architects||$116,780||5%|
|Electrical and Electronics Engineer||$103,390||3%|
|Network and Computer Systems Administrators||$84,810||4%|
Interview: What Is a Computer Engineering Degree?
Ramakrishna Rajanna is the co-founder and CTO of CureSkin, a healthcare startup backed by YCombinator and Google Launchpad. Rajanna pioneered the use of artificial intelligence to identify and monitor outcomes for various skin conditions through photos taken on mobile phones. Prior to CureSkin, he worked on key projects at Google for 10 years, including Google Search, Maps, and Youtube. He has also mentored several startups and students in collaboration with MIT.
How to Get Hired
What skills do employers look for when hiring computer engineers?
Employers look for [a computer engineer's] experience with the latest technologies. The ability to write code without bugs quickly is also assessed in interviews.
How did you make the most of your computer engineering degree program so that it prepared you for post-grad jobs?
I worked on multiple projects and internships during my engineering degree. I was selected for the Google Summer of Code challenge, which gave me exposure to open source products. I took on internships at several companies, which gave me insights on several fronts.
What would you recommend that students do in addition to their computer engineering degree studies, in order to stand out to employers?
Create projects that solve real-world problems and build a portfolio website showcasing your work. There is no substitute for experience. Keep coding and building stuff, learn from mentors, and collaborate with your peers.
What's a Typical Day Like for a Computer Engineer?
What tasks do you typically work on?
As a Google engineer, I would start off the day by implementing features that were decided at the beginning of the quarter. Part of the day was spent discussing designs, reviewing my peers' code, and learning from tech talks. About 30% of the day went into debugging issues in the product.
As a CTO, I hardly spend 5% of my time coding, but I am involved in major technical decisions on all projects. Mornings start with quick standup meetings with different departments. Mid-morning is spent in design discussions. [I spend] afternoons in deeper discussions and the rest of the day in answering emails, mentoring, and syncing up with other departments of the organization.
Who do you communicate with?
As a Google Engineer: product managers, testers, and peers.
As a CTO: Engineers, product managers, customers, and different departments like finance for infrastructure costs, marketing for automation, customer support for optimizations, and the UX team for project scopes. Significant time is spent on strategy meetings that focus on company growth.
How many hours do you work?
8-10 hours per day.
Who are your coworkers?
Product managers, team lead, interns, client representatives, and testers.
What knowledge do you utilize in your work?
As a Google engineer: Computer languages, algorithms, design patterns, coding best practices, and security principles.
As a CTO: You will need knowledge in a wide range of topics, like:
- Optimization Strategies: There are tradeoffs that must be decided both in tech infrastructure and product feature implementation.
- People Management: As a CTO, you have to work closely with engineers as well as other teams. Navigating difficult situations and helping the company focus on the right problems is something you learn by experience and use a lot in this role.
- Agile Practices: It is very important for a startup to move fast.
- Design Thinking: Constant innovation requires a system. Design sprints are a very good way to involve everyone in the company.
- Measurement and Analytics: There is a famous quote, “You cannot improve if you cannot measure.” Implementing the right metrics across the system and monitoring them continuously helps you to focus on goals and not get distracted with the thousands of hurdles that you face in a startup environment.
Why Become a Computer Engineer?
What are some challenges and high points in this role?
Continuous learning is a challenge, as the field is rapidly evolving with new technologies coming up every day. But if you are a good learner, then there is tremendous growth potential. The role gives you immense satisfaction when it affects a lot of people. For example, the code I wrote for Google Search would help millions of people get better search results every day. Computer engineers get a lot of such opportunities. Most of the fast-growing startups today are tech startups.
I always wanted to heal and help people but had a fascination with computers. Today I am the co-founder of CureSkin. We built an AI app that analyzes photos of skin and helps patients like a doctor would. This was made possible with my background in computers. As a computer engineer, you can contribute and make an impact in other domains like health care, finance, etc. With other educational backgrounds, your opportunities would mostly be limited to your field of expertise.
What type of person does well in this role?
Anyone who can break down complex pieces of information into smaller chunks can learn coding. Skills that will help you include:
- Math and Algorithms: A lot of problems are related to the optimization of resources. A problem can be usually solved in multiple ways, but the system would have multiple constraints. Understanding the tradeoffs between cost, time, and results is the key. Sometimes, the required specifications cannot be met. With math and algorithms skills, you will be able to prove the same and ask the customer to change the requirements. Without this skill, a programmer could be in a long and unnecessary pursuit trying to solve the problem.
- Analytical Thinking: Computer programs are full of bugs. Trying to find the cause of bugs requires analytical thinking. Given a problem, you should be able to eliminate all the improbable causes and drill down to the core issue. This involves understanding logic written by other programmers, going through system documentation, analyzing the intent of the code, and fixing it to match the specification.
- Time Management: Many do not realize the importance of this skill in computer engineering. Eighty percent of the time, only 20% of the code is useful. Identifying this 20% — and spending time on writing quality code for it — is one of most important tricks that is often overlooked.
- Communication: A software system is usually a complex piece, assembled with several small components that are independently built by separate teams. When multiple teams are involved, communication plays a key role to ensure each team is building compatible components.
Why did you choose a computer engineering degree instead of another computer science degree?
Computer engineering covers a wider range of topics, including programming languages, microprocessors, hardware, and basic electrical engineering. Exposure to different subdomains will enable you to innovate at multiple levels. For example, at CureSkin we are working on a next-generation smart watch with sensors that can measure skin parameters in real time and help the user choose the right [skincare] routines. With an engineering background, I can understand the entire system, the various components needed, the software needed to run the customised software on top of it, and I can holistically handle tradeoffs on several parameters.
Without an engineering background, I would have to rely on multiple domain experts and might end up in a suboptimal solution. In other words, having a breadth of knowledge helps you climb the career ladder, where big picture thinking is needed. Other computer science degrees are definitely useful when you want to go deep, but engineering will give you more breadth.
Common Questions About Computer Engineering Degrees
Computer engineering graduates can work in computer systems design or electronic component manufacturing. Some may also find work in areas that rely on computer technology, like the healthcare and automotive industries.
According to the BLS, work for computer engineering and hardware design professionals will grow by approximately 2% from 2019-2029.
Undergraduate programs in computer engineering take four years to complete. Graduate degrees usually take 2-3 years, and industry certificates can be completed in a matter of months.
A majority of computer engineers hold a bachelor's degree in the discipline or a related field like computer science or electrical engineering, according to O*Net Online.
Blake Huggins is a Boston-based writer and researcher with roots in north Texas and southern Oklahoma. He holds degrees in religion and philosophy and writes widely on higher education, healthcare, and the humanities broadly conceived. He earned a PhD from Boston University and has taught college courses in philosophy, writing, and composition.
Header Image Credit: FG Trade | Getty Images
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