24 August, 2022

Electrical Engineering vs. Computer Engineering: What's the Difference? Working in electrical engineering or computer engineering can put you on the cutting edge of research and development for vital technology. You might find yourself designing and building nanotechnology, creating innovative health and wellness functions for smartphones and watches, or improving autonomous robots for household, commercial and manufacturing purposes, among many other pioneering projects.

While the two fields have similarities in terms of education and technical skills, there are some key differences between computer engineering and electrical engineering in terms of professional responsibilities and research focuses. Electrical engineering involves developing and optimizing equipment, networks and devices that use or produce electric power. Computer engineering, a subset of electrical engineering, focuses on designing and creating hardware and software systems for different types of devices.

It’s common for engineers in both fields to have a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering (ECE), providing the fundamental knowledge and skills necessary for roles in either industry. But when seeking graduate education to advance your career, you may find that choosing one over the other — either electrical engineering or computer engineering — best suits your goals for the future.

What Is Electrical Engineering?

Electrical engineering (EE) is the study and creation of systems, components and machines that use or produce electricity. The field of electrical engineering offers a broad array of research, design and development opportunities, particularly in vital, cutting-edge areas such as sustainability. For example, electrical engineers are improving electricity-fueled vehicles and their automotive parts, including engines, brakes and sensors, to advance the efficiency and safety of self-driving cars. In the renewable energy field, electrical engineers are researching and designing new wind turbine technology for cost-effective energy production and creating microgrids to make energy storage and distribution more efficient during natural disasters.

Electrical engineering is vitally important in numerous industries, and therefore electrical engineers have their pick of focus areas in regards to job opportunities and skill development. These focus areas include:

  • Electronics
  • Computer engineering
  • Control systems
  • Power and energy engineering
  • Robotics
  • Radio frequency engineering
  • Signal processing
  • Telecommunication engineering

What Is Computer Engineering?

Computer engineering (CE) encompasses the research, testing, design and development of computer systems and components. This field of engineering combines the use of electrical systems and components (hardware) with the development of programs and applications (software). Essentially, computer engineering is a blend of electrical engineering and computer science.

Alongside their electrical engineering counterparts, professional computer engineers are leading innovative initiatives that can reshape the way humans interact with each other and technology. For example, computer engineers are exploring the use of materials other than the standard silicon to create computing technology that is smaller yet more powerful and efficient than its predecessors. The results of these efforts could improve processing and data storage in practically every application. CEs in the automotive and transportation industries are working to improve automated driving systems and set the standards that ensure these vehicles operate as safely as possible.

There are three major specializations for computer engineering professionals:

  • Computer hardware engineering focuses on creating, assembling and testing physical computer components.
  • Software engineering/development involves designing, programming and maintaining computer systems and software applications.
  • Network engineering encompasses designing, maintaining and building networks and systems of multiple computers, machines and devices.

Some computer engineers may apply all three specialities in their work.

Electrical vs. Computer Engineering

How do electrical and computer engineering compare to each other? Exploring their key differences can help you determine which educational program — and therefore which career path — best fits your skills, interests and goals as an engineer.

Electrical Engineering vs. Computer Engineering: Education and Licensure Requirements

Most entry-level electrical and computer engineering jobs require a bachelor’s degree in ECE, EE or CE. With that said, some employers only consider applicants who have also passed the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam in electrical and computer engineering. If you have at least four years of professional experience in electrical and computer engineering, employers may require you to take the Professional Engineer (PE) licensure exam in one of the following specialties:

If you want to apply for a leadership position with additional management responsibilities and/or specialized duties, the advanced training of a master’s program can give you an advantage over other applicants. For example, specialized electrical engineering roles (like a radio frequency engineer) or leadership positions (such as senior electrical engineer) may list a master’s degree in electrical engineering as a requirement for hire. Careers in academics or research engineering will likely require a doctorate in either EE or CE.

Electrical Engineering vs. Computer Engineering: Required Skills

Since computer engineering is a subset of electrical engineering, these two fields share several skills required for work. However, each field has its own set of specialty skills that are highly demanded by employers.

Electrical Engineering vs. Computer Engineering: Skills
In-Demand Electrical Engineering Skills Top Skills for CE and EE In-Demand Computer Engineering Skills
  • Development of electrical schematics.
  • Maintenance of electrical components and equipment.
  • Programming languages, like C, C++ and MATLAB.
  • Building and using computer systems.
  • Circuit design.
  • Computing software.
  • Familiarity with computer-aided drafting tools.
  • Mathematics, including calculus and linear algebra.
  • Probability analysis.
  • Programmable logic controllers (PLCs).
  • Project management.
  • Qualitative and quantitative analysis.
  • Schematic development.
  • Signal processing.
  • Bug testing and debugging.
  • Cloud computing.
  • Development of software or hardware schematics.
  • Programming languages, including C, C++, MATLAB, Python and other specialty-specific languages.

Electrical Engineering vs. Computer Engineering: Employable Industries

Both electrical engineering and computer engineering professionals can find work in a variety of important industries, including:

  • Aerospace technology.
  • Automation.
  • Biotechnology and health care technology.
  • Computer and electronics manufacturing.
  • Energy production and distribution.
  • Entertainment.
  • Environmental services.
  • Government and military.
  • Research and development.
  • Telecommunications.

Electrical Engineering vs. Computer Engineering: Careers

Since electrical engineering is a vital function in multiple industries, those who pursue a master’s degree may qualify for electrical engineering careers such as:

  • Circuits engineer.
  • Controls engineer.
  • Design engineer.
  • Electrical design engineer.
  • Electrical project engineer.
  • Electronics engineer.
  • Instrumentation and electrical (I&E) reliability engineer.
  • Power systems engineer.
  • Test engineer.

Common computer engineering careers include:

  • Circuit design engineer.
  • Computer hardware engineer.
  • Network architect.
  • Project engineer.
  • Systems analyst.

Both electrical and computer engineers can gain enough experience, education, licensure, certifications and/or other qualifications to advance into engineering management or leadership positions in a variety of industries. Engineering management careers include:

  • Chief engineer.
  • Engineering project manager.
  • Product manager.
  • Program manager.
  • Principal engineer.
  • Senior project engineer.

Electrical Engineering vs. Computer Engineering: Salary

There’s nearly a $30,000 difference in the median electrical engineering and computer engineering salaries. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average electrical engineering salary is $100,420, while computer hardware engineers make a median salary of $128,170 per year. Since computer engineering is a specialized type of electrical engineering, computer engineers are compensated for their combination of electrical engineering and computer science skills.

The salaries for electrical engineers vary depending on a professional’s areas of focus. Here are salary averages for some electrical engineering roles based on an analysis of job listings from Emsi Burning Glass:

Job Title Median Salary
Electrical controls engineer $82,994
Electrical project engineer $83,010
Radio frequency engineer $93,645
Reliability engineer $75,307

One’s computer engineering salary also varies by job type. Emsi Burning Glass reports the following:

Job Title Median Salary
Computer circuit design engineer $100,483
Hardware engineer $94,666
Hardware project engineer $94,751
Network engineer/architect $106,036

Many factors can influence how much an electrical or computer engineering professional earns, including:

Electrical Engineering vs. Computer Engineering: Job Growth

Between 2020 and 2030, the BLS projects that electrical engineering jobs will electronics engineers and grow between 6 percent and 7 percent, providing more than 22,000 openings per year. The growth for computer engineering jobs is expected to be slower, with roles to increase electronics engineers and 2 percent over the same 10-year span. The BLS nonetheless projects 4,500 new openings in the field each year as professionals move into new roles or retire.

About GW’s Online Master’s Degrees in Engineering

George Washington University offers a comprehensive selection of online master’s in engineering programs. The programs are designed with the same curriculum as the on-campus degrees and with a focus on positioning graduates for career advancement. GW offers the following programs in a 100% online format:

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