3 February, 2021

A master’s degree in engineering can greatly improve one’s job opportunities, but engineering is a large field, and it can be difficult to determine where to specialize. Professionals must consider several factors, including program accessibility and job prospects, before determining which option will be most advantageous for their career.

Two industries facing particularly high demand for qualified applicants are electrical engineering and software engineering. Understanding the difference between them in terms of coursework, skill development and career options is vital in order to make the right decision for one’s personal and professional goals.

Software Engineering vs. Electrical Engineering

Software engineering and electrical engineering are distinct professions that rely on each other’s work. Electrical engineers create, among many things, the hardware used by software engineers who in turn create computer applications used by electrical engineers and in other professions. Electrical engineering is a broader area of study, and earning a graduate degree in this field can open the door to a software engineering career.

Software Engineering

Electrical Engineering


Software engineering uses technical, scientific and analytical skills to build computer systems and application software. Electrical engineering encompasses the research, design, development, testing, manufacturing and installation of electrical equipment, components and/or systems.

How They Work Together

Software engineers create programs that electrical engineers use for a variety of tasks. Electrical engineers create the computer hardware used by software engineers.

Master’s Program Subject Matter Includes

  • Networking
  • Programming languages
  • User experience
  • Databases and database management
  • Object-oriented programming
  • Linear systems
  • Signals and transforms
  • Computational techniques
  • Circuit Analysis
  • Stochastic processes

Possible Concentrations

  • AI/Machine learning
  • Cybersecurity
  • Networking
  • Electrical power and energy
  • Communications and networks

Career Opportunities

  • Application developer
  • Front-end designer
  • Software architect
  • Systems engineer
  • Circuit engineer
  • Design engineer
  • Instrumentation and electrical reliability engineer (I&E reliability engineer)
  • Power systems engineer

What Is Software Engineering?

Software engineering uses a person’s technical, scientific and analytical skills to build computer systems and application software. Software engineers have a hand in nearly all aspects of modern life. Every operating system, phone application, website, smart-connected device and more had a software developer involved in the creation process.

A master’s degree program in software engineering combines foundational knowledge with current trends, best practices and innovations to prepare students for initiating or advancing their careers in this cutting-edge industry. Courses cover subject material such as:

  • Databases and database management
  • Designing for the user experience
  • Networking
  • Object-oriented programming
  • Various programming languages such as C++, Java and Python

Students may have the opportunity to concentrate in specific areas such as cybersecurity, game development, AI/machine learning or web development.

A good software engineering master’s program can also help students develop the analytical and soft skills needed in collaborative computer software environments. Because of the trial-and-error nature of coding, problem-solving is a significant component of software development. Engineers must tackle tasks like debugging code, solving user issues and creating or revising algorithms.

Software Engineering Career Outlook

Job opportunities are abundant for software engineers, and demand is expected to increase at a faster-than-average rate: 22 percent between 2019 and 2029, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salaries are reflective of this demand, with the median pay for software developers at $107,510 in 2019.

Job opportunities for candidates with a master’s in software engineering include:

  • Application developer
  • Front-end designer
  • Software architect
  • Systems engineer

What Is Electrical Engineering?

Software and Electrical EngineeringSimilar to its software development counterparts, electrical engineering is central to everyday life. While software engineers create the programs which run on devices such as smartphones, electrical engineers build the physical phone itself, along with its compatible pairing devices such as Bluetooth apparatus and smart appliances. Electrical engineers play a critical role in the creation of nearly every electronic device, appliance, or machine used in today’s modern world.

Electrical engineering encompasses the research, design, development, testing, manufacturing and installation of electrical equipment, components and systems. Technological innovation starts here, as breakthroughs in electrical engineering provide the pathway for more advanced software applications. As such, electrical engineers are employed in a number of industries, including commercial, military and research organizations.

An electrical engineering master’s program prepares you to take charge of complex projects and manage teams of various disciplines and objectives by advancing your engineering, scientific and mathematical skills and knowledge. Quality programs provide hands-on experience using state-of-the-art tools, as well as opportunities for practical application. Foundational coursework covers:

Areas for concentration can include electrical power and energy and communications and networks. Because electrical engineering is the basis for so many other industries, an advanced degree in this field can open up career opportunities in many other engineering disciplines—including software engineering.

Students of an electrical engineering master’s program can graduate ready to:

  • Apply interdisciplinary knowledge to a variety of complex engineering projects
  • Perform complex data analysis and design relevant problem-solving methods
  • Create new components, processes or systems
  • Manage or lead innovative projects in areas like smart technology, energy efficiency and more

Electrical Engineering Career Outlook

Employer demand for electrical engineers is expected to grow at a rate of 5% to 7% between 2019 and 2029, with the median pay reaching $98,530 in 2019, per the BLS. Candidates with a master’s in electrical engineering are qualified to seek opportunities such as:

  • Circuit engineer
  • Design engineer
  • Instrumentation and electrical reliability engineer (I&E reliability engineer)
  • Power systems engineer

How Electrical Engineering Differs From Software Engineering

Though there is much overlap between the two fields, the distinctions between software engineering and electrical engineering are such that both the graduate school experience and daily professional life for each are quite different.

Electrical engineering works within the limits of physics and therefore requires more technical training, making it a broader field of study. As such, a master’s degree in electrical engineering can open you up to more innovative opportunities, even in software. Knowledge of electrical principles can set the stage for thinking outside the box and developing more advanced software applications. Alternatively, you could choose to work with other machines, such as motors, power generators or navigation systems.

Software engineering, on the other hand, focuses on logic and theory. Its reduced emphasis on math and science may appeal to many, but it should be noted that software development is a comparatively narrow field. Having a limited focus in this area could make it more difficult to transition to another career in tech.

Ultimately, an electrical engineering master’s degree can open you up to more job opportunities than a concentration in software alone. In fact, it’s not unheard of for electrical engineering graduates to eventually become software engineers.

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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