Computer Science

Computer Science vs. Computer Programming [Difference Explained]

Computer Science vs. Computer Programming [Difference Explained]
Computer science studies what computers are capable of. In contrast, computer programming tells computers what to do. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry February 9, 2021

All computer scientists can program, but not all programmers are computer scientists. Whether you should study comp sci or software development depends on how deep you want to dive into the world of computation.

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how-long-is-a-masters-degree-in-computer-scienceCoders are in demand and earn good money, so many people wonder how to become one. That’s why ‘master’s in computer programming’ is a common search term. There’s just one problem: colleges and universities in the US don’t typically offer a Master of Science in Computer Programming.

You can study software development, software engineering, or software theory. Or you can pursue a Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) and choose a concentration related to programming languages or programming as it relates to AI. You can’t, however, go to graduate school and study programming.

The fact that people make this mistake is hardly surprising. Schools don’t necessarily teach computer science in high school. Tech jargon is hard to understand because there are many confusing terms for related concepts and disciplines. Even employers use computer programming, computer engineering, and software engineering interchangeably with comp sci, not realizing there are differences among them. That can make it tough to determine which degrees you’ll need to do which jobs in tech.

Programmers seldom have degrees in programming, and people with computer science degrees typically aren’t computer scientists. Earn a master’s in software engineering and you might become a project manager. There are no one-to-one correlations in this field.

If you’re thinking about where you belong in the vast spectrum of computer careers and trying to figure out which degrees will get you there, you may be thoroughly confused. The only way to clear that confusion is to become familiar with the many different specializations in tech.

In this article, we dive deep into computer science vs computer programming and cover:

  • Computer science vs. computer programming: what’s the difference?
  • Master’s in computer science vs. master’s in computer programming: which is for you?

Computer science vs. computer programming: what’s the difference?

Summing up the difference between computer science and computer programming is relatively easy. Broadly, computer science studies what computers are capable of, while computer programming tells computers what to do. Computer science is also a practical discipline, however, which may be the source of some of the confusion.

According to the University of California – Santa Barbara, computer science creates technology and systems “used in a wide range of industries, including medicine, communications, entertainment, manufacturing, business, and science.” The BBC asserts that computer scientists “design new software,” suggesting a strong relationship between computer science and programming.

So, are computer and information research scientists programmers? The confounding answer is sometimes. Computer science degree programs teach programming concepts and programming languages—and most CS grads are competent programmers—but coding isn’t usually the focus of comp sci degree programs. You can become a computer programmer by teaching yourself a language like Python or Java, but that won’t make you a computer scientist.

And yet the path you’ll follow to become a computer scientist may not be that different from the path you’ll follow to become a computer programmer. Take a look at computer science vs. computer programming at the master’s degree level.


Dedicated programming degrees are rare at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels. Instead, programming is treated as an element of computer science or software engineering. This has led colleges and universities to add more programming courses to the Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and MSCS curricula.

Overview of a typical master’s in computer science curriculum

MSCS programs tend to be concentration-based, making it tough to nail down the typical Master of Computer Science curriculum. When colleges and universities take a generalist approach to this degree, programming is almost always part of the curriculum. Students in the online computer science master’s program at Stevens Institute of Technology, for example, take core courses like Introduction to Java Programming, Web Programming, and Advanced Programming in the Unix Environment in addition to classes like:

  • Agile Methods for Software Development
  • Algorithms
  • Computer Organization & Programming
  • Data Structures
  • Database Management Systems
  • Distributed Systems & Cloud Computing
  • Human-Computer Interaction
  • Introduction to Operating Systems
  • Mobile Systems & Applications

Overview of a typical master’s in computer programming curriculum

Studying programming at the graduate level usually means pursuing a Master of Science in Software Engineering (MSSE), but students in these programs learn more than how to code. The curriculum in the typical software engineering master’s program covers everything related to the practice of computer programming, application development, and systems analysis. Common courses in MSSE programs include:

  • Applied Human-Computer Interaction
  • Database Design
  • Pattern-Oriented Design
  • Requirements Engineering
  • Software Architecture
  • Software Development
  • Software Project Management
  • Software Systems Design
  • Software Testing
  • Web Development
  • Web Security and Privacy


Master’s programs focused on programming and software development are less likely than computer science programs to offer official concentration tracks. Cyber security is one of the few specialization options you’ll encounter when researching software engineering master’s degrees. Comp sci programs, on the other hand, are usually built around concentrations like:

  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • Automation
  • Computational biology
  • Computer architecture
  • Computer systems
  • Cyber security
  • Data science
  • Game development
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Mobile computing
  • Natural language processing
  • Network systems
  • Robotics
  • Software engineering

How long does it take?

Master’s degree programs commonly take two years of full-time study to complete, but don’t let that deter you from looking into comp sci and programming programs if taking time off work isn’t an option. A full-time course load in most graduate programs adds up to about three classes per semester, and some people are able to maintain regular employment while enrolled full time. Some schools—HBCUs in particular—offer working students a great deal of support.

Overview of how long it takes to earn a master’s in computer science

How long it takes to earn a computer science master’s varies from school to school. Because MSCS programs are often intensive, two-year programs are common. There are also part-time MSCS programs that take three or more years to complete, and accelerated comp sci master’s programs that can be completed in as little as 15 months.

Overview of how long it takes to earn a master’s in computer programming

MSSE programs and computer science master’s programs focused on programming typically require students to complete about 30 to 40 credit hours of coursework to graduate. Most full-time programs last two years, while part-time programs last three or more years. Accelerated programs, while not the norm, can be completed in just 16 to 18 months.

Top programs

According to Business Insider, the “best computer-science and engineering schools in the US are hotspots for elite companies like Google, Apple, Raytheon, Facebook, and Lockheed Martin to recruit new talent.” Choose the right college or university, and you might already have a job waiting for you once you graduate.

Overview of the top master’s in computer science programs

The best on-campus and online MSCS programs are highly selective. Most look for applicants with a comp sci background and significant real-world experience in tech or research. There are also on-campus MSCS programs for non-computer science majors and online MSCS programs for non-CS majors that admit students looking to break into the field.

There are highly rated MSCS programs at:

Overview of the top computer programming master’s programs

You won’t find any lists of the top computer programming master’s programs because there aren’t any. What you can find are rankings of the top schools for software development and software engineering, which include:


Finances will factor into any decisions you make about graduate school. It’s essential to look at tuition as an investment. When you consider you’ll probably earn more after graduation, the cost of a master’s degree can seem less daunting.

Overview of how much a master’s in computer science will cost

The most affordable MSCS programs cost between $10,000 and $20,000 in total tuition and fees, but the average cost of a master’s degree in computer science is about $40,000. MSCS degrees from top colleges and universities cost more than $60,000.

Overview of how much a master’s in computer programming will cost

Students in master’s-level software development and engineering programs typically pay anywhere between $230 and $1,000 per credit, which can add up to $7,000 to $40,000 in total tuition.

Job outlook

The job outlook for computer and technology jobs is closely tied to specialization.

Computer science job outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for computer and information research scientists will grow at a rate of 15 percent over the coming decade. That’s narly four times faster than the average across occupations, but doesn’t take into account computer scientists working in information security</a (where jobs should grow at a 30 percent rate over the next decade) or network and computer systems administration (where jobs are being created much more slowly).

Computer programming job outlook

The BLS reports that jobs for computer programmers are on the decline but also predicts jobs for software developers will grow at a rate of 22 percent. The discrepancy probably has more to do with changing job titles than with lack of demand for professionals with coding skills.

Career paths and earning potential

Computer science jobs and computer programming jobs tend to pay well. A master’s degree will help you land top-paying jobs in both fields.

Overview of jobs with a master’s in computer science and salary with a master’s in computer science

Salaries across computer science average out to about $79,000, but Master of Computer Science salaries are higher. Jobs for MSCS holders include:

Overview of jobs with a master’s in computer programming and salary with a master’s in computer programming

There are jobs for computer programmers in software design and development across industries. You might become a software developer, software engineer, or web developer, but you could also step into roles like:


“I’m ready for a degree!”

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Master’s in computer science vs. master’s in computer programming: which is for you?

Let’s rehash the difference. Programmers create computer programs, applications, and websites (or oversee their creation). Computer scientists sometimes create computer programs, but may also study theories of computation, build robot brains, or do any number of other things related to computing.

Is a master’s in computer science worth it?

Should you get a master’s in computer science? You might not need an MSCS to work in most areas of comp sci or in entry-level computer science jobs, but it will open doors and boost your earning potential. Forbes’ rankings of graduate degrees by salary increase found the MSCS offered the second-biggest income bump.

Is a master’s in computer programming worth it?

You can become a programmer without a master’s—or any degree—but you’ll advance more slowly than your peers and spend more of your life writing code. If your professional goals involve more than just entry-level coding or QA work, a master’s in programming will help you stand out from the crowd, qualify for senior-level roles, and earn more. It will also give you a deeper understanding of why programs behave the way they do, ultimately making you a better coder.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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