A Guide to Finding and SelectingA Software Engineering Degree

Software engineers are in high demand in every sector of the economy, from private businesses to non-profit organizations to public agencies in all areas and levels of government. Additionally, many software engineers are successfully self-employed as professional consultants. Regardless of the career path, it always begins with postsecondary education. Below you will find helpful information on college and university campuses offering quality software engineering degree programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as tips for getting the most from your education and to prepare you for your entry into the working world.

Degree Paths at
Computer Software Engineer Colleges

Choosing the right school and degree program will depend on a student’s unique circumstances and career goals. Fortunately, quality software engineering degrees can be found at all levels and are offered by hundreds of fully accredited and highly reputable colleges and universities. There are also countless degree designations and certificate programs to consider. Take a look at some of the potential careers that each degree level can lead to.

Bachelor’s

A bachelor’s degree in SE provides the most popular entry point for any number of careers related to software engineering. Students will learn how to develop software products that meet clients’ requirements on time and within budget.

  • Database Administrator

    Database administrators are responsible for making sure that data analysts can access and make substantive use of stored information. They also ensure that database systems perform properly and that those systems are secure from unauthorized access.

  • Network Systems Analyst

    Network systems analysts are responsible for the development and maintenance of local area networks (LANs) and wide area networks (WANs). Tasks include identifying and managing risks associated with projects and creating information technology plans.

  • Software Engineer, Application Software

    Software engineers who work in application software create and modify general computer applications software and specialized utility programs. They may also analyze and design databases within an application area.

Master’s

A software engineering master’s degree prepares graduates to take on leadership responsibilities in designing and developing complex software products and systems. A software engineering MS can open doors to career advancement and placement with top companies, non-profit organizations, and governmental agencies.

  • Computer Support Director

    Computer support directors oversee a company’s or firm’s IT department. They manage IT staff in the testing, evaluation, and maintenance of network and other computer systems to ensure that those systems are working properly and securely.

  • Network Administrator

    Network administrators are responsible for the day-to-day operation and maintenance of computer networks for businesses and other organizations. They may also install and support network systems such as LANs and WANs.

  • Senior Software Engineer

    Senior software engineers design, evaluate, and test software products and client applications for businesses, non-profit organizations, and public agencies. They also oversee the tasks of the information technology professionals in their teams.

Doctorate

A doctorate in software engineering prepares its holder for top-level positions with software development companies to work on exceptionally complex products and systems, as well as in postsecondary education and research positions.

  • Principal Software Engineer

    Principal software engineers are typically at the top of the organizational chart for software development at most companies. They are often described as the “architect” of software development projects for their respective businesses.

  • Software Engineering Professor

    Instructs postsecondary SE students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Conducts and supervises academic research and experiments in software engineering for his or her college or university.

  • Software Systems Developer

    Software systems developers create and modify the systems that are employed to run computers, phones, networks, and any number of other digitally-related products and resources.

Software Engineers vs. Software Developers

It is important to be aware that while degree programs in software engineering and software development are similar, there are a number of differences. Students interested in software development have a range of degree programs from which to choose, including related degrees such as computer science and computer programming. These programs are mostly found at the associate and bachelor’s levels, with the bachelor’s being the degree required for most entry-level jobs. Software engineering, on the other hand, is offered primarily at the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels, although doctorate programs can be found at a few institutions. Additionally, software engineering programs tend to be broader in scope and more comprehensive than software development programs.

Software Engineering Education Timeline

Aspiring software engineers can begin their education at the associate level and take it as far the doctorate degree. For an idea of what education would look like at each level, read on.

Associate Degree

The two-year associate degree serves two main functions: to provide a base level of education and training for entry-level positions in mostly vocational occupations and to offer students an affordable means to complete the first two years of postsecondary education before transferring on to a four-year college or university to earn a bachelor’s degree. Given that a career in software engineering requires, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree, very few schools offer associate degree programs with a software engineering major. This is not a problem, however, since there are an abundance of Associate of Science and Associate in Applied Science degree programs offered in more general engineering and computer science majors. Some colleges also offer associate degrees in computer technology that are design for students who plan to transfer credits towards a bachelor’s in software engineering.

Skills and Knowledge Acquired with an Associate Degree

Associate degree programs in computer science commonly provide the necessary foundational coursework for transfer to software engineering bachelor’s programs at accredited colleges and universities throughout the country. In many cases, particularly those involving public postsecondary systems, curricula are coordinated between two-year community colleges and four-year universities to ensure that the knowledge acquired in an associate degree program is transferable to a bachelor’s degree program.

Associate Degree Q&A
Can I get a job in software
engineering with only an associate degree?

There are always exceptions, but anyone seriously intending a career in software engineering will need to complete at least a bachelor’s degree in the subject. Those individuals set on entering the working world with only an associate degree may be able to locate entry-level employment in computer programming or tech support roles, but opportunities for advancement will be limited.

What will my coursework include on the associate level?

Most students who plan to transfer on to a four-year software engineering program should be able to partially or fully complete their general education requirements, as well as a number of foundational courses in subjects such as electrical engineering, mathematics, physics, and computer programming.

How will I know if the coursework I complete to earn my associate
degree will be accepted by the bachelor’s program I plan to attend?

Whether credits earned in an associate degree program are transferable to a bachelor’s degree program depends on the institutions and programs involved. Students are advised to determine transferability prior to beginning any degree program. In most cases, however, credits should successfully transfer if they were earned at an accredited college.

What is the difference between AS and AAS degrees in computer science?

The differences between Associate of Science and Associate of Applied Science degrees may be few, if any, depending on the institution offering them. Students should always inquire as to whether or not there is a particular curriculum focus (e.g. preparation for employment or transfer) in any AS or AAS program before enrollment.

BS in Software Engineering

Finding a quality bachelor’s degree program in software engineering is a much easier task than finding an associate degree program in the subject. There are several four-year programs available at public and private colleges and universities.

A bachelor’s degree in software engineering provides the main entry point into the profession with the majority of graduates transitioning directly into the working world.

Skills and knowledge Acquired at the Bachelor’s Level

The purpose of the software engineering bachelor’s degree is to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of software theory and its application, as well as engineering concepts and techniques. Software engineering BS programs go beyond programming to include knowledge of the methodologies employed in the development of complex computer applications. Graduates should also obtain a strong foundation in communication and business skills along with knowledge of current trends in the software industry.

Bachelor’s Degree Q&A
Do I need to go beyond a bachelor’s degree?

Determining whether or not a bachelor’s degree is the terminal point in an individual’s postsecondary education depends heavily on his or her ultimate career goal. Software engineers who intend to advance into supervisorial or managerial positions, or wish to pursue a career as a professor, will need to strongly consider moving on to a graduate degree program.

How long will it take to complete my degree?

As with most bachelor’s degree programs, students should expect to spend four years of full-time study to complete a BS in software engineering. There are, however, schools that offer accelerated courses of study that can be completed in as little as three years.

What will I learn at this degree level?

There are three main categories of coursework in a typical software engineering BS program: a general education requirement that normally consists of classes in science, math, the social sciences, and the arts and humanities; required major coursework primarily in math, physics, and engineering; and elective courses. Most programs additionally require the successful completion of an applications domain or capstone project in the final year of study.

What are my employment prospects upon graduation?

The demand for qualified software engineers is high and expected to remain so well into the foreseeable future. As a result, most software engineering graduates should find many job opportunities, some with high starting salaries and excellent benefits.

MS in Software Engineering

Along with the growing demand for software engineers has come stronger competition for the best jobs with top employers. This has resulted in a steady growth in the popularity of software engineering master’s degree programs. These graduate-level programs cater mostly to individuals who hold a BS degree, have worked in software engineering for a period of time, and are returning to academics as a means of career advancement. However, there are also many students who opt to pursue this degree immediately after earning their bachelor’s. In an MS program, students gain a deeper and more advanced understanding of technologies and architectures as well as their influences on the software engineering process. Many programs also emphasize testing and quality assurance.

Skills and Knowledge Gained in a Master’s Program

Students in MS SE programs will gain advanced knowledge of software engineering, including the ability to apply contemporary engineering principles, methodologies, and tools to complex problems and tasks as well as a deeper understanding of the process, from planning to design to implementation. Students will also enhance their verbal and written communication skills to become more effective team leaders and individual contributors. With these skills, graduates will be eligible to advance in their careers.

Master’s Degree Q&A
Do I need a master’s degree in software engineering to advance in my career?

It is not an absolute necessity; at least not yet. The growing trend in the software industry is a preference for job candidates who can claim both an advanced degree and solid real world experience.

How long will it take to earn my master’s degree?

A typical master’s program will require a time investment of two years. Remember, however, that most programs cater to working students and build a good deal of flexibility into their programs. Many students will find themselves taking three years or more to complete their software engineering MS degree.

Will I need to present a master’s thesis?

A master’s thesis is almost never a requirement of software engineering degree programs. Most programs, however, will require successful completion of some form of project, typically application-based, and sometimes a comprehensive exam, in addition to normal coursework.

Will I need to pick a specialization in my master’s program?

It depends on the specific program, although most do require a specialization. Examples of specializations offered include networking, software systems engineering, mobile development, and software security.

Doctorate Degrees

As the popularity of master’s programs in software engineering grows, so does the popularity of doctorate programs. Nevertheless, the need to earn a PhD in software engineering in order to build a successful career in the field is not mandatory. Areas where it is required, however, include postsecondary teaching and research positions, as well as exceptionally complex software development projects. While the number of software engineering PhD programs is substantially less than undergraduate and master’s programs, they can still be found on prestigious campuses throughout the nation.

Skills and Knowledge Acquired with a Doctorate Degree

The best way to describe the skills and knowledge obtained at this software engineering degree level is “broader and deeper”–a broader knowledge in computer science and engineering principals and a deeper software engineering skill set. Students will be required to choose from among several technical specialties such as data management, embedded systems, security, and networks.

Doctorate Degree Q&A
Will I need to complete my master’s before acceptance into a doctorate program?

In many cases, yes. However, some colleges offer dual-degree programs, where the college will accept bachelor’s degree holders and grant a master’s degree to students in their doctorate program upon completion of all required coursework and a number of other prerequisites.

Is work experience a requirement for admission into a PhD program?

It depends on the specific degree program. Some require previous work experience, whereas others do not. However, prior work experience is always highly encouraged and the vast majority of students enter a SE PhD program with substantial relevant work experience.

Will I be required to present a dissertation?

In almost all cases, a software engineering doctorate candidate will submit and defend a dissertation or perform a suitable and approved engineering praxis, depending on the specific program’s requirements.

How long will it take to earn my software engineering doctorate?

The time commitment required for a doctorate in software engineering can vary significantly depending on how long the individual student takes to prepare and defend his or her dissertation. This research is complex and extensive and, therefore, may take several years for many. In most cases, students should expect to invest anywhere from four to seven years toward the completion of their doctorate degree.

What to Consider When Evaluating SE Programs

When it comes to finding a quality institution and program, there are several things prospective students should consider. Below are some of the most important questions all students should think about when researching and evaluating software engineering schools.

Is my degree program accredited?

Proper accreditation is always important. Students are wise to consider only those colleges and universities that are accredited by one of the accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Additionally, students should also verify that individual software engineering degree programs are accredited by the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. (ABET).

Is it necessary that my degree program to prepare me for professional certification?

Professional certification indicates that an individual has successfully demonstrated a comprehensive and specialized understanding of a certain aspect of the field. Professional certifications are administered primarily by private non-profit professional associations. The most recognized professional certification association for software engineers is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Requirements generally include passing of an exam and some level of professional experience. In all cases, the IEEE requires the completion of a postsecondary degree from an accredited institution.

Does my degree program
require successful completion of an internship?

Many software engineering programs, particularly those at the bachelor’s degree level, either require completion of an internship or provide services that connect students with internships. Completion of an internship with an established company or organization can mean the difference between landing a top employment position upon graduation and not. It is important, therefore, to determine whether or not a degree program under consideration will connect its students to quality internship opportunities.

Does my degree program
set me up for success in reaching my ultimate career goal?

The only way a student can determine the answer to this question is to decide what his or her ultimate career goal is. It is possible to research the success rate of a degree program’s prior graduates. Colleges often collect data for its graduates regarding job placement, return on degree program investment, and more. If this information is not available on a school’s website, many will share that data with prospective students who inquire.

Interview with a Software Engineering Graduate

The following is a brief interview with Derek Gonzales, a recent software engineering bachelor’s degree graduate from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. Mr. Gonzales is currently employed in software development for a highly respected U.S. company.

Interview with Derek Gonzales

What were the factors that led you to
choose St. Mary’s over the other schools you were considering?

I am in the same city that St. Mary’s is in and always thought it was a good fit for me. St. Mary’s is a relatively small school and the class sizes are a lot smaller than at larger universities. So, if you need help, for example, instead of speaking to a graduate assistant, you can actually speak to your professor during their office hours. Overall, it seemed that I would have a better learning experience there.

While earning your degree,
did you encounter anything that you weren’t expecting?

I was surprised by the level of difficulty of my degree coursework. When I was in high school and before that, class work was not as challenging for me. But when I started taking my software engineering courses, I somewhat underestimated the complexity of the coursework I was getting into, and it really challenged me. As each year passed, the work became increasingly difficult, so when I was able to complete another one of those steps, it felt like another milestone had been reached.

Were there any degree requirements
that you had to meet besides the standard coursework?

Yes. In order to graduate, I had to complete what is known as a senior design project. You could work alone or in a group as long as the professor who was in charge determined that there was enough work for each person to complete throughout the entire year. In my particular case, I paired up with a friend of mine. We had earlier developed a very simple, generic iPhone app. So, we decided with the senior design project to see how far we could take this. What we ended up doing is designing an iPhone app for our school’s gym that allowed students to do several things, such as sign up for intramurals. It also came with a workout timer, a list of predefined workouts you could use as well as create your own and permanently save them, and many other useful functions.

Tell us a little about you current job.

I am a recent graduate and currently working for a nationally recognized company. My current job title is “software developer,” which could best be described as an entry-level position. My primary job duties have to do with providing functionality to the company’s website and mobile apps.

Do you foresee returning to
school at some time in the future to obtain a graduate degree?

Yes, I do. Actually I’m working through that process at the current time. I’ve thought about pursuing a master’s degree in software engineering, but at the same time I’m kind of torn between that and earning an MBA. I mean, I’d love to further my knowledge in the software engineering field. At the same time it would be beneficial for me to learn more about the business side of my position. Either way, it is definitely a high possibility that I will be returning to school.

Schools with Software Engineering Programs

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