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Data Science vs. Software Engineering: Which is Right for You?

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What’s Covered:


In the past few years, the technology industry has greatly expanded and many specialties boast career paths that are in high demand. If you already know that you wish to enter this industry, the next step is to figure out what niche you should aim to occupy. In this post, we will discuss the differences between data science and software engineering; which are two of the most lucrative career paths in the tech world. Read on to find out how you can prepare from high school and college to land the job that is perfect for you!


Overview of Data Science and Software Engineering


Careers in data science and software engineering can be extremely fruitful. Professionals are trained to use data in different ways, but often address similar challenges within the tech industry. Both professions require a solid foundation in programming and math and require solid analytical skills. Both data scientists and software engineers must also have the business acumen to build and design tech solutions that are appealing and intuitive to users. On the other hand, here are some of the key differences in the job expectations for these sub-fields: 


Data scientists use the data collected by software in order to make business decisions. They are asked to clean data, conduct rigorous analyses on the data, and develop algorithms or machine learning techniques to extrapolate important information. An experienced data scientist earns a median base salary of $155,000 per year.


Software engineers typically develop products or services that use data. They build operating systems and websites, software, and apps that can be used by consumers and businesses. An experienced software engineer earns a median base salary of $178,000 per year.


College Majors for a Career in Data Science or Software Engineering


For a career in data science or software engineering, prospective students should major in a STEM degree program. As such, there is great overlap in the types of programs students can pursue to enter either of these fields. Data science tends to be a more interdisciplinary field, so students can pursue a wide variety of undergraduate degrees. Software engineers are slightly more limited in the major they can choose. This is because the career itself is very specialized, and employers look for potential hires with particular technical skills that are only taught in a few majors. Listed below are the best majors for prospective data scientists and software engineers. 


Majors for Data Science Careers


Students who wish to pursue a career in data science are encouraged to major in any STEM degree program that interests them. Data science tends to be extremely interdisciplinary within the STEM fields. Employees will be required to understand programming, statistics, mathematics, and engineering in order to succeed in the field. Analytical and problem-solving skills are integral for this career path, so any predominantly quantitative major with a focus on these skills would help an applicant stand out. Below are some of the best majors to later pursue a career in data science.


Data Science/Statistics


Within this major, students learn how to apply data in real-world contexts. This major often requires math and statistics courses, classes in artificial intelligence and machine learning, programming courses, and classes in ethical data and human-centered design. These courses will develop the technical skillset required to excel in the data science field. Overwhelmingly, the data science major gives students the most direct access to careers within this field. Consider pursuing this major if you wish to practice manipulating data sets, while also discussing the ethical and legal considerations behind the theories and practices you will use.


Math and Statistics


Majoring in Math and/or Statistics can be an excellent option for a data science career as it develops distinct quantitative skills and problem-solving capabilities. By choosing this major, you will learn required, foundational math skills, such as multinomial logistic and lasso and ridge regression, cross-validation, and Bayesian theory. To supplement your math courses, it is recommended that you also take classes in programming (R, Java, SAS, MatLab, etc.). This technical experience shows employers that you are actively preparing to enter the field.


If you are a curious and natural quantitative problem solver, math and/or statistics major would be a great path to follow. Coursework in the majors involves classes in calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, and probability. Students in this major really enjoy the theory behind math and may not focus as much on its actual application in the way that an engineer might.


Computer Science


Computer Science majors learn a wide range of programming knowledge, which is fundamental to understanding the link between raw data and real-world applications. As a data scientist, you will certainly need to know R, Python, C++, and SQL. Computer science coursework covers these important topics. And within this major, students practice a variety of programming languages, algorithms and data structures, databases, and the theories behind programming languages. 


Computer science majors will often enter highly technical, innovative environments after graduation. If you want to be creative and pursue a STEM degree, this could be the major for you! Many computer science majors are encouraged to practice within programming languages and build personal projects alongside their standard coursework. Students enjoy the hands-on nature of this major as well as the lucrative job prospects.




Engineering is another great fit for those interested in data science. Engineering degrees are very interdisciplinary and teach students the value of approaching problems from a variety of perspectives. Many engineers will take classes in data or programming, which promotes familiarity with many tools and statistical methods used in data science careers.


Engineers enjoy solving difficult problems using a variety of skills and techniques from various fields of STEM. This allows students to also use their creativity to develop novel solutions. For those looking for an interdisciplinary STEM major, engineering could be the perfect fit.


Majors for Software Engineering Careers


Software Engineering


The most obvious degree is in software engineering. This major dives into specific programming languages, and how to develop software, apps, operating systems, and web applications. Many first-year courses will be the same for students in the computer science major, but students in software engineering will take many more courses on building software, as well as classes on data structures and algorithms.


Students enjoy this major because they participate in hands-on learning. If you want to experience tackling a variety of software-related issues, this major would be perfect as it deals with all types of computer applications and systems.


Computer Science


One great major for software engineering careers is computer science. Majoring in computer science exposes students to how computers operate using a math-based curriculum. This degree is fairly broad as it goes beyond only teaching programming or building software systems to introduce artificial intelligence, security systems, and machine learning. In contrast, if you wish to pursue a more concentrated study of topics such as quality assurances during software development or the management of software projects, it would be better to follow the software engineering path.


Computer Engineering


Computer engineering is very similar to computer science, but takes a more overarching and comprehensive approach to the study of computers. Those studying computer engineering not only learn computer science and take the same classes as computer science majors, they also take classes in electrical engineering to understand how the hardware behind a computer works. They learn how electrical engineering integrates with software engineering to design computer systems. Since computer engineering is such a broad major, students are able to analyze and design microprocessors, computer circuits, microchips, software design and operating systems. 


Information Technology


Another good major if you want to go into software engineering is information technology. Compared to the software engineering and computer science degrees, the information technology degree focuses more on computer systems and less on programming. Other skills learned to include database management and network architecture and security. Information Technology majors often enjoy the bigger questions surrounding privacy and the ethical and moral questions surrounding big data. If this sounds like something that you may enjoy, this could be the perfect major for you.


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Preparing for Careers in Data Science or Software Engineering in High School


To prepare for a career in data science or software engineering in high school, there are a few steps you should take to see if this may be the right career for you.


Learn to Code


Taking a programming course through your high school or learning to code by yourself can help you decide if you enjoy programming enough to consider doing it as a full-time career. If you find that you love it, you should strongly consider pursuing software engineering. If you don’t like coding but are still interested in data, technology, and machine learning or artificial intelligence, you should lean towards a career in data science. Be sure to take advantage of the plethora of free resources on programming and data science on sites such as Coursera! Taking the initiative to learn coding languages on your own will also show colleges that you are a curious and motivated student. 


Take Rigorous Math Classes


Both data science and computer science majors must take upper-level math courses in college. To prepare for this transition it is crucial that students try to take the highest-level math courses available to them in high school. If your high school has limited options, there are free resources online through Khan Academy or similar platforms on which you can self-study high-level concepts. 


Talk to People who Work in the Industry


If you’re interested in a career in the tech field, it can be helpful to talk with someone in the field to understand their day-to-day responsibilities. You could reach out to anyone in your network to discuss their career path and find out whether you may be a good fit in the field. Join a major-related club at your college to be directly connected with industry representatives and companies. If you want to reach out to someone but don’t know where to start, consider building a LinkedIn profile and reaching out to alumni from your high school. You could also stop by your high school’s guidance counselor and find out if they know of any alumni working in data science or software engineering that you could contact.


The College Experience: Data Science vs. Software Engineering


When choosing a college with a data science or software engineering program, it is important that you find a college that fits your preferences. By using CollegeVine’s free chancing engine and school search tool, you can find out whether certain schools have your intended major and your chances of acceptance. The school search tool also lets you filter different universities depending on location, size, diversity, and more.


If you want to go into data science or software engineering, you’ll want to look for colleges with the following attributes:


  • Look for a program that has a large alumni network in the field you want to go into. Many young hires are able to get jobs through networking, so you’ll want to find a college that has a large enough alumni network where you could develop connections in your field or ask for interviews from alumni.


  • Get involved outside the classroom. Job recruiters love to see that your technical skills are being developed outside the classroom. Being part of a university that offers hackathons, project teams, or clubs in the fields of software engineering or data science is a great way to ensure access to exciting opportunities!


  • If you aren’t sure about a career in data science or software engineering, look for schools that offer both majors and a wide variety of classes in similar topics. From there, you could take classes in both fields to find out which one you prefer.


  • You may want to consider attending a college with a computer science or data science research program. Students in these programs conduct research on artificial intelligence, graphics, programming, computer architecture, and databases. Joining a research group could help you develop connections with your professors, who are great connections to the tech field!


After College: Data Science vs. Software Engineering


Data Science


It is possible to get a job in the data science field right after graduation, though many data scientists have master’s degrees or PhDs. In fact, an article in 2017 showed that 90% of data scientists had an “advanced degree.” Pay for data scientists is high, and a junior in the field has a median base salary of $95,000 per year. In 2017, employees with experience made median base salaries between $148,750 and $250,000. In terms of job prospects, the profession is expected to expand by 15%, which is much higher than average across major industries. Many jobs in data science are concentrated on the coasts.


Software Engineering


Software engineers do not need advanced degrees to work in their fields, and many only hold bachelor’s degrees. The salaries of software engineers can be quite lucrative, with a median base of $110,000 for entry-level jobs. In terms of job prospects, the profession is expected to expand by 22%, which is much higher than average across major industries. Salaries for software engineers are the highest on the coasts.


Final Thoughts


Careers in data science and software engineering are in rapidly growing and cutting edge fields that can be very lucrative. It is important to determine whether you want to be developing software or using data from software to generate insights. In general, data science tends to be more interdisciplinary than software engineering. If you are sure that you want to major in a field other than computer science, perhaps a career in data science is right for you. On the other hand, if you are set on computer science, either software engineering or data science would be a good fit for you. At the end of the day, the decision to go into one of these fields comes down to your personal interests, ambitions, and goals.


Short Bio
Juliette is a senior at Cornell University studying Industrial & Labor Relations. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, running, drinking coffee, and exploring different hiking trails in Ithaca.