Getting a technology position always almost requires some prior experience or written qualifications. But with so many degrees and certificates offered, it’s often difficult to know which course will be the best option for your future career prospects. In this article, we explain the chief differences between IT (information technology) and computer science degrees so you can make the best choice for your education.
There’s a significant overlap between IT and computer science degrees, with courses often covering similar concepts. It’s common for an IT graduate to move into a position typically performed by a computer science graduate, and vice versa, because their skills and knowledge can be similar.
However, there’s undoubtedly a distinction between the two fields. An IT professional uses computer programs and infrastructure to deliver business processes and goals. Computer scientists instead develop computer programs and study the theories behind how computers and software work.
A computer scientist is, therefore, more likely to be found developing and testing code than an IT professional would be. IT is more about solving technological problems for users through existing solutions, whereas computer science is about developing new solutions and expanding the utility of technology.
For example, IT professionals often manage company network infrastructure or use software tools to offer customer support. Computer scientists write applications, build websites, and create apps.
For entry-level IT positions, such as network technician or technical support, many companies will require you to have a degree in IT before even entertaining you as a potential candidate. Having an IT degree immediately shows prospective employers that you have the basic knowledge you require to hit the ground running. The amount of training they’ll need to give you will be minimal.
Still, not every company will require you to have a degree in IT to get started in an IT position. You could start as a junior data analyst, for example, or a search engine optimization (SEO) specialist. Some employers are happy with a degree in any discipline. This shows that you have the cognitive and personal skills required for the job, even if more ongoing training may be required.
A third option is to apply for an entry-level position in IT that doesn’t require a degree at all. The most common route here is into customer support, where you offer technical support to the company’s customers over the phone or by email. This could potentially lead to further opportunities within the company as you gain experience.
Employers for IT careers like to know you have the knowledge and skills required to work with the software and hardware they use. This makes accredited certification very important, as it’s a cut-and-dried way to demonstrate that you know what you’re doing. Many positions require you to be certified by third-party companies. The certification journey continues throughout your IT career as new processes, software, and hardware are released.
The specific certification a job will ask for depends on the niche. For example, CompTIA A+ is a certification for those performing maintenance on computer hardware. Microsoft 365 Certified: Modern Desktop Administrator Associate is a certificate that shows you can perform basic maintenance tasks on Microsoft Windows PCs. And a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) is certified to install and maintain networking hardware from industry giant Cisco.
Typical roles for an IT graduate include technical support, IT project management, and network administration. IT graduates can also work in computer systems analysis and database administration.
These types of roles focus on implementing, managing, maintaining, and supporting IT projects. IT specialists use existing hardware and software solutions to deliver essential business processes and keep these solutions delivering a service to a high standard.
The breadth of IT careers is quite extensive. You could work as a server engineer or administrator, managing the creation and maintenance of a website’s backend infrastructure. Database administration is another massive part of the industry, where you manage the storage and retrieval of key business data.
IT graduates can become data scientists, processing customer data to deliver meaningful insights and predictions. Or you could work in IT support, keeping a company’s IT infrastructure running or offering front-line technical support to customers. IT careers can also be focused on security processes in a company, or you might specialize as a computer hardware engineer.
Promotion often means moving further into project and team management. You might begin your career performing front-line duties before becoming a project or department manager once you’ve gained enough experience on the job.
Online colleges are an excellent option for a degree in IT. The cost of a college education has risen sharply over the past few decades, and choosing to get a degree online typically means you’ll pay considerably less than if you attend a bricks-and-mortar university.
The right online college for an IT degree depends on your circumstances. Where one student may prefer full-time instruction through live video, another might find part-time learning fits in better with their other obligations. Some online colleges even deliver instruction through a hybrid system that requires you to travel to the campus at certain times.
Make sure you choose an online college or university that’s accredited. You’ll find the complete list of accredited online colleges on the United States Department of Education website. Browse through each college's majors and check the syllabus to see precisely what will be taught so you can choose a course that’s best aligned with your interests.
When comparing pricing, take into account whether you’ll be able to get financial aid. It’s also worth checking whether additional fees will be charged for books, materials, and examinations.
There are fewer entry-level roles in computer science than in IT that don’t require a degree, so your best bet for starting a career in this field is usually to get a computer science degree from a respected and accredited institution. Employers often see this as the bare minimum requirement before considering hiring you for a coding job.
You may be able to circumvent this requirement if you can effectively demonstrate your relevant coding skills through projects you’ve created online. Employers like Google have been known to actively seek out talent, but a computer science degree is the safest and most straightforward route.
Simply listing a computer science degree on your resume is not enough to get you the most coveted positions. Increasingly, employers will ask you to prove your experience with the specific programming languages and software development processes they use in-house.
As for IT careers, getting the requisite certification for these programming languages is a way to definitively prove your skills. The number of certificates available is nearly endless, though. Therefore, it pays to have a firm idea of where you want to work in the industry and the specific certificates that will further your career prospects—before you begin paying for courses.
Computer science graduates are much more likely to be involved in writing code than their IT counterparts. The most common jobs for a computer scientist are as a software developer, web developer, or software quality assurance engineer.
All these jobs require a strong understanding of coding. Computer scientists are typically expected to know several programming languages and will learn new ones as their career progresses.
Development jobs are usually quite specialized. You may choose to concentrate on UX (user experience) design, for example, building user-friendly interfaces for websites and applications. Mobile app development is another huge sub-industry with its own unique set of required skills.
Information security analysts are computer scientists who focus on implementing data security procedures on a company’s networks. Another popular route is video game development, where you might be creating the latest games for PC, consoles, and mobile.
As you gain more experience, you might be tasked with managing an entire team of developers or supervising the delivery of an entire software solution. Ultimately, you could rise to the position of the company's chief technology officer (CTO), managing the entire organization’s technology infrastructure.
Online colleges are perfect for studying computer science. Where IT degrees typically include a certain amount of network hardware setup that could benefit from in-classroom instruction, virtually everything taught in a computer science course can be studied remotely with a PC. Computer science jobs are increasingly performed remotely, too, so online learning mirrors the future working experience.
As with IT degrees, it’s essential to choose an accredited college or university that employers will respect. Check the tuition format from each online college and what’s in the syllabus. Be sure to choose an online college that delivers tuition in a way that fits your schedule.
Note that many online colleges include an option to specialize in particular computer science niches, such as game design, UX design, artificial intelligence, computer graphics, networks, information security, software engineering, and systems management.
You will usually start on a general track and won’t need to choose your specialization until the final years of your degree. Still, when choosing the best online college for your degree, it makes sense to select one that offers the specialization you’re most interested in.
IT and computer science degrees overlap significantly, with many of the same concepts being taught in both types of courses. The most significant difference is that computer science has a stronger focus on software development and explores how computers work to a deeper level than an IT degree.
Both IT and computer science degrees, however, offer excellent career prospects and a long list of positions you can enter upon graduation.
Whether you choose an IT-focused or computer science degree, you’ll need an excellent college. Compare the best online colleges using our chart above to find one that delivers tuition in the format that’s best for you.