Applied Computer Science vs. Computer Science: Differences?

Here are the differences between an applied computer science degree and a computer science degree:

They are both computer science degrees, and as such, they have a lot in common.

In fact, they have more in common than not, and both will teach students the essentials of programming and how computers think.

That said, computer science is more about theory, and applied computer science is streamlined for IT.

So if you want to learn all about how applied computer science and computer science differ, then this article is for you.

Let’s jump right in!

Applied Computer Science vs Computer Science: Differences?

What Is Computer Science? (2 Things)

A woman with a computer science studies

Let’s start by talking about computer science in broad terms.

Both a computer science degree and an applied computer science degree fall under the same umbrella.

What is that umbrella?

It’s the study of computers and computational systems.

That might sound a bit circular but bear with me for a moment.

Computer science primarily looks at how computers operate and understand things.

A big part of this is programming.

Computer scientists don’t just write programs.

They figure out how programming works on a fundamental level so that they can create newer and better ways to program computers.

They also work with interfaces.

Computer scientists are involved in the design of input and output systems.

Have you ever used a mouse or a keyboard?

Computer scientists figured out how to make them work.

When you see things on your computer screen, it’s the result of a whole lot of computer science.

This is the overarching idea of computer science.

It’s the whole study of computation and how computers think, understand, and work at all levels.

#1 Traditional Computer Science

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Now, the real point today is to compare a computer science degree to an applied computer science degree.

They’re both computer science degrees, so I’m going to distinguish a little more.

I’m going to call one of those degrees a traditional computer science degree.

Obviously, the other one will be called an applied computer science degree.

With that covered, where does traditional computer science (TCS) fit into all of this?

TCS is a degree that usually has a somewhat equal blend of theory and application.

Students will learn the overarching theories of how computers and computation work.

But, they’ll also have to write programs and do practical things with computers along the way.

With a TCS degree, students often have a wide range of career options.

I’ll get into classes and common jobs in more detail a little later, but TCS is the broader of the degree programs.

It tries to at least dabble in all of the main components of computer science.

#2 Applied Computer Science

Teacher giving computer science lecture

Applied computer science (ACS) is a bit different.

It’s still derived from the same fundamental principles and theories as TCS, but the focus is shifted.

This degree program is newer and younger (in general) than TCS, but it’s gaining steam.

The idea is that ACS takes a much lighter approach to theory throughout the curriculum.

It’s much more focused on programming and making things for and with computers.

You can kind of think of these differences as similar to the differences between a scientist and an engineer.

A scientist tries to uncover new ideas and explore theories.

An engineer tries to take those ideas and make marketable things with them.

ACS is much more business-oriented than TCS, and that’s probably the main driver behind all of the other differences.

How Do the Computer Science Degree Programs Differ? (3 Ways)

Focused young African student sitting on stairs using a laptop

While I’ve covered the essential differences between the two fields, there’s a lot more that we can cover.

One of the easiest ways to understand where the degrees differ is to look at the classes and coursework for each program.

There is definitely overlap between the two, and I think covering that overlap will help you see that they are closely related degrees.

But, we’ll also look at the clear differences in curricula to really pin down how and why these aren’t two different names for what is basically the same degree.

#1 Classes in Both Computer Science Programs

Young Asian man programmer developer coding software about intelligence innovation. Young man programmer writing program code on a computer

Both degrees typically require a math background, up to and including some calculus.

Neither degree is as math-heavy as most of the hard sciences and engineering degree programs, but you’ll be doing at least some calculus.

For either degree, the amount of calculus depends on the college.

Both programs also involve multiple classes that teach essential programming skills.

You can expect to work with object-oriented programming and become proficient with more than one programming language.

You will also learn the fundamentals of computer systems with either program.

Some specific classes you’re likely to see in both degree programs include Data Structures, Software Development, Database Management Systems, and senior projects.

#2 Classes Primarily for Traditional Computer Science

Young student learning on computer at university classroom

A TCS degree breaks from ACS in terms of theory.

Some of the classes this applies to include computing ethics, cryptography, human-centered computing, and parallel programming.

Outside of these basics, TCS electives are often a lot more theoretical too.

You might get into human-computer interfaces, cognition and cognitive theory, and even fault tolerance (which is especially important with quantum computing right now)

By all means, ACS classes can touch on these topics, but primarily, these are theoretical aspects of computer science that don’t require nearly as much focus for an ACS degree.

#3 Applied Computer Science Classes

A student finishes the solution to a Calculus problem

You’ll see even more distinction with ACS classes that usually aren’t required for TCS degrees.

A few of these include Macroeconomic Principles, Software Enterprise Tools and PRocess, and Internet Networking Protocol.

Interestingly enough, ACS degrees often require more math than TCS degrees.

That’s because a lot of applied computer science is geared towards solving mathematical problems and computing mathematical systems.

TCS degrees often require introductory calculus (which is just one semester of calculus).

ACS degrees often require three or four semesters of calculus.

This is a lot more math, and ACS classes will take calculus-driven approaches to creating programs and computer systems.

In fact, a lot of the calculus tools are applied to artificial intelligence and machine learning systems, which are very much things that ACS students work on.

How Do the Computer Science Degree Programs Impact Career Prospects? (2 Scenarios)

Portrait of charming young female software developer working in modern office with skilled programmers sitting on blurred background,student making researchers doing coursework via laptop in classroom

Outside of coursework, these degree programs are designed to prepare students for different types of work.

Both types of students learn the basics of programming, and either can land a programming job.

But, there are a lot of jobs available to ACS graduates that aren’t really ideal for TCS graduates, and a lot of those jobs are in IT.

Basically, ACS graduates are well-suited for running high-level IT work at major businesses. Meanwhile, TCS graduates are better suited for research or advancing their degree options.

In fact, we can explore both of these ideas in more specific detail.

#1 Traditional Computer Science

A female programmer typing source codes in a coffee shop

The thing about a TCS degree is that it’s generalized.

A TCS graduate can get any programming job, provided they can demonstrate competency.

TCS graduates are qualified to work as programmers.

They’re also qualified to work in a lot of areas of research, which is a major distinction from ACS.

TCS graduates can go into computer-interface research.

If you’ve heard about cool new technologies that allow people to control computers or machines with their minds, that’s a TCS kind of thing.

But, a lot of research is very specialized, and this is the major kicker.

A TCS degree, on average, sets students up better for advanced degrees in computer science.

With a TCS degree, you’re qualified to get into most graduate programs for more advanced computer science.

When you get deep into artificial intelligence, controlling computers with your mind, and any other leading-edge technology, then advanced degrees are often required.

TCS degrees are typically designed to ensure that students are in fact prepared for graduate programs.

#2 Applied Computer Science

Two software developers coming at desk and sitting down holding laptop with coding interface

Applied computer science is all about getting a job out of the gate.

By all means, students can pursue advanced degrees after graduating from an ACS program, but ACS programs are designed to provide a little more specialty from the get-go.

Because of the economics classes and business training, ACS students are ready to work in industry right away.

Often, they will be pursuing programming or software design jobs, and they’re ready to tackle those challenges.

ACS graduates also frequently end up working in IT positions.

They’re not usually the ones answering questions on the phones.

Instead, they’re running IT teams and designing systems for fairly large companies.

If a company wants a custom server or database system, ACS graduates are pretty much perfect for that job.

There are plenty of other applications, but the point is this.

ACS graduates are given tools to help them land competitive technology jobs with only a bachelor’s degree.

The elective courses in ACS degrees allow students to steer into a bit of a specialty, and they often don’t need graduate degrees to get into the workforce.

That said, if an ACS student wants to get into some of the advanced research that I already mentioned, they might need to consider an advanced degree.

This is where the degrees overlap.

Students in both programs share a lot of the same skills and background knowledge.

They can get into a lot of the jobs and graduate programs too, but an ACS graduate might have to take some extra classes to catch up on the theoretical side of things.


  • Theresa McDonough

    Tech entrepreneur and founder of Tech Medic, who has become a prominent advocate for the Right to Repair movement. She has testified before the US Federal Trade Commission and been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, helping influence change within the tech industry.

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