When I started searching for a graduate programs that fits my research interests in the United States, I noticed that some universities have separate "Computer Engineering" and "Electrical Engineering" departments, while other universities have a combined department "Electrical engineering and Computer science".

Why do some universities choose to divide or combine these disciplines?

  • 1
    I got my PhD doing atmospheric science at a Department of Computer Science, Electrical Engineering and Space Technology. Names are not terribly important.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 15, 2014 at 9:38
  • Hah. And then there's Computing Science vs Computer Science, which I always found a strange tradition.
    – Matthew G.
    Commented Jan 15, 2014 at 17:49
  • 2
    One aspect may be the very name Engineering itself. That particular phrase is a bit sticky. In my department, Computer Science is associated with Mathematics, not Engineering, thus none of our students qualify to apply for the SMART scholarship, for example. Commented Jan 15, 2014 at 22:23

4 Answers 4


It's usually politics or prestige.

Back in the days when the computer science discipline was heating up (mid to late 1990s), there was a big discussion on where to put computer science. Traditionally, it was a science, but at that time the economic outlook for high-tech (which included electrical engineering and computer engineering) was really, really hot, and it was fashionable to have a department that encompassed "everything high tech". Thus, there was a big push to move computer science to the Faculty of Engineering. This was augmented at the time by the birth of "software engineering" programs and by a number of papers discussing programming and software development as more "engineering design" than "science".

Fast-forward twenty years or so, and you have what we have now, where programs that are related to "high-tech" are roughly grouped together.

As stated already, the disciplines are different. I won't repeat @TinActon's words since he's summarized them well. However, they operated under the same high-tech umbrella for a while.

Really, you don't choose the department - you choose a program, but it's more likely that there's synergistic (industrial) collaboration in a department that has EE, CE, and CS together, as the industries that hire in EE, CE, and CS tend to overlap a lot. However, that's not to say that there isn't cross-disciplinary opportunities for CS and the other science fields either. Biology and chemistry and physics all have a very high dependence on equipment and techniques developed in the EE/CE/CS side, and similarly EE/CE/CS benefit from the work being done in the sciences side.


For starters, the descriptions for these areas of study in the US are not the same as they are in Europe, or other parts of the world. Sometimes they are not even the same for schools throughout the US. It is up to that particular department to provide a name of the program. This provides some flexibility to alter that name with the times.

For example, many modern computer science programs began in mathematics departments and were not split until a few decades ago.

Now, computer engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science are separate fields of study. Electrical engineering may never actually make use of a computer system, and may focus on radar systems or radio waves.

Computer engineering may focus on the combined series of electronics that work together to comprise the computer system. For example, transistors, capacitors, circuit boards, or processors.

And computer science may never go into the electronics of a computer system, but focus entirely on the software implementation, algorithm design, protocols, signal reliability, etc etc.

Electrical engineering and computer science might be a hybrid of the two, such as programming embedded hardware, creating APIS, or digital signal processing in general.


Lets run though some examples: Note though that usage differs a lot.

Electrical Engineering: General power, motors, generators, transmission lines ...

Electronic Engineering: Transistors, ICs, signal processing ...

Computer Engineering: Adders, multipliers, CPU design ... (to an extent a special case of Electronic Engineering)

Computer Science:: Algorithms, Machine Learning (computer science is no more the study of computers than chemistry is the study of test tubes)

Software Engineering: How to make computer programs.

Computational Science: Doing science (eg biology) making use of computers (eg for simulations).

Mechatronic Engineering: combined mechanical and electronic engineering. Robots.

But these definitely overlap, also some things are poorly defined (Eg is computer vision CS or software eng?). I have a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, from my universities Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering department. Within which I took units in Electrical, Electronic, Mechatronic, Software, and Computer engineering.

I also have a degree in computer and mathematical science, from the Computer Science and Software Engineering department. Where about half my units were on software engineering, and where people had the option to take mechatronic and computer engineering units.

  • 1
    What you describe as "Electrical Engineering" is what people around here generally call "power engineering" or "power systems engineering" and it is only one subfield of electrical engineering, which is much broader (it includes my own field, telecommunication networks, for example.)
    – ff524
    Commented May 16, 2016 at 8:23
  • As I said "usage varies a lot" Commented May 16, 2016 at 8:27
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    If I were going to enumerate examples of "electrical engineering" I would probably list examples from multiple areas, to avoid giving the impression that it's only about one area, e.g. examples from power systems, telecommunications, signal processing, and control systems instead of four examples from power systems. just a thought :)
    – ff524
    Commented May 16, 2016 at 8:31
  • @ff524 would you care to make an edit along those lines? I always tried to avoid the electrical end of my degree; so am not too sure on good examples. Commented May 16, 2016 at 8:47

It may be immature curriculum development or mundane matters such as staffing and building architecture. In any case, computer engineering has to have some focus on digital electronics, while electrical engineering with analog electronics, and then computer science need not focus at the hardware level at all.

These will be very specific to the personality of the department, it's not really a detriment either way as long as their emphasis matches your interests.

  • 3
    electrical engineering with analog electronics - false. There are plenty of EE departments that have almost nothing to do with electronics or hardware of any kind.
    – ff524
    Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 5:40

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