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Various colleges and universities may offer a degree in Computer Science either as an Arts or a Science.

What differences are there between the two?

Would recruiters and those who conduct interviews favor one over the other? (Bachelor of Arts vs Bachelor of Sciences etc...)

Update - Just wanted to add this link to Joel Spolsky's site to give a better frame of reference: BA or BS in Computer Science

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This brings up another question: Software development - Art or Science? –  Paddyslacker Sep 6 '10 at 5:10
Neither - it's magic! –  Chris Buckett Sep 27 '10 at 19:07
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12 Answers 12

Computer Science isn't. There are MANY who would argue that there is no science at all in computer science and it is an ART. Knuth defines The Art of Computer Programming clearly not as much a science, though he clearly defines a systematic body of knowledge of computers (well...maybe just programming).


Against expectation, colleges may place more applicable computer classes in their arts program and more theory in sciences. Fundamentally, I tend towards this field as being in arts, yet glad I have a BS in it.

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If a series of books chock full of logical and mathematical proofs isn't science, I guess I don't know what is. –  qes Feb 11 '11 at 22:01
@qstarin - You can use science to make art. –  Xepoch Feb 11 '11 at 23:37

At my school, they offered 3 flavors of a CS degree: Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, and Bachelor of Science in Computer Science & Engineering (BSCSE). I'll ignore the last, since that's an engineering degree. I took a Bachelor of Arts in computer science. The big differences were that I wasn't required to take a lot of the science classes, such as physics, that the BS students were required to take. I also wasn't required to take the theory of computation course. I also wasn't required to do my capstone class in computer science -- I could take any capstone. Other than that, the degree program was mostly the same.

Put more abstractly, the BS focused more on science as a discipline, whereas the BA gave one leeway to take other courses (English, history, economics, whatever). Very few students were BA comp sci at my school; I think I graduated with just 2 or 3 others. Most of the BA CS students double-majored in economics (they wanted to focus on software startups, that sort of thing).

Why did I take a BA instead of a BS? I started off school as a creative writing student, and would've been hard-pressed to finish a BS in CS in 4 years by the time I switched to comp sci.

I don't really feel I missed out on much. I still took as much math as the BS students, and my job prospects haven't suffered because I have a BA instead of a BS. Also, as a combination CS/English student, I can write well, which is a much-prized skill among programmers, it seems.

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I voted this up, but I feel that the CSE should be elaborated on. I went to an engineering school at Uni and was originally going to major as a CE (Computer Engineering). However, a CSE program was created after my 2nd year and I immediately transferred because of my interest in software development. For me, CSE was the closest I could come to majoring in Software Engineering, an area where my school only offered one course. –  mummey Feb 11 '11 at 18:53

From my experience at Ohio State, the university offers computer programs through the Arts and Science school and also though the Engineering school. In june I finished my BS in CSE and I can explain the differences here anyway.

  • CSE

    • Will be more technical.
    • More math
    • More science
    • Did not require a second language.
    • Requires some electrical engineering classes.
    • Offered multiple directions:
      • software
      • hardware
      • Networking
    • Closely coupled with the Electrical Engineering department.
      • In fact there is a 6 or so class difference between my CSE degree and a similar EE degree.
  • CIS

    • Less technical (not as much math or science)
    • Required a second language
    • Not as much Electrical Engineering requirements.
    • A handful less credit hours than engineering school. (I believe it was 185 credits versus 196 for CSE)

My conclusion: CSE is more technical and CIS is more of an IT such as desktop support or related positions. You can be a programmer as a CIS and you can be a IT person as a CSE but I think with CSE I am more prepared for programming (I did CSE software specialization) and as a CIS you are more prepared for desktop support.

That is my conclusion anyway, take it or leave it.

In terms of recruiters is depends on the job and the person. A friend of mine recently finished his CSE degree and he has had a desktop support job as a student and is considering pursuing desktop support because he said he likes it. I know based that a CSE will be more prepared to solve technical problems in the general sense due to the underlying Engineering experience.

For example, I interviewed for a position at a local company looking to hire their first IT person and hope to cut back on 3rd part consulting costs but I felt a CIS would be better prepared for the job and frankly more interested. The job presented to me no technical problems, but perhaps a CIS would thrive in that position where you are a technical analyst, computer/IT handy man.

Additionally, I know from OSU at least most CSE finish in 5 years (not the usual 4 years everyone claims an undergrad program should be) and CIS majors finish in 4 years (not the usual 5 years a OSU Engineering program will take).

Me, personally, I like to program and solve technical problems and that is what defines me as a CSE, not my degree itself. And OSU has prepared me for problem solving, not for programming in language X.

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Does CIS = "Computer Information Systems" At UW Madison, CIS is mostly in the school of business. RE: desktop support. I agree with you, and so does Bill Gates (asked him myself) I've got an AS in CIS and a BS in CS (difference of about 25,000 dollars initial salary [midwestern]) –  Peter Turner Oct 1 '10 at 18:17
@Peter: yes exactly. Care to elaborate on "(asked him myself)" ? –  Chris Oct 1 '10 at 18:21
He came to UW Madison to talk to CS majors, had a Q&A at the end, so I asked him what's he'd do with an AS-CIS. He said helpdesk! I was subtly trying to insinuate "why programming is taught in CIS classes at 'microsoft gold partner' institutions like Herzing?" (where I got my AAS) but didn't have enough time to be subtle. –  Peter Turner Oct 1 '10 at 18:38
@Peter: Thats great! And I always get a kick out of helpdesk programmers. –  Chris Oct 1 '10 at 18:57
I too am a BSCSE at Ohio State. I'm managing, somehow, to finish in 4 years while a friend of mine is finishing his CIS degree in 5. So it really depends on how you organize your schedules. –  Andrew Arnold Mar 1 '11 at 18:57

This is the first time I've even heard of a BA in Computer Science. I was aware that there is the possibility of either a BA or BSc in subjects such as Geography, but Computer Science really isn't an arts discipline. If I came across such a qualification when reviewing a CV I would regard it with suspicion and would assume, rightly or wrongly, that it was a watered down technical degree along the lines of Management Information Systems (before I offend any MIS graduates I mean less technical content, not necessarily easier).

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I do not believe its called computer science, at least at OSU they call it Computer Information Systems. Usually the science part relates to engineering specific curriculum. –  Chris Sep 4 '10 at 15:32
I graduated from Boston University. Here is their Undergraduate BA program for Computer Science: cs.bu.edu/education/undergraduate.shtml. –  spong Sep 4 '10 at 17:51
Example areas of emphasis: Algorithms and Theoretical Computer Science, Computer Graphics, Games, and Animation, Computer Networks, Computer Vision, Cryptography and Data Security, Databases and Data Mining, Operating Systems, Real-time Systems, and Embedded Computing, Programming Languages and Software. –  spong Sep 4 '10 at 18:00
@Chris: Computer science isn't always filed under an engineering curriculum. At my school, they had 3 degrees: BA, BS, and BS in Computer Science & Engineering. My university also had two colleges: a College of Arts & Sciences, and a College of Engineering. Only the later degree fell under the College of Engineering. –  mipadi Sep 27 '10 at 15:34
I'm working towards a BA in Computer Science! in fairness, my university awards BA for everything including physics for historical reason –  segfault Dec 30 '10 at 15:01

Overall, it really depends on the school and the curriculum/course work necessary for the degree. In the handful of cases where I encountered someone with a BA degree coming in for an interview, I would check out the school and the course work to make sure it was a "legitimate" and in all cases the course work was almost the same as what I took for a BS degree. I've learned over the years that what is important is what the person knows rather than degree.

Some recruiters and interviewers may give a preference to a BS degree because they are more common for computer science, but those that do are generally somewhat uninformed about the degrees and the fact that there aren't typically a lot of differences.

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At the University of Texas, the BS in CS required a couple more programming classes (I think) and a few more science classes (like 'Engineering Physics'). The BA required a few more fine arts/philosophy/etc credits. I have a BS, which is probably the standard, and my husband has a BA because he already had more arts credits and wanted to graduate sooner. Our classes were 95% the same and I consider the education/skill level to be the same - at least from that school.

I don't think he's ever been asked about it and neither have I. Once you have a first job out of school, school usually doesn't even come up at all. Occasionally someone will ask about your GPA for later jobs but it usually just asked by someone who got a good GPA themselves and likes to be snooty. Pick whichever one makes the most sense for you and don't worry about it.

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At UW Madison, I was one Spanish class away from a BA in CS. I can't say that it would have made a lick of difference which one I got as far as getting my first job. It certainly wasn't my focus.

Also, if you go to a community college to take care of all your pre-req's before going to your 'finishing' school, you're pretty likely to take more liberal arts than you would if you just went on to the 4-year. Therefore, you're more likely to start out closer to a BA. If you want to hide the fact that you're not hardcore, definitely get a BS, it's BS anyway eh?

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The difference between a B.A. and a B.S. in computer science depends entirely on the the granting institution. In most institutions the difference will mostly be a matter of distribution requirements, with a B.A. generally having more humanities and language requirements, and a B.S. having more math and science. When I've been in the position of hiring people I paid far more attention to the school then the distinction between a B.S and a B.A. Some of the small liberal arts colleges have very rigorous programs, but only grant B.A. degrees.

The distinction between a B.[AS]. in Computer Science and a B.S. in Computer Engineering is more significant. It still varies by institution, but I would expect a B.S.C.E. to have a significant background in hardware and electronics.

In my experience interviewers fall into three classes: morons, who will think things like "B.A. is less qualified than B.S. always", drifters, who will just check off the "has college degree" box, and researchers, who will try to assess what the degree actually represents. Unfortunately, you probably won't get a choice about who will interview you.

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Just to throw another wrench in the works, mine is neither... I have a BBA in CS/CIS. :-)

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For most programmers, it's engineering. It's taking the results of art (algorithms, math, philosophy) and science (measured best practices, experiments to develop hardware) and applying it to a practical final product.

For researchers, it may be science (if they are testing algorithms for effectiveness in real-world scenarios, for example) or art (if they are doing work that is more mathematical or algorithm development). Often, it is a mix of the two.

As Computer Science develops, it will probably break into seperate fields for each of these. As a relatively new field, the same people often work on all aspects of progress (art, science, and engineering), but less so now than during the days of Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing.

At my school (University of Washington) there was a BS in Computer Science from the College of Arts and Sciences, and a BS in Computer Engineering from the College of Engineering. The engineering degree was more rigid and definitely rigorous, with more of an emphasis on low-level systems (embedded software, operating systems, compilers, etc.) while the science degree was relatively flexible and could be less rigorous (depending on which classes you took - Computer Graphics was known for being a 30-hour-a-week class for only 4 credits), geared more towards positions developing software with higher-level languages. There were BA degrees focused on using computers, but they focused more on business applications or applied math applications. I never looked into any of these, so can't give details.

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Waterloo has a few different Bachelor degrees for those studying Math and CS:

Undergraduate studies in the mathematical and computer sciences at Waterloo lead to one of the following degrees:

  • Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) with a Bachelor of Mathematics (BMath) when you complete the Double Degree program
  • Bachelor of Computer Science (BCS) when you complete studies in Bioinformatics or one of the many other School of Computer Science programs listed above under Computer Science
  • Bachelor of Computing and Financial Management (BCFM) when you complete studies in Computing and Financial Management
  • Bachelor of Mathematics (BMath) when you complete studies in one of the many Mathematics or Computer Science programs listed above
  • Bachelor of Software Engineering (BSE) when you complete studies in Software Engineering

I hold a double Honor's BMath degree just to state where my background fits in here.

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I got a BSCS and had the option of doing the BA, but I was really very into the mathematical end of it for some crazy reason. It was definitely grueling, but I think if I could do it all over again I would have done the BA. They seemed to have more interesting classes than did the science version. For one thing, there were a lot more writing classes required which is actually almost as important as your coding ability in the real world. I never realized how much I would have to write when I decided to get a job in this field; but it's quite a lot for sure. Anyway, either one of the degrees is a good choice, though I think the BS degree may take a bit longer thant the BA.

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