By Janet Miller and Randy Connolly

Understanding computing disciplines to help advisors guide students in choosing the right career path

When you are out at a party, meeting new people, how do you answer the question “What do you do?”  Do you respond with a job title, or do you describe some of the functions of your work?  Do you try to describe the impact of your responsibilities, or do you talk about the education or training that led you into this career? In some career sectors, it can be especially difficult to answer this question in a way that provides a satisfying answer. Computing is one of those sectors.

Explaining the computing sector to better advise for computer-related careers

Jobs like Software Developer or Gaming and Multimedia Specialist might sound familiar, but when we are asked to really describe what these people do, many career advisors struggle to have clear answers about the tasks of the job and the recommended post-secondary training. Answering the question “What do you do?” gets even more uncertain when we are talking about fields like bioinformatics, IT security or computational science. To make it even more complicated, the field of computing has expanded rapidly over the past decade, and we know that many current computing students will take on jobs that do not even exist today. Despite this complexity and breadth, online career counselling resources typically treat computing as a single discipline, usually labelled Computer Science. Research and practice have shown that computer science programs are often the first to be recommended to prospective students, and based on the nearly 50% attrition rate reported by these programs (Beaufouef & Mason, 2005; Chen & Soldner, 2013), we know that this is not the best fit for all students interested in computing.

This is similar to working with a student who is interested in the food and beverage industry but who is only exploring careers related to cooking. With support from a knowledgeable advisor, this prospective student may also consider food and beverage-related marketing, business administration, bartending, front-of-house service work, sales, construction, skilled trades, accounting or interior design. Helping this student to engage in study at an applied institute for culinary training might be the best fit, or alternatively, a university degree program focused on public relations and communication skills might be more in line with their actual industry-related interests.

Despite the fact that computer-related careers are the paradigmatic work of the 21st century, surprisingly little is known about the range of work people can do within this field. Perceptions of computing are especially shaped by stereotypical portrayals in film and television (insert mental picture of cubical work or darkened basements, of hackers and programming geeks, here). Constraints we face as career advisors when working to support career exploration in the computing disciplines include these media-reinforced clichés, and access to only generalized information about this complex and growing field.

Distinct sub-disciplines, sub-specialties and numerous possible educational paths

The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) has acknowledged the increasing complexity of computing by articulating five distinct disciplines within computing: computer science (CS), information systems (IS), software engineering (SE), computer engineering (CE) and information technology (IT). These different sub-disciplines are carefully described in their own ACM Curriculum Recommendations. These five disciplines in turn have a number of sub-specialities that have resulted in dozens of possible educational paths for students interested in computing.

Our research with computing and non-computing undergraduates in three different countries indicated that computing students had the most difficulty making the distinction between IT and IS-related tasks, and that students need to understand that the CS field had less to do with software development than they might think. We concluded that we needed to provide students with more information about the SE role in designing, developing and implementing software, and help students to see CS as more focused on the theoretical foundations of information and computation.

With the generous support of CERIC project partner funding, we developed a free research-informed publication designed to support career exploration into the computing disciplines. Computing Disciplines: A Quick Guide for Prospective Students and Career Advisors describes the five computing disciplines in a way that we think will be meaningful to prospective students, parents and career advisors.

Each discipline is outlined through a brief description, and then we provide an “outside view” of the discipline (more of what we might say as a way of introducing ourselves at a party), and an “inside view” of what this area of work might involve. We have made the Quick Guide visual and invite prospective students to see themselves doing the tasks associated with each kind of career. The diagrams for each area visually describe its tendency towards either the applied or the theoretical aspects of computing – a perspective that easily connects with theories of personality and measure of career interests. Career practitioners can review “on-the-job tasks” with interested students, as well as typical core courses that the student could expect to encounter in college or university. Working backwards from job titles, career advisors can help students to consider pathways available to reach that goal. We understand that for students, their initial understanding of the different computing disciplines may play a large role in whether or not they decide to register in a computing program. The guide assists students to create a narrative of their career path that goes beyond the typical “computer science” label.

Our hope is that this resource will be a pleasure to read, easy to work with, and effective for supporting exploration into the diverse world of computing. For more information on the guide or to access a free download, please visit


Dr Janet Miller is a Counselling Psychologist with expertise in post-secondary mental health issues and personal development. She celebrates career planning as encompassing all aspects of life, learning and work, and much of her research focuses on career, leadership and student success. In addition to working at Mount Royal University for nearly 20 years, she is the Editor of Kaleidoscope, a Certified Trainer with the Centre for Suicide Prevention and an accomplished keynote speaker. She can be reached at

Randy Connolly has been teaching at Mount Royal University since 1997. He is the author of three textbooks, the most recent of which is Fundamentals of Web Development, Second Edition, used by thousands of students at over 100 universities worldwide. He has also authored 34 peer-reviewed papers and given over 20 international research presentations. He is on the editorial boards of the two main journals for computing education (ACM Transaction on Computing Education and ACM Inroads). He can be reached at


ACM/IEEE-CS (2010). “IS 2010 Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Degree Programs in Information Systems”. Accessed on May 13, 2016 from

ACM/IEEE- CS (2013). “Computer Science Curricular 2013: Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Degree Programs”. Accessed on July 09, 2017 from report.pdf

ACM/IEEE- CS (2014). “Software Engineering Curricular 2017: Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Degree Programs in Software Engineering”. Accessed on July 07, 2017 from

ACM/IEEE (2016). “Computer Engineering Curricula 2016: Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Degree Programs in Computer Engineering”. Accessed on July 07, 2017 from

ACM/IEEE- CS (2017). “Information Technology Curricular 2017: Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Degree Programs in Information Technology”. Accessed on July 07, 2017 from

Beaubouef, T., & Mason, J. (2005). “Why the high attrition rate for computer science students: Some thoughts and observations”. Inroads – The SIGCSE Bulletin, 37(2), 103-106.

Chen, X., & Soldner, M. (2013). “STEM Attrition: College students’ paths into and out of STEM fields”.  Statistical Analysis Report.  U.S. Department of Education, National Centre for Education Statistics: Washington, DC.

Connolly, R., Miller, J., Uzoka, F. M., et al (2016). “Red Fish, Blue Fish: Reexamining Students’ Understanding of the Computing Disciplines”. In Proceedings of the 17th Annual Conference on Information Technology Education. (pp. 115-120). ACM.

Uzoka, F. M., Connolly, R., Schroeder, M., Khemka, N., & Miller, J. (2013). “Computing is not a rock band: student understanding of the computing disciplines”. In Proceedings of the 14th annual ACM SIGITE conference on Information technology education.