Research Software Engineer Careers: Job Description & Salary

About this article
A research software engineer's median annual salary is around $95,000. Is it worth the training requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to decide if becoming a research software engineer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career in Research Software Engineering

Research software engineers are responsible for solving problems with computer programs. Check out the pros and cons to decide if becoming a research software engineer is the right career move for you.

Pros of a Research Software Engineering Career
High median annual salary ($95,000 for software developers, applications)*
High job growth (22% between 2012 and 2022 for software developers)*
The majority of employers require only a bachelor's degree*
Work in many industries (Financial, computer manufacturing, computer systems design)*

Cons of a Research Software Engineering Career
Can be a high-stress job**
May work long hours (Nearly 25% worked more than 40 hours)*
Some employers may require a master's degree*
May need secondary industry skills (if working for a hospital, must understand hospital's computing needs)*

Sources: *Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Online Occupation Network.

Career Info

Job Description and Duties

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), software engineers, or software developers, are responsible for developing new computer programs ( They create, test and improve software for computers, phones and other electronic equipment. Research software engineers have some similar responsibilities, but they focus more on the problem-solving aspect of the job. This includes gathering data, using it to optimize computer programs and solving problems to make the computers run more effectively. You'll also develop software programs, fix any bugs and improve security.

Job Growth and Salary

The BLS did not have salary information for research software engineers. However, reported that the majority of software engineers had a salary that ranged from $49,000 to $105,000 as of September 2015. The employment outlook for this career is excellent because of the increasing demand for software and applications for computers, cell phones and other gadgets as well as the need for increased security. The BLS projected that employment for software developers would increase by 22% between 2012 and 2022.

Education and Training Requirements

A bachelor's degree in computer science, software engineering or a related field is necessary for this position, but some employers may prefer that you have a master's degree, according to the BLS. Through these degree programs, you'll study computer science, which will train you to create computer systems that store, secure and organize information faster. In other classes, you'll study computer programming languages to learn how to write computer programs. The degree program also introduces software engineering concepts, including how to design, maintain and implement quality engineering. Upon graduation, you should be able to:

  • Install software systems
  • Design software applications
  • Solve computer-related problems
  • Identify patterns

Job Postings from Real Employers

Although the BLS states that a bachelor's degree is generally sufficient for this position, some employers require an advanced degree and several years of experience. Employers are looking for people who are self-motivated and able to work well with others as well as pay attention to detail so they can identify and fix problems. The following are samples of real job postings as of April 2012.

  • An aerospace and defense company in Maryland advertised for a software research engineer who had a bachelor's degree in computer science or a related field and five or more years in software development. According to the ad, the ideal candidate would have experience working with virtual infrastructures and software development.
  • A computer hardware and software company in Illinois wanted to hire a software research engineer who had a master's degree in computer science or electrical engineering along with ten years of relevant work experience. The ad stated that the employee would be responsible for debugging hardware, keeping on top of industry trends and researching hardware applications.
  • A software development company in California was interested in hiring a software research engineer who had a doctorate in computer science or electrical engineering or a master's degree with work experience. The employer requested someone who had experience in logic optimization as well as software development and programming who was self-motivated and able to communicate well.

How to Stand out in the Field

To become a research software engineer, you must have a bachelor's degree. However, as technology becomes more complex and more people enter the field, a master's degree or even a doctorate can help you stand out. If a master's degree is too costly, you may consider taking additional courses while still completing your degree. Classes in computer programming, programming languages and computer security may give you an advantage when seeking work. Designing your own programs may also add weight to your resume. Continuing education after graduation will help you keep up with trends and technological advances.

Get Certified

Earning certification as a software quality engineer can show that you have the skills to work in research software engineering. The Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers offers two certifications for software developers holding a bachelor's degree or less, which can show that you have the skills necessary for a job in software engineering ( Certification is also available for individuals with eight or more years of experience through the American Society for Quality ( Since certification is voluntary, it demonstrates that your skills are up-to-date and that you're willing to go the extra mile, which can help you make a good impression.

Alternative Career Paths

Computer and Information Systems Manager

If becoming a research software engineer doesn't sound right for you, but you're interested in working in the computer field, you might consider becoming a computer and information systems manager. For this job, you must have at least a bachelor's degree in computer science or information science. You could expect a median annual salary of around $118,000 as of May 2011, according to the BLS. You'd be responsible for planning computer-related activities, installing computer hardware and software, recommending upgrades, keeping the network running smoothly, managing network security and, in some instances, overseeing other information technology workers. Computer and information systems managers were expected to see about an 18% increase in employment in the 2010-2020 decade.

Computer Hardware Engineer

If you're more interested in the design and development of computer equipment rather than software programs, you might think about becoming a computer hardware engineer. Hardware engineers design and develop computer equipment that can make computers run faster and more efficiently. Generally, you'll need a bachelor's degree in computer engineering or electrical engineering. The BLS reported that as of May 2011, the median annual salary was around $99,000. The employment rate, however, was expected to be slower than average at nine percent from 2010-2020. This job doesn't just involve creating computer parts; you could also design or improve upon cell phones, iPads and other technological equipment.

Computer Programmer

Another job in the computer field in which you may find entry-level work with an associate's degree is that of a computer programmer. When a software engineer creates a program, a computer programmer makes it so the computer can understand and run the program. The programmer writes computer code using different computer languages. He or she fixes any bugs and tests the program. The employment of computer programmers is expected to grow 12% between 2010 and 2020. The median annual salary as of May 2011 was around $73,000, according to the BLS. The majority of programmers do have a bachelor's degree. However, as mentioned above, some employers may hire you with only an associate's degree.

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