What Does a Career in Cyber Security Entail?
These days, every industry has gone technical—we’re always connected to the web, and digital know-how is a part of most jobs. And then you add in factors like advancing artificial intelligence, data breaches, and cybercrime—and the demand for cybersecurity experts has never been higher.
The BLS reports that cybersecurity jobs are expected to grow by 28% through 2026, which is seven times the average growth rate for all other sectors. Because cybersecurity pros are in high demand, entry and mid-level professionals stand to earn well above the national average upon graduation.Read More
While it may come as a surprise that you can major in cybersecurity, there are a lot of colleges and universities, both online and off, that offer programs focused exclusively on creating a generation of digital security experts.
The best cybersecurity programs offer hands-on experience combined with affordability and the ability to find work after graduation. Working adults may be interested in pursuing this path as a career change, or as a way to build on existing IT skills. Traditional college-aged students, too, can benefit from specializing in this in-demand career path that promises to provide an excellent return on your investment.
Criminal Justice & Law Paths
Components of A Successful Career In "Cyber Security"
A successful career in cyber security can take shape in a few different ways. Most cyber security jobs don’t come equipped with the term included in the title—so you may find yourself in a role as an analyst, developer, systems architect, or auditor.
Entry-level jobs often start at a decent salary, so if you’re equipped with the right set of skills, chances are you’ll be in good shape for the long haul. That said, technology is an ever-changing space, so you’ll likely need to pursue new certifications every few years or so to keep pace.
Successful professionals specialize in more than just security. They’re skilled coders and programmers who know the ins and outs of internet security, cryptography, and network infrastructure.
What’s great about a career in cyber security is, there’s no standard career path, and the field tends to provide opportunities based on merit and skills, not necessarily a degree. People come from all kinds of backgrounds, but the thing that unites them is a love of technology and an insatiable curiosity for learning how things work.
The ideal candidate for this role has a blend of soft skills and technical know-how. Employers want to see that you know your IT fundamentals and have expertise in security best practices. On the soft side, candidates should be able to communicate with others and work in a team setting and be good at solving complex problems.
If that sounds like you, here is some more information about earning a cyber security degree and getting started on a lucrative and rewarding career path.
How to Earn a Degree in Cyber Security
Why earn a Cyber Security degree?
Though programming and IT and general are good bets for students seeking a rewarding and lucrative career in technology, cybersecurity is in growing demand. Homeland Security and the Pentagon are short on people able to implement high-level digital security plans, and as such, students may be able to secure work with the federal government upon graduation. Additionally, cyber security is in demand in the private sector as well.
Typical Cyber Security Degree Requirements
During your research, you’ll want to look for programs that offer an interdisciplinary approach to online security. Students should seek out cybersecurity courses in computer science, engineering, and management, as well as things like privacy and ethics, digital forensics, project management, and operating systems.
Your coursework will likely cover a wide range of topics and projects you’ll work on with other students and faculty. Students may choose a specific concentration within this area of study, but you will want to find a program that provides a hands-on approach to solving real-world problems. If you’re not sure what to look for, visit the NICE Cyber Security Workforce Framework website.
This is the US government’s breakdown of the roles, skills, and knowledge Homeland Security is looking for—which whether or not you’d like to work for the government, may help you identify what you’ll need to learn as you earn your degree.
Typical Cyber Security Certifications Needed
There are several types of certifications that professionals can use to take their career to the next level, and recent graduates, as well as IT veterans may choose to earn a credential to increase job prospects or keep up with the latest technology. Here are some of the more common certifications that employers may look for:
- CEH: Certified Ethical Hacker
- CCNA: Cisco Certified Network Associate
- CISSP: Certified Information Systems Security Professional
- GSEC / GCIH / GCIA: GIAC Security Certifications
Applicants to cyber security bachelor’s programs will need to have at least a high school diploma or a GED. Universities may also look for students with a strong command of statistics, calculus, and science, and proficiency in English. Students who do not meet these requirements may need to take some prerequisite courses or start their degree at a two-year college and transfer with an associate degree.
Additionally, academic standards depend on the school. Some schools are more competitive and want to see applicants with a strong educational foundation, glowing letters of recommendation, and high SAT scores. Others only want to know that you’ve completed your high school education. If you’re looking at schools without much competition, do make sure you’re evaluating the program’s curriculum, faculty background, and other markers of a quality program.
Exam and Experience Needed for Cyber Security Degrees
As mentioned above, you don’t necessarily need to have an advanced degree to go on to a high paying career. Instead, your success depends on your ability to do your job well and a commitment to learning the latest and best practices within this field.
Some employers will require these professionals to hold an advanced degree or a certification. A master’s degree in this field will take students an additional two years to complete and provides a deeper dive into advanced principles and ethics, policies, and principles associated with this discipline.
Essential Questions to Ask
How long does it take to earn a cyber security bachelor's degree online?
Like most bachelor’s degrees, a bachelor’s degree is typically a four-year commitment. During this time, you’ll build a foundation in programming, database applications, artificial intelligence, and statistics. The program is similar to a computer science program, but with a greater focus on these concepts as they relate to online security.
Programs generally require students to complete 120-130 credit hours, and you can pace through these hours as finances and time allow. Keep in mind, that accelerating your degree will present a heavier workload, especially if you’re covering complicated, technical subject matter. However, the longer you take to complete your degree, the greater the final cost will be.
How much does a degree cost?
The average cost of a cyber security degree varies based on several factors. State residency is one element, as is where the school is located and whether its public or private. Some schools do charge flat tuition across the board for online students, regardless of location, while others apply the same rules to digital learners as those attending classes in person.
Per-credit, the average cost of an online cyber security degree ranges from $300-$500. Technology fees, textbooks, and equipment will also add some extra expenses to the overall bill. Still, you may end up spending less than you would if you chose to attend an on-campus program, as you’re then looking at campus housing, meal plans, and/or transportation costs, as well as a less flexible schedule that may make it difficult to work full-time.
The standard cyber security curriculum is based around the same foundational courses you’ll find in related disciplines like computer science. You’ll learn about operating systems, programming, statistics, and computer systems during your first year. From there, students will learn about database applications, risk management, website administration, and artificial intelligence. Students won’t only learn technical skills. They may also take psychology, economics, writing, ethics, and project management courses—which will also play a significant role in your career.
Students may be required to complete a capstone project or an internship before they can graduate, which will serve as a starting point for your career.
Does the school have the major(s) you’re considering?
Cyber security is an exciting field and you don’t necessarily have to have a degree that says cyber security. Instead, you can choose the specific major, or consider majoring in IT, computer science, or a related field. Because it’s a newer field, many employers emphasize certificates over a degree, but if you don’t yet have a bachelor’s degree, a cybersecurity-specific degree can give you an edge in a competitive field upon graduation. We should also note that, because cybersecurity is an in-demand skill, there are several government-sponsored scholarship programs available. Some of these programs require that you enroll in a specific major or choose from a selection of US colleges—so keep this in mind as you do your research.
How many students graduate “on time,” in four years?
Most bachelor’s degrees are around 120 credits, which means students should be taking about 15 hours per semester throughout four years. On average, students take about 12 credit hours per semester; which means it will take five or six years to graduate. However, it’s worth pointing out that a program with a high graduation rate is likely to provide the resources students need to finish on time—or close to it.
On-time graduation isn’t the only thing you should look at, but it may give you a sense of how realistic it is to complete your program within a reasonable time frame. Low graduation rates, on the other hand, indicate that a program might be too expensive, that required classes are not offered on a regular basis, or that faculty and advisors don’t do much to help students achieve their goals.
What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How is it regarded in the field?
If you’re looking to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree in this field of study, one of the most important things to consider is whether the school has regional accreditation. Again, regional accreditation signifies that students meet a specific set of requirements that employers and other educational institutions will recognize as a valid degree. If a school does not have accreditation, you may not be eligible for specific positions or granted acceptance to a master’s program. Essentially, an accredited school offers more opportunities, whether that’s for work or an advanced degree down the line.
Cyber security is a relatively new field, so there’s not a longstanding history of what makes a program reputable. In fact, many colleges and universities are scrambling to keep up with the latest best practices.
Your best bet is to look for a school that provides a multidisciplinary approach to cyber security. Ideally, a program with an excellent reputation for computer science might be worth looking into, and programs should teach you solid fundamentals like programming, statistics, system administration, and more. Look at the NSA’s academic standards in information assurance and online security or the US Department of Defense’s recommended curriculum. From there, you can get a sense of the kind of coursework your degree should include.
There are several skills that an aspiring cybersecurity professional should have before they enter the job market. Employers will want to hire someone with a combination of soft skills and hard, technical competencies. Here’s a look at some of the essential skills that will pave the road toward success in this role:
Often, threats to a network’s security can be hard to detect. Cybersecurity professionals will need to be able to spot a small vulnerability in a line of code and be able to quickly identify these problems or any changes to a system. There’s no detail too small for bad actors to capitalize on—so this job isn’t for the disorganized.
Information security professionals need to be able to educate their clients and the workers in the companies that employ them. They must be able to communicate easily on cybersecurity matters and help them implement the best practices needed to protect their data. While IT pros don’t always have a reputation for being sociable, cybersecurity professionals benefit from being able to break down complex technical topics in a way that hits home for a nontechnical user. As such, written and oral communication skills top the list of in-demand soft skills for cybersecurity workers.
- Problem Solving
Creative problem-solving is a big asset in the world of cybersecurity. Professionals and students alike should have an interest in tacking big problems by thinking outside of the box.
- Interest in Continual Learning
Cybercrime is evolving all the time, so those pursuing a degree should know that their education won’t just stop upon graduation. You’ll need to be continually improving and seeking new information to progress in your role.
Finally, you should be adept in math and computer programming, as well. Ideally, cybersecurity professionals should have a firm grasp on a variety of programming languages, as technical knowledge is a critical element of being able to do this job.
- Artificial Intelligence
Increasingly, cybersecurity professionals will need to develop a keen understanding of AI and its role in cyberattacks. Some organizations are already experimenting with AI used to counteract automated attacks, and as such, it’s smart to look for coursework that covers this new area.
Associate Degree in Cybersecurity
An associate degree in cybersecurity is a two-year program that can potentially set you up for an entry-level job or as a more affordable way to earning a four-year degree. Because cybersecurity is a relatively new area, an associate degree can provide an additional qualification to a working professional with IT experience and/or a degree in computer science.
- Database Security
- Digital Forensics
Bachelor’s Degree in Cybersecurity
You don’t necessarily need a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity to find work in this field, as again, it’s a somewhat new space. That said, if you’re considering a bachelor’s program, this may be a good path, as it offers a more specialized education than say mathematics or computer science.
- iServer Management
- iNetworking Fundamentals
- iArtificial Intelligence
Bachelor’s Degree Concentrations:
Cybersecurity Management, Information Security, Computer Forensics, Cryptographic Systems, and Crime Analysis
Master’s Degree in Cybersecurity
Master’s degree programs in cybersecurity give students a more specialized education. Most programs are two years and may be a good choice for working adults who wish to further their career and expertise.
- Penetration testing
- Digital forensics
Master’s Degree Concentrations:
Cybercrime Investigation, Digital Forensics, Information Security and Assurance, Enterprise Systems, Cybersecurity Analysis, Network Security, and Cryptology
In addition to traditional degrees, many universities offer certificates in cybersecurity as a means of furthering expertise or adding credentials to graduates’ resumes. These programs typically consist of the “major” part of a degree—meaning, students can update their knowledge and skip the general education aspect of earning a bachelor’s degree. In some cases, students may apply credits earned to a master’s degree in cybersecurity down the road.
Earning Potential for Cybersecurity Degree Fields and Occupations
Earning potential for cybersecurity professionals doesn’t change too much based on the level of formal education. Sure, someone with a master’s degree in cybersecurity or a related field may be able to command a higher salary, but this field hinges success on merit and ability more than formal education, which is often the case in these newer fields. That said, someone with only an associate degree might not have the knowledge needed to find work in this field—and as such, may be able to work in a related field, but will likely need to earn some certifications and train on their own time to make up for the lack of formal education.
Cybersecurity Fields of Study Median Salaries
Below, we’ve included the average salaries, at each stage in a graduate’s career. What we should mention is, any of these fields of study will provide similar opportunities, and salary depends more on your role and your ability than your degree—or even whether you’ve completed a degree. Analysts tend to earn slightly less than a programmer or engineer, and IT jobs can span a wide range of industries.
|Occupation||Entry-Level Salary||Mid-Career Salary||Late Career Salary|
|Information Systems security||$55,000||$92,000||$122,000|
|Computer Engineering||$70,000||$112, 000||$150,000|
- Information Technology
IT programs teach students the foundations of computer systems. Coursework for an IT program will focus on network security, programming, web development and design, and database administration. Many students that pursue a degree in IT can find work as a developer, designer, or systems analyst. Because this field of study also covers cybersecurity, students will also receive a solid foundation for launching a career in this space. That said, students may want to earn an additional cybersecurity credential if they wish to specialize.
- Computer Science
Computer science is a broad field of study and is always a good choice for students who want to work in an in-demand tech role after graduating. In most computer science programs, students will learn a variety of computing languages and learn to develop software, applications, and will build, design, and test computer programs. Additionally, students will study computer science theory, mathematics, and may choose to take courses that look more closely at cybersecurity.
A four-year cybersecurity program is similar to computer science or IT degree but focuses in on network security, cybercrime, or security maintenance. Typical courses include criminology, networking, disaster recovery, forensics, and information security planning. Students who specialize in cybersecurity may go on to work as digital forensics experts, analysts, information security officers, or network security administrators.
- Computer Engineering
Computer engineering is similar to computer science but slightly more specific. This area of study combines electrical engineering with computer science, and students will look at how to make computing better, faster, and more secure. Computer engineering is a major for students with a natural curiosity, as it aims to teach concepts that involve using technology as a way of solving problems and planning for the future.
- Information Systems Security
This degree is for students who want to learn specifically about protecting against emerging digital threats. Students will learn to protect a computer against hackers, fight viruses, and many programs prepare students to earn certifications in the cybersecurity field—which can boost employment prospects upon graduation. Coursework includes database administration, statistics, computer forensics, and programming.
Cybersecurity Salaries by Occupation
|Field of Study||Entry-Level Salary||Mid-Career Salary||Late Career Salary|
|Computer Forensics Expert||$57,000||$82,000||$126,000|
- Cybersecurity Analyst
A cybersecurity analyst works to detect and prevent threats to an organization—be it a private employer or a government agency. In this role, you’ll look for weaknesses in the software, hardware, and network. You’ll plan and implement security protocols, monitor access, and come up with new ways to prevent data breaches. Additionally, you might work with outside contractors and may be tasked with training employees on how to stay safe online.
- Security Consultant
A security consultant is an outside expert who helps organizations implement security best practices based on their needs and the risks they face as a business. Those who wish to become a security consultant should have a strong understanding of security systems, authentication protocols, and strong communication skills.
- Computer Forensics Expert
Computer forensics specialists are something of a digital detective. In this role, you might work for a corporation, law enforcement agency, law firm, or the government. And you’ll work to recover and examine data from computers or other electronics, run data breach investigations, and compile evidence for legal cases. Additionally, you should be able to reverse engineer activity to prove how a breach might have occurred, be well-versed in cryptography, cloud-computing, and the full range of programming language. You’ll also need to be able to communicate well, presenting your findings in court or in front of a company’s executive board.
- Security Engineer
A security engineer typically works for a specific company and their role aims to build and maintain IT solutions for a company. Security engineers also handle technical issues as they arise, much like a traditional IT worker, but they also configure and install firewalls and intrusion detection systems and perform vulnerability tests. Additionally, security engineers monitor for security breaches and investigate break-ins, as they occur. They’ll test for vulnerabilities and implement solutions—and they’ll make recommendations based on their findings.
- Penetration Tester
Penetration testers, otherwise known as ethical hackers are skilled security specialists who spend most of their time attempting to hack into network security systems. Testers work with companies to ensure that those without authorization cannot access an organization’s data. In this role, testers will conduct physical assessments of servers, systems, and network devices. They’ll also perform security tests on applications, networks, and computer systems, and write assessment reports that reveal their findings and recommendations.
The Center for Cyber Safety and Education
The Center for Cybersecurity Safety and Education provides several scholarships for aspiring cybersecurity professionals. Students must have a minimum 3.0 GPA and be enrolled in an accredited US institution. Applicants must submit a letter of recommendation, a personal essay, and current transcripts. Awards are valued at up to $5,000 and offered for one year, though winners may apply again for future funding.
Women in Information Security Scholarships
This center offers scholarships to undergraduate women in cybersecurity or information assurance. Students must have a 3.3 minimum GPA to qualify and may be enrolled in a program both in the US or abroad. To apply, students must submit a letter of recommendation, CV, and the answers to a series of essay questions.
CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service
CyberCorps is the US government’s effort to encourage more students to pursue cybersecurity careers. The organization awards undergraduate students with stipends up to $22,500 to cover tuition and fees. Students should be aware that the scholarship comes with a stipulation—students must take a position in the federal government after graduating for the length of time equal to the amount of time they participated in the scholarship program.
The Stokes Program
The Stokes Program is another government-backed program that offers generous rewards in exchange for a commitment later on. Students are eligible for awards up to $30,000 per year. Graduates must work with the National Security Agency upon graduation—keep in mind that the program also has some pretty strict background check requirements.
Information Assurance Scholarships
The federal government offers a $15,000 scholarship to students entering the field of information assurance in exchange for service in the area upon graduation. The program is offered through 50+ accredited US colleges, and hundreds of students receive this award.
TruSecure is a private company that provides security solutions and training for professional IT personnel working in systems security. Students pursuing a traditional undergraduate career path can apply, as can working professionals returning to school to further their career.
Professional Cybersecurity Organizations
The SANS Institute
SANS is a trusted source for information security information, training, and certification. This organization works to help IT pros stay informed of the latest best practices and puts on events all over the country. They also run online courses, write white papers, and partner with public and private entities to help them apply best practices.
International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium
An international non-profit for information security professionals, the (ISC)2 offers training, certification, and membership to IT pros from all over the world. The site features many forums, an events calendar, and the opportunity to win awards. You’ll also gain access to member pricing for training and events and can start your own (ISC)2 chapter if you’d like.
Center for Internet Security
The Center for Internet Security is a non-profit organization that focuses on enhancing cybersecurity readiness and response, both in the public and private sector. CIS aims to offer a range of resources to their partners and serves as a well-regarded resource on cybersecurity best practices. The CIS also puts on cybersecurity events and provides a job board for professionals seeking employment in this field.
Choosing an Accredited College
Accreditation status is hugely important if you want to earn your bachelor’s degree. With something like cybersecurity, skills and experience take precedence over what degree you hold, so as long as you can do your job and demonstrate your capabilities, you will likely be able to find work.
That said, choosing an accredited program helps to ensure that you’re receiving an education that matches the agreed-upon standard set by agencies recognized by the US Department of Education. Accreditation impacts things like your ability to transfer to another school, qualify for financial aid, or be able to enroll in a graduate program later on.
Many employers also look for candidates that have degrees from accredited schools. Those without the designation can teach whatever they want—and there’s no guarantee that a student leaves a program with the correct set of skills.
Online vs. On-Campus vs. Hybrid
These days, students have the option to choose how they earn their degree, and plenty of schools provide online learning opportunities for students who can’t drop everything to enroll in a traditional program.
Cybersecurity is an ideal major for those seeking an online degree, as you’ll be spending a great deal of time behind the computer anyway. Still, there are benefits to taking classes in person. Schools that provide both online and offline courses may be a good choice, as online students can elect to take courses on campus here and there—benefitting from the networking opportunities and hands-on experience with faculty.
The thing you do need to watch out for is that the high demand for cybersecurity degrees has led to an abundance of scam diploma mills. Countless programs will charge you for a worthless degree with no accreditation. As such, we recommend looking into programs offered through traditional schools — i.e., state schools, private universities, or smaller colleges with an on-campus component. If the school does not come with regional accreditation or is not recognized by the US Department of Education, you should consider it a warning to stay away.
Does the College Have Post-Graduate Job Placement Help & Assistance?
Many colleges assist graduates seeking employment. Career centers, networking opportunities, and recruitment all come to mind, as do relationships with alumni and donors. In some cases, programs might partner with local businesses or the government to help students find work after completing their degree.
Students should spend a lot of time researching the resources their program offers—especially if they’re planning on earning their degree online. Some schools provide reduced access to resources for online students, which may be a sign they treat the online degree-seekers as “less than” in some capacity.
Why You Need to Consider How Rating/Accreditation Can Affect Your Salary
The school’s accreditation status can affect how employers view your degree and your eligibility to enroll in other educational institutions in the future. Students should look beyond the marketing brochures and do some digging on their own. Make sure a regional organization accredits the school and see what students have to say about their experience during their studies. Bad reviews from students may be a sign that it’s time to look for a different program.