Confused about cyber security degrees? We don’t blame you. That’s why we created this page. It’s intended to give you smart, simple advice for choosing a cyber security degree, including criteria you can use to compare schools. We also cover the current debate between cyber security vs. computer science and the sticky question of whether you need a degree.
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What is a Cyber Security Degree?
A cyber security degree is intended to equip you with the knowledge and skills to defend computer operating systems, networks and data from cyber attacks. Although it incorporates theoretical concepts, it’s a technical degree.
Having this technical knowledge is key. Whether you are designing system architectures with certain security characteristics or detecting risks, threats and vulnerabilities, you are on the front line of defense.
Typical cyber security degree names include:
- Cyber Security
- Information Assurance
- Information Security
- Information Systems Security
All of these are regarded as sub-disciplines of computer science.
Is a Cyber Security Degree Worth it?
Not necessarily. The dearth of qualified info security professionals means anyone with great skills will probably be able to find a job. There are plenty of cyber experts with bachelor's degrees in history/chemistry/physics/etc. or even no degree at all.
Nevertheless, the demand for candidates with solid technical degrees continues to grow:
- In its Report on the Growth of Cyber Security Jobs (March 2014), Burning Glass discovered that 84% of online cyber security job postings specified a bachelor's degree.
- In its survey of Cyber Security Professional Trends (May 2014), SANS found that slightly more than 75% of respondents had a bachelor's degree; 30% had a master's degree, MBA or higher.
General rule of thumb – if you want to advance to management-level positions, you may need to invest in more education.
What Universities Are Offering
Since cyber security is a relatively new field, universities are scrambling to put together undergraduate and graduate degree programs.
What’s more, as technology continues to evolve, so does the syllabus. Courses currently cover a wide swath of IT security and information assurance topics.
That means you’ll find a lot of variation between cyber security programs. Some schools choose to drill you in programming and discrete probability; others play up digital forensics and security policy. Cyber security is a young discipline, and schools are still establishing which approach is most effective.
How to Choose a Degree Program
So how do you go about choosing a program? Most importantly, you want an interdisciplinary degree that’s going to provide you with solid computing skills – fundamentals like programming, statistics, system administration, etc.
We’ve found it helpful to match course syllabi against the NSA’s CAE IA/CD (Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/Cyber Defense) academic criteria.
NSA CAE IA/CD Academic Criteria
According to the NSA's 2014 Academic Criteria, a technical two-year program should include the following core knowledge units (KUs):
1.1 Basic Data Analysis
1.2. Basic Scripting or Introductory Programming
1.3. Cyber Defense
1.4. Cyber Threats
1.5. Fundamental Security Design Principles
1.6. Information Assurance Fundamentals
1.7. Intro to Cryptography
1.8. IT Systems Components
1.9. Networking Concepts
1.10. Policy, Legal, Ethics, and Compliance
1.11. System Administration
A four-year program (e.g. BS in Cyber Security) should include all of the above KUs and:
2.2. Network Defense
2.3. Networking Technology and Protocols
2.4. Operating Systems Concepts
2.5. Probability and Statistics
These are the basics. In advanced classes, you may be introduced to topics such as cloud computing, forensic accounting, wireless sensor networks and more.
Whatever area you’re interested in, look for courses that give you a lot of hands-on experience with real world problems.
What Else to Look for in a Cyber Degree Program
We know you’re going to have specific criteria for choosing a degree program (cost/geography/commute etc.) that bear no relation to the professors or the syllabus.
But, to give you bang for your buck, we wanted to point out how a couple of institutions are evaluating the worth of a cyber security degree. You may wish to use these ideas when you’re deciding between schools.
NSA CAE IA/CD Designation
In addition to core knowledge units (see above), the NSA also insists that a program:
- Demonstrates outreach and collaboration
- Has a center for IA/CD education
- Fosters a robust and active IA/CD academic program
- Ensures IA/CD is a multidisciplinary science within the institution
- Supports the practice of IA/CD throughout the institution
- Encourages student and faculty IA/CD research
In its report, 2014 Best Schools for Cybersecurity, the Ponemon Institute found 10 characteristics that set the best schools apart:
- Designated by the NSA and DHS as a CAE IA/CD institution.
- Interdisciplinary program that cuts across different, but related fields – especially computer science, engineering and management.
- Curriculum addresses both technical and theoretical issues in cyber security.
- Courses on management, information security policy and other related topics essential to the effective governance of secure information systems.
- Faculty composed of leading practitioners and researchers in the field of cyber security and information assurance.
- Hands-on learning environment where students and faculty work together on projects that address real life cyber security threats.
- Both undergraduate and graduate degree programs are offered.
- Emphasis on career and professional advancement.
- Graduates of programs are placed in private and public sector positions.
- A diverse student body, offering educational opportunities to women and members of the military.
Note the insistence on interdisciplinary studies. Cyber security cuts across a lot of fields, including management, law and ethics. A strong degree is going to prepare you for issues you’ll be discussing with non-technical colleagues.
BS in Cyber Security vs. BS in Computer Science
Looking at bachelor’s degrees? Let us introduce you to the cyber security vs. computer science (CS) debate.
Thanks to a drought in qualified IT professionals, specialized degrees in cyber security have flooded the market. The NSA has even designated a number of 4-year programs as CAE IA/CD.
But is this a good thing? In his well-argued opinion piece for Computerworld, Ira Winkler notes that no other computing discipline (e.g. software engineering, systems administration, etc.) has a specialized degree program.
He’s especially unhappy that cyber security degrees aren’t giving undergraduates the experience that they’re going to need when they hit the job market:
“Take a look at the NSA's cybersecurity professional development program. It wants people with strong programming skills. But many cybersecurity undergraduate programs do not offer any programming coursework. It's been cut out to make room for more classes in things like writing security policies.”
By specializing so quickly (i.e. before graduate school), Winkler says, students are limiting themselves to a small subset of jobs.
Options for Undergraduate Degrees
Winkler may be right. But that doesn’t mean you should completely discount a Bachelor of Science in Cyber Security. Instead, think long and hard about your goals.
Option 1: BS in Cyber Security
If you’re determined to specialize in cyber security early:
- Make sure your undergraduate program grounds you in critical math, engineering and programming skills.
- Work hard to gain an intricate knowledge of the way operating systems are designed and built.
- Join a local security group like ISSA, ISC2, ISACA or B-Sides.
- Find a part-time job that both exercises and broadens your skills.
Remember that the degree itself is not going to be enough for potential employers. They will want to see evidence of real world experience.
Option 2: BS in Computer Science
Your second option is to stick with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science (or IT, Electrical Engineering, Math, etc.) and supplement that technical degree with:
- Cyber security MOOCs
- Beginner security certifications like Security+
- Cyber security internships
- Minor in cyber security
In this way, you retain a lot of flexibility, but you also show future employers that you’re serious about a cyber security career path.
Overview of Online Cyber Security Degrees
In an Online Cyber Security Degree, a large part of the work takes place in a virtual environment. Classes are delivered via the web and most assignments are completed remotely. Nevertheless, a good online program will have the same curriculum as a bricks and mortar degree.
IT subjects are well-suited to virtual learning, and online cyber security programs have been proliferating like rabbits.
Recognized public and private universities now offer:
- Online Cyber Security Bachelor's Degrees
- Online Cyber Security Certificate Degrees
- Online Cyber Security Master's Degrees
If you're on the fence about online learning, you can always "try before you buy". Universities have developed free online courses (MOOCs) that will give you a feel for the experience.
If you're looking for the best online programs, consider our rankings of the top schools with online Master's in Cyber Security degrees.
Online Cyber Security Degree Format
Most schools require students to have a few basic tools:
- Internet connection
- Web browser
- Communication/classroom software (e.g. Skype, Blackboard, WebCT, etc.).
One thing to keep in mind – since cyber security degrees are highly technical, you may need to invest in extra hardware/software (e.g. VMWare, virtual machines, etc.). This requirements should be listed on the school's website. Talk to the Admissions office if you have any questions.
With self-paced programs (a.k.a. asynchronous learning), you have control of the schedule. Readings, assignments, tests and projects can be done on your own time. Lectures may be prerecorded, allowing you to access them whenever you wish. To encourage interaction, a lot of programs include discussion boards, wikis and social networking tools. This is the most common online degree format.
Real-time classes (a.k.a. synchronous learning) are much like traditional courses, only in a virtual environment. Everyone in the class must be online at the same time. The professor delivers the lecture or presentation; you discuss the work via real-time chat, audio or video conferencing. Some programs even have virtual worlds where you can meet and talk to fellow students.
Instead of choosing one format or the other, some schools have opted for a hybrid program. They might mix real-time online classes with prerecorded lectures. Or they may require you to attend orientation or introductory classes on campus.
Again, if you have any concerns, talk to the Admissions office. They will be able to answer specific questions about the format.
Online Cyber Security Degree: Pros & Cons
Benefits of an Online Cyber Security Degree
There are many reasons you might want to consider an online degree:
- Reduced costs – e.g. commuting & childcare
- Self-paced learning – you choose how much work you need to put in
- Work from home – yes, in your pajamas
- Flexible scheduling – online courses are ideal for working professionals
- Better concentration – no more classroom distractions
- Quality interaction – introverts may prefer live chats/email over face-to-face discussions
- Career advancement – completing an online master's degree or certificate will improve your job prospects
Risks of an Online Cyber Security Degree
On the other hand, you should also keep in mind the following:
- Isolation – social learners may find the lack of face-to-face interaction discouraging
- Time commitment – reading and comprehending coursework can suck up a lot of hours
- Lack of oversight – you (and you alone) are responsible for making deadlines
- Technological challenges – bricks and mortar schools have IT labs with dedicated technicians; you don't
- Limited instructor access – you will have to substitute virtual office hours and email for in-person conversations
How to Choose an Online Cyber Security Program
This is important. Online cyber security degrees are gaining in prestige, but you don't want to get stuck with one that employers won't respect.
- Regional Accreditation – e.g. New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Regionally accredited higher education schools are typically non-profit or state-owned institutions.
- ABET Accreditation – the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology accredits post-secondary education programs in applied science, computing, engineering and engineering technology.
- CNSS Training Standards – the Committee on National Security Systems has developed a set of standards for security professionals. Schools will often state that individual cyber security courses meet these standards.
Avoid for-profit, diploma mills that seek to fool you with phony accreditation.
At some point in your career, you will probably be seeking professional certification (e.g. CompTIA Security+, CISSP, etc.). Some of these certifications have specific education requirements.
So before you commit to an online program, do your research:
- Does your program prepare you for certification exams?
- Will your online qualification be accepted by the accreditation body (e.g. ISACA)?
If you have any doubts, contact the accreditation organization and ask.
To become an expert in your craft, you'll need plenty of practical, hands-on opportunities to:
- Experiment with security methods
- Practice fighting simulated cyber attacks
- Make mistakes that won't cripple a real institution
Seek out online programs that provide virtual labs, fieldwork and self-directed projects.
Do your instructors really know their stuff? The field of cyber security is morphing so rapidly that it can be hard for some professors to keep up.
When you're reading over faculty bios, see if they:
- Continue to work in the field (e.g. a Department of Defense contractor, a corporate Security Consultant, a member of a major research project, etc.)
- Have a strong education/employment track record
- Publish research work in peer-reviewed journals
- Develop projects to help students hone their skills
- Belong to/serve on the board of independent organizations (e.g. IEEE)
- Have received awards, recognitions and grant funding
Teachers can make or break an online degree program.
Internships and real-life work experience will give you a decided advantage heading into the job market.
Wherever you may live, good online programs will find ways to connect you with:
- Government agencies
- Non-profit organizations
- Private companies
Some of this work experience may be able to be done remotely.
Resources & Support Services
Completing an online degree program is a challenge. Your school should be fully prepared to support you throughout the experience.
That means providing access to:
- Virtual libraries and training resources
- Online help and advice
- Personal and professional counselors
- Job placement services
You're paying a lot for this qualification. You deserve to get bang for your buck.