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What Is a Master’s Degree in Cybersecurity?
The world depends on digital data, but at the same time, it faces rising threats to data security. Consequently, cybersecurity has emerged as one of the most in-demand fields of the 21st century. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects information security analysis professionals, who earn a median annual salary of $99,730, will see total jobs grow 32% from 2018 to 2028.
As hackers and cybercriminals grow more sophisticated, information security professionals must match — and exceed — their skill level. A master’s degree in cybersecurity offers current professionals in the industry a chance to bulk up on their knowledge and skills, seek higher-paying jobs, and ultimately wield more influence in the field.
Though cybersecurity constitutes a relatively new field, many universities offer online and on-campus master’s degrees in the subject. Others allow students to major in related fields, such as computer science or computer engineering, and concentrate in cybersecurity.
Should I Get a Master’s in Cybersecurity?
For cybersecurity professionals holding bachelor’s degrees and 1-5 years of field experience, graduate programs extend a variety of professional and personal benefits. Master’s degrees in cybersecurity can assist cybersecurity pros in landing top information security leadership positions at companies or public agencies.
Job Security: Because the need for cybersecurity professionals continues to grow, those planning to pursue a master’s degree in the field can be relatively assured that they will easily be able to find a job.
Policy Influence: Cybersecurity has emerged as a leading concern for public policymakers. Threats to digital security affect corporate America, national security, and American families, making it one of our most critical modern issues.
High Salaries: Because jobs in cybersecurity often require technical skills and specialization, salaries typically exceed the median wage in the U.S. by three or four times. Most cybersecurity positions average more than $90,000 in annual income, and top-earning professionals can earn much more.
Diverse Career Options: Master’s in cybersecurity jobs include penetration testing, security engineering, and information security analysis. Graduates also seek careers in security leadership or teaching and research by pursuing Ph.D. degrees in the field.
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What Can I Do With a Master’s Degree in Cybersecurity?
Master’s degrees in cybersecurity qualify graduates for many career paths, including security engineering, penetration testing, and information security analysis. Some graduate students, however, choose to pursue additional education instead of entering the workplace. Earning Ph.D. degrees allows them to teach and conduct research in the field.
Career and Salary Outlook for Cybersecurity Graduates
Students searching for high-paying, fast-growing careers can find them in the cybersecurity field. One of the most in-demand fields in the country, cybersecurity cannot fill its open positions with qualified employees fast enough to keep up with the demand, and these positions often pay 3-4 times the average American’s salary. Chief information security officers and security architects, for example, both earn particularly high salaries, often exceeding six figures.
A bachelor’s degree opens the door to most cybersecurity jobs. In many cases, however, security professionals must earn master’s degrees to advance in their careers. Most advanced roles require hands-on experience, earned either through a paid job or as part of an internship. Moreover, many cybersecurity professionals add additional certifications to their resumes, thus broadening their skills and career potential.
Security engineers use engineering tools and techniques to develop and optimize information security systems. While other cybersecurity professionals typically focus on identifying security system weaknesses, engineers actually create the security systems, including building firewalls and intrusion detection systems. Entry-level engineering jobs usually require bachelor’s degrees and 1-5 years of experience, while more advanced positions call for master’s degrees and 5-10 years in the field.
Security architects identify strengths and weaknesses in organizations’ security protocols, software, and hardware. Essentially, security architects work at the place where technology and organizational leadership meet. These professionals may conduct penetration tests, analyze risks, and assess routers or networks. They need skills in communication, cybersecurity, education, and organizational development, which master’s degrees in cybersecurity can help provide.
Security analysts serve as frontline professionals in the fight against cybercrime and data breaches. These computer experts develop security policies, recommend software and hardware upgrades, monitor systems for potential violations, and investigate data leaks. Typically, bachelor’s degrees help young professionals jumpstart their careers, but master’s degrees in cybersecurity can move candidates into more interesting, well-paying roles.
Serving as part of their organizations’ senior leadership teams, CISOs take responsibility for all aspects of data protection and management, including strategy, operations, and budgets. These professionals typically work with other C-suite leaders to develop long-term organizational goals, plans, and priorities. High-level positions such as CISO or vice president usually go to professionals with graduate education and many years of hands-on cybersecurity experience.
Formal education does not have to stop with a master’s in cybersecurity. Professionals who want to increase their salaries and advance their careers typically invest in ongoing education. Typically, post-master’s education takes one of two forms: a Ph.D. or a certification.
Cybersecurity professionals who envision themselves conducting cutting-edge research or teaching in universities should consider pursuing Ph.D. degrees. Those who see themselves increasing their responsibilities in corporations, agencies, or nonprofit organizations, however, usually choose certification programs.
Students pursuing master’s in cybersecurity degrees can expect to spend about two years learning advanced concepts of cybersecurity to prepare for leadership roles in the field. Most degrees require 30-36 credits, or about 10-12 courses.
Courses often draw from areas such as cyberlaw and policy, digital forensics, cryptography, and risk analysis. Some courses focus on cybersecurity theory, while others require hands-on treatment of the real-world issues professionals encounter in the field. These programs usually conclude with capstones, which focus on either research or field experience. Some schools allow students to research and write master’s theses for 3-6 credits of coursework.
Students can pursue cybersecurity degrees on campus or online. As a computer-related, internet-focused major, cybersecurity programs are well-suited to online learning. Students can tackle the concepts, case studies, and course challenges from their living rooms or favorite coffee shops as easily as from traditional classrooms or computer labs.
Admission Requirements for a Cybersecurity Master’s Program
Applicants to master’s in cybersecurity programs need bachelor’s degrees for consideration. Some schools require candidates to hold computer science or cybersecurity bachelor’s degrees. Others programs may accept majors in other fields, provided students can demonstrate competency in data security.
Many schools require a minimum 3.0 GPA for admission, though this requirement varies between schools. Some institutions require minimum undergraduate GPAs, while others only look at applicants’ grades in their computer science courses.
Some universities and colleges ask applicants to submit GRE or GMAT scores. Reference letters from professors or employers may also help meet admission requirements. Prospective students typically need some professional experience in the industry, along with academic coursework. Interested applicants should contact their prospective schools to learn about their timelines and specific admission requirements.
Comparing Master’s Degree Options
Technology-focused master’s degrees can take many forms: There are generalized programs, such as computer science, as well as more specific degrees in subfields like cybersecurity. Some schools allow students in other computer-related degrees to concentrate in cybersecurity, and some include cybersecurity coursework within broader programs.
Students can pursue careers in cybersecurity with backgrounds in any computer-focused field, but aspiring cybersecurity professionals should at least concentrate in the discipline.
MS in Cybersecurity
This degree prepares students for roles protecting digital data and investigating cybercrimes. Cybersecurity degrees include coursework in cryptography, digital forensics, and ethical hacking. Students often come from academic backgrounds in other areas of computer science, or they have extensive professional experience and professional training in the discipline.
MS in Computer Science
Computer science focuses on the underlying theories of the discipline. Students pursuing this degree may take courses in advanced machine learning and probability and statistics. Some schools offer concentrations in software engineering, visual computing, or human-centered computing. Practicing computer scientists and engineers of diverse backgrounds often enroll in this degree.
MS in Computer Engineering
In this master’s program, students learn to apply the principles of engineering to computer software and hardware. Computer engineering programs prepare students for technically demanding careers in software, computer networks or hardware, and computer architecture. Their curricula may include courses in cybersecurity, but they focus on other areas of study.
MS in Information Technology
This computer science degree may include a strong cybersecurity component, depending on the school. Information security programs typically include courses in application development and operating systems. This degree can lead to jobs as software engineers or computer network architects.
MS in Information Assurance
Not as common as other cybersecurity-related degrees, information assurance master’s programs focus on protecting all information — not just digital data, but physical data, too. This degree existed before the internet, so it offers a broader scope than a cybersecurity degree. Coursework includes cybersecurity, cryptography, and data analysis, and alumni can compete for jobs in security leadership and management roles.
MBA in Information Security
This professional degree offers a core curriculum in business, including courses in marketing, finance, economics, and leadership. In addition, the degree provides elective or concentration coursework in information security. The MBA tends to go light on the technical aspects of cybersecurity and heavy on its relationship to business. This program can help students kick off careers managing technical teams.
Popular Master’s in Cybersecurity Courses
Each school’s master’s in cybersecurity program draws on the institution’s distinctive strengths and interests. In general, however, master’s in cybersecurity degrees include three types of classes: core courses, electives, and research or practicums.
Some programs offer cross-disciplinary courses, as well. The list below includes courses that are common to most graduate programs in cybersecurity, plus a few courses that fit into concentrations in the discipline. Not all schools offer all of these classes, but this list represents a snapshot of a master’s degree in this field.
Foundations of Information Assurance
The introductory course in a master’s in cybersecurity, this class provides the basic skills and concepts to learn about network protection and data. Learners also consider planning, implementing, and managing security systems at the enterprise level. Topics include threats, cryptography, network security, data mining, software vulnerabilities, programming for malice, and operating system protection.
Cyberlaw and Ethics
Students in this course take a multidisciplinary approach to the legal and ethical issues related to privacy, U.S. law, fraud, trust, and international business. Learners explore various government approaches to content control and rights, along with the public policy implications of content, governance, and intellectual property.
Human Factors in Security
In this course, students investigate the human factors of cybersecurity, including integrity, practices, and procedures. As part of the course, learners consider security awareness training and information technology within an organizational environment. They also look at mitigation strategies to protect organizations from the human behaviors that can lead to compromised security.
Students in this course explore a broad array of topics related to network assessment and defense. They consider the design principles of secure network protocols and systems, along with topics such as authentication, integrity, confidentiality, and privacy. Students learn about digital watermarking, access control, intrusion detection, and information hiding through real-world case studies.
Applied cryptography is a pillar course in a master’s degree in cybersecurity. Topics in this information security course include DES, AES, RSA, cryptanalysis, symmetric cryptography, cryptographic algorithms, digital signatures, pseudo-random generators, cryptographic protocols, public key cryptography, and hash and MAC functions.
The Master’s Practicum and Thesis
Most schools require a practicum as part of an MS in cybersecurity. Typically, students taking practicums are placed in academic, corporate, or government settings, in which they help solve major cybersecurity problems. Working under faculty direction, students investigate problems, experiment with possible solutions, and document their work. For many learners, the practicum serves as the bridge between academia and the work world.
In some schools, students can complete master’s thesis projects as capstones for their master’s degrees in cybersecurity. A thesis usually involves researching a significant, well-defined problem and presenting evidence with both practical and academic merit. Typically, students must present and defend their theses before panels of faculty members or other qualified and approved panelists.
Selecting Your Master’s in Cybersecurity Program
Prospective students consider a variety of factors when selecting a master’s in cybersecurity program. Two obvious factors, cost and location, rank high on many people’s lists, but future learners should also consider the following:
Which suits your personality, learning preference, and desired outcome best: a small school with personal attention from faculty, or a large school with a national brand and a big alumni network?
Does this school offer the concentration you want? How important is that concentration to you?
How many teachers boast practical, hands-on experience in both the field and the academy?
Can you fast-track your education with this program? Is it possible to slow things down if necessary?
How could this school’s reputation affect your job search? Will employers recognize the name?
Earning Potential for Graduates
What salary range do recent graduates of this cybersecurity program earn?
Online vs. In-Person
Do you want to study online or in person? Is a hybrid program best? What if you want to switch approaches partway through the degree?
Does this school hold regional accreditation? What about programmatic accreditation?
Should You Get Your Master’s Degree in Cybersecurity Online?
Nearly 7 million American students enroll in online education programs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Distance learning and online programs have brought educational opportunities to full-time employees, older learners, stay-at-home parents, and students whose lives don’t jive with campus-based learning. Of course, not all schools offer online degrees, and not all majors fit easily into distance learning formats.
However, few programs suit online education as well as cybersecurity. The field is inextricably intertwined with the web, and students can easily transition from learning about cybersecurity online to practicing it professionally using the same hardware and software. Master’s degrees particularly fit online learning, since they take less time than bachelor’s programs and do not require general education courses or doctoral-level research.
These agencies fit into three categories: regional, national, and programmatic. Regional accrediting agencies determine whether nonprofit institutions uphold rigorous standards of academic excellence. National agencies usually accredit specialized schools, such as vocational schools and Bible colleges. Programmatic agencies accredit departments or programs to ensure that they prepare students for careers post-graduation. One school may hold accreditation from multiple accreditors.
To assure quality control, degree utility, and financial aid accessibility, cybersecurity students should choose regionally accredited schools. They may also seek programs accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology or another recognized agency.
Ranking Your Top Schools
Different students have different priorities when it comes to choosing MS in cybersecurity programs. That’s why it’s important to conduct online research, ask questions, and visit campuses. That said, online rankings can offer a great place to start whittling down options.
Professional organizations may help students and young professionals fast-track their cybersecurity careers. Students and professionals join these organizations to earn certifications, forge new connections, and stay up-to-date on the latest industry information through journals and research.
Students and professionals can also access job boards, scholarships, and even health insurance through these associations. Professional organizations also let their members share their research and knowledge at conferences or in newsletters.
Association of Information Technology Professionals CompTIA helps cybersecurity professionals stay on top of the latest skills, software, and techniques in the industry. The organization awards several certifications, along with research and analysis of relevant trends.
National Cybersecurity Student Association The largest association of cybersecurity students in the U.S., the National Cybersecurity Student Association offers training events, networking, research, and development options. Students also pursue scholarships, internships, and jobs.
The SANS Institute The SANS Institute provides an online hub for cybersecurity research, training, and certification. People interested in the field can take online or in-person classes to learn in-demand skills. Students can take individual courses or earn full certificates.
Information Systems Security Association The ISSA provides its members with learning opportunities, including a journal, events, a fellows program, and a job board. Students can apply to the ISSA for scholarships, and they can join local chapters near their schools.
Scholarships for Master’s Degree Programs in Cybersecurity
Financial aid from public and private sources can help cover the costs associated with cybersecurity master’s degree programs. The scholarships below represent a small selection of financial aid options for cybersecurity master’s students, and interested applicants should contact their schools’ financial aid offices for additional support.
Raytheon CCDC Women's Cyber Security Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Applicants must have participated in at least one National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in the qualifying time frame. Recipients demonstrate a minimum 3.3 GPA. Reviewers consider online and on-campus students for this funding.
Who Can Apply: Students at participating institutions may apply for this U.S. government-funded scholarship. Application requirements and selection criteria vary between schools, but in all cases, only on-campus students qualify for this scholarship. Recipients must agree to work for the federal government after graduation.
Who Can Apply: Applicants must be at least 18 years old, interested in a summer internship with the U.S. Department of Defense, and willing to take a job with the department upon graduation. Applicants need a GPA of 3.0 or higher.
Who Can Apply: Master’s and doctoral students pursuing degrees in cybersecurity can apply for this scholarship, provided that they hold a minimum 3.5 GPA. Applicants do not need to hold U.S. citizenship, and they may study on campus or online.
Who Can Apply: Women who study full time at accredited U.S.-based colleges can apply. Applicants must hold a minimum 3.0 GPA, major in an eligible field (such as cybersecurity), and write a 500-word essay. The essay should describe their interest in tech and career ambitions, and which innovations excite them the most.
What kind of degree do you need for cybersecurity?
Cybersecurity professionals come from all types of academic backgrounds. However, the field’s highest-paying jobs, such as cybersecurity engineer and information security manager, generally go to candidates with advanced education, such as master’s degrees.
What is the best degree for cybersecurity?
Associate degree graduates should consider pursuing bachelor’s degrees if they aspire to work in cybersecurity. Bachelor’s graduates should look into their options for master’s degrees, which open up even more career opportunities.
Is it worth doing a master's in cybersecurity?
Cybersecurity offers one of the fastest-growing, highest-paying careers available to modern workers. Professionals often need master’s degrees to compete for the most lucrative jobs in cybersecurity.
How much does a master's in cybersecurity make?
Graduates with master’s degrees in cybersecurity earn an average salary of $85,230, according to PayScale. Graduates pursuing careers as information security managers or cybersecurity engineers can earn $120,000 or more annually.