What Degree Do I Need for a Career in Cybersecurity?
Reviewed by Brian Nichols
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Almost 600,000 cybersecurity jobs across the U.S. wait to be filled. Public agencies and private companies are looking for penetration testers, cybersecurity analysts, and senior security leaders.
Aspiring cybersecurity experts can take several paths to careers in this industry. Bootcamps, self-directed education, and academic degrees can all open doors to entry-level positions. Management, leadership, and advanced technical roles may require a bachelor's degree or higher.
Pursuing cybersecurity education requirements can be worthwhile. According to Payscale, employees with master's degrees in cybersecurity earn an average base salary of $89,000 per year. In addition, cybersecurity experts often report very high levels of job satisfaction.
Aspiring professionals with a mind for math and technology, or a desire to combat an emerging global problem, may want to pursue careers fighting cybercrime. Those on this path can start their journeys with formal education in the field.
This page offers a concise guide to how to work in cybersecurity.
What Is Cybersecurity?
Cybersecurity protects systems and networks from digital attacks. This field began in the 1970s when Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of email, created a program called Reaper to destroy Creeper, the first computer worm.
As of September 2021, the cybersecurity field employs about one million Americans, with more than half a million jobs in the field still open. Cybersecurity professionals work in both the public and private sectors, helping protect valuable financial, healthcare, and national security data.
The field's rapid growth makes cybersecurity education requirements more fluid than other job sectors. In general, entry-level positions require knowledge and skills students can acquire in bootcamps or community college settings.
More advanced cybersecurity roles often call for a bachelor's degree or graduate education.
Job Requirements for Cybersecurity Experts
Although individual job titles can vary, most cybersecurity experts engage in some similar day-to-day activities and need comparable skills.
For instance, all cybersecurity specialists must have clear communication skills, maintain strong attention to detail, and be creative problem-solvers. They also need knowledge of computer fundamentals, programming languages, and risk assessment protocols.
Specific careers, however, require particular and well-defined skills. For example, penetration testers may need to create their own solutions. Security analysts must be able to manage and track multiple pieces of evidence for businesses or corporations.
Once a professional has determined their career track, they need to specialize in a subset of skills. These might include complex areas like cyberlaw or power systems protection. They could be more rudimentary, such as skills in penetration testing or Unix I.
The following list explores some of the most common cybersecurity job requirements.
Commonly Required Skills
Cybersecurity professionals use data to solve problems. Problem-solving skills such as diagnostic testing, modeling, data analysis, and creativity allow workers to tackle new issues.
Cybercriminals employ many techniques to store and hide information on their computers. Cybersecurity specialists leverage computer forensics techniques to uncover that data and present it in court.
Information security specialists must determine what assets a cyberattack could damage or destroy. Risk assessment includes scoping, identifying, analyzing, and documenting risk.
Smart machines can analyze information and learn from it. Cybersecurity experts use this information to analyze patterns and resist similar attacks.
Frequently Desired Skills
Law and agency regulations govern data security practices. Aspiring professionals should know current relevant legislation to translate this information into the language of risk for organizational leaders.
State actors may engage in cyber-related espionage. Cyber counterintelligence requires professionals to outwit these actors and defend public and private information.
Cyber-physical Infrastructure Practices
Cyber-physical infrastructure connects devices to each other and the internet. Medical, manufacturing, and avionics companies rely on this infrastructure. Applying best practices helps protect this infrastructure.
Power Systems Protection
This form of protection uses devices to safeguard entire power grids from harm when one part of the grid becomes damaged. Cybercriminals often target these devices.
Cybersecurity Public Policy
Cybersecurity-related policy helps shape the growing surveillance culture, digital approaches to development, and the borderless global politics of an internet-governed citizenry.
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Education Requirements for Cybersecurity Experts
Cybersecurity experts need specific area knowledge, including programming languages, penetration testing, ethical hacking, and computer operating systems. For many roles, professionals apply their technical expertise to specific business or public policy issues. Aspiring cybersecurity workers can gain this knowledge through bootcamps, academic programs, or self-directed learning.
Bootcamps and academic degrees can prepare enrollees to pursue industry certifications. According to one study, 72% of employers require IT certifications for specific roles, and 60% use certifications to confirm expertise in related subject matter.
Bootcamps and certifications can offer a short, direct route into the professional world. But do you need a degree for cybersecurity employment? It depends on the role. As levels of responsibility increase, so does the value of a degree.
A mid-level cybersecurity professional, for example, needs a bachelor's degree in cybersecurity. Advanced technical specialists and cybersecurity managers often possess master's degrees. Research and teaching careers may require a candidate to possess a doctorate.
An associate degree prepares students to pursue entry-level jobs in cybersecurity. These two-year degrees, which schools offer both online and in person, usually require 60 credits.
Associate-level students learn the basics of computer systems, viruses, networks, and legal issues in cybersecurity. Coursework may also explore pre-calculus and database management.
Associate programs come in several forms, including associate in applied science (AAS), associate of applied business (AAB), associate of arts (AA), and associate of science (AS) degrees. Generally, AAS and AAB degrees emphasize technological proficiency. AA and AS programs equip graduates for further academic work.
Some schools prepare enrollees to pursue industry certifications, which can help students in seeking roles as network administrators and computer support specialists after graduation. An associate program also prepares graduates to complete a bachelor's degree in two years or less.
Students can pursue bachelor's degrees in cybersecurity online or in person. Generally, a bachelor's degree requires 120 credits and takes four years to complete.
A bachelor's degree in cybersecurity can equip students with business knowledge and technical skills. Enrollees also gain a foundation in the liberal arts. Major courses may include introduction to smart grid, emerging cyberthreats and defenses, and cyber-physical energy systems security.
At some schools, learners can choose concentrations in offensive cybersecurity, cloud computing, game development, or computer programming and analytics. A concentration that aligns with your intended career can give you a leg up in the job market.
Earning a bachelor's degree in cybersecurity can position students for careers as vulnerability assessors, security specialists, or source code auditors. To achieve a more advanced technical role or a security leadership position, students may face additional cybersecurity education requirements.
Colleges and universities offer both online and in-person master's degrees in cybersecurity. These programs may require just 30 credits and take as little as 12 months.
A cybersecurity master's degree conveys important information and skills in intelligent systems, computer engineering, and computer architecture. Coursework may emphasize technical literacy in network security, forensics, or hacking.
Learners can also choose to focus on cybersecurity leadership, taking courses in cybersecurity auditing or business administration. At some institutions, degree-seekers can pursue research-oriented degrees that conclude with thesis projects.
Some schools allow students to formally specialize in cyberdefense or cyberoperations. Courses in cyberdefense may include applied cryptography and information, security, and privacy.
Graduates with cybersecurity master's degrees can pursue employment as security engineers, cryptographers, and penetration testers. A master's degree can also prepare students for doctoral degrees in cybersecurity.
Students can pursue online and in-person doctorates in cybersecurity. This degree requires an average of 60 credits beyond previous coursework and takes 3-7 years to complete.
At the doctoral level, degree-seekers conduct original research. Ph.D. programs tend to focus on cybersecurity theory, while D.Sc. degrees emphasize applied technical research.
Doctoral learners can concentrate their work in areas such as information security, machine learning, cybersecurity theory, or cybersecurity policy. A machine learning concentration, for example, generally requires courses in deep learning, advanced machine learning, and pattern recognition.
Students may focus their dissertations or culminating research projects on their areas of specialization. Some computer science or technology management doctorates offer cybersecurity specializations.
A doctorate in cybersecurity can prepare students for careers as research scientists, university professors, or chief information security officers.
How to Work in Cybersecurity Without a Degree
A degree is not the only path to a career in cybersecurity. Non-degree approaches, such as certificates, certifications, bootcamps, and self-directed learning, can also jumpstart a career.
Let's look at five alternatives to a degree.
- 1. Certificates
Colleges and universities offer cybersecurity certificates, which usually require 12-18 credits. Some programs allow students to apply their certificate credits toward degrees, such as MBAs with a concentration in cybersecurity.
- 2. Certifications
Certifications from professional organizations usually involve passing an exam and completing the required work experience. Vendor-specific certifications call for passing an exam regarding that organization's product.
- 3. Bootcamps
Cybersecurity bootcamps offer practical training in a concentrated timeframe. They often involve practical learning experiences that focus on cybersecurity fundamentals.
- 4. Self-Directed Learning
Some students create their own learning experiences with books, trade magazines, podcasts, and other resources. While this approach can be helpful, students may struggle to present their knowledge and skills in a way employers can evaluate quickly.
- 5. Online Courses
Free and low-cost online courses can help students get started in cybersecurity. These programs may introduce the basics of the industry and prepare learners to pursue bootcamps or degrees.
Do You Need a Degree for a Cybersecurity Career?
The short answer to this question is no — at least not technically. Bootcamps and certifications can help forge a path to career success or complement degrees in related fields.
But do you need a degree for cybersecurity career success over the long term? How can you determine which educational approach is right for your career plans? Consider these points:
- Bootcamps can teach fundamental skills such as cryptography, digital forensics, and Python for programmers. In a study from Indeed, 72% of employers believed bootcamp graduates were equally as prepared as college graduates, and 12% of employer respondents reported that bootcamp graduates were better prepared than college graduates.
- Certifications may complement bootcamps and degrees. They provide employers with a way to gauge candidates' knowledge and skill levels.
- An associate or bachelor's degree offers deeper insight into computing theory, higher mathematics, and general knowledge than a bootcamp.
- A student who plans to do research, teach, or influence security-related public policy probably needs a graduate degree.
Universities and colleges that offer cybersecurity degrees should hold regional accreditation. Undergraduate programs may also hold ABET accreditation. Bootcamps are rarely accredited, but may be members of the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting (CIRR).
FAQ About Working in Cybersecurity
Are there education requirements for most cybersecurity jobs?
Employers seek candidates with the skills for cybersecurity jobs. Often, applicants prepare by earning associate or bachelor's degrees, but some companies accept non-traditional paths into the industry.
Can you get a job in cybersecurity without a degree?
Yes. You can get an entry-level cybersecurity job without a degree. Bootcamps, industry certifications, and self-guided education can prepare individuals to pursue roles in the field. However, management or advanced technical roles often require formal academic preparation.
How do you get a job in cybersecurity with no experience?
Cybersecurity requirements include basic education in risk management, coding languages, and digital forensics. You can acquire these skills through a bootcamp or degree. These programs often focus on practical work to emulate real-world scenarios.
Is cybersecurity difficult to get into?
Demand continues to rise for cybersecurity professionals, making this field attractive to qualified applicants. However, candidates need the sufficient technical, ethical, and strategic skills to perform their roles successfully.
Reviewed by: Brian Nichols
Born and raised in upstate New York, Brian Nichols began his IT education through a vocational high school where he focused on computer science, IT fundamentals, and networking. Brian then went to his local community college, where he received his associate of science in computer information science. He then received his bachelor of science in applied networking and system administration from a private college. Brian now lives in Kansas City, where he works full-time as a DevOps engineer. Brian is also a part-time instructor in cybersecurity. He's passionate about cybersecurity and helping students succeed.
Brian Nichols is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.
Page last reviewed 2/15/2022
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