Is a Cyber Security Degree Right for Me?

When contemplating whether a cybersecurity degree is suitable for you, it’s helpful to break down the decision into two key stages.

Firstly, evaluate whether the degree aligns with your capabilities and resources. Do you possess the fundamental skills necessary to excel academically in an information assurance-related program? Do you have the time and financial means to pursue schooling? Additionally, consider whether you have a specific subset of cybersecurity that interests you. As highlighted on our degrees page, there are nuanced distinctions between degrees in cybersecurity, information assurance, computer science specializing in information security, and information technology. While your interest may lie within the broad domain of cybersecurity, understanding these distinctions can significantly enhance your chances of attaining a cybersecurity online degree. We’ll delve into these tracks further below.

Secondly, contemplate the outcomes of obtaining the degree. What type of cybersecurity job are you aiming for? Does this role entail tasks that inherently captivate and reward you? Is it more suitable to attain the minimum educational requirements to enter the field and progress through experience, or do you prefer to specialize through formal education before embarking on your career? Similar to many tech fields, there are various pathways to securing most positions, including self-teaching and building a portfolio, pursuing formal academic programs, or transitioning from another IT discipline. For a comprehensive guide on preparing for a career in cybersecurity, refer to our cyber security career prep guide.

Now that we’ve outlined the general considerations you should contemplate before pursuing a cybersecurity degree, let’s delve into the specifics of these two stages in greater depth.

Is Cyber Security an Academic Fit?

At the most foundational academic level, pursuing an associate’s degree in cybersecurity should be accessible to most college-ready individuals. For those eager to enter the cybersecurity field promptly, an associate’s degree presents an attractive option. Not only is it typically the quickest route to a degree, but it’s also the most cost-effective. Moreover, there are numerous cybersecurity positions that individuals with an associate’s degree can pursue, offering salaries ranging from $60,000 to $70,000.

For subsequent degree levels — bachelor’s, master’s, graduate certificates, and doctoral programs — students who excel typically possess a blend of the following skills:

  • Analytical Thinking: Successful cybersecurity students think logically, can conceptualize systems, apply abstract reasoning, and break down problems into manageable components.
  • Critical Thinking: Excelling students in cybersecurity can assess and compare various abstract and practical problem-solving methods, often within team environments.
  • Resilience: Cybersecurity, like many computing fields, demands resilience. Success often stems from persistent troubleshooting rather than sporadic bursts of brilliance.
  • Communication Skills: Contrary to stereotypes, cybersecurity professionals require strong communication abilities. They collaborate within fast-paced team settings and interact with diverse stakeholders, necessitating the ability to convey technical concepts in both technical and non-technical terms.
  • Independence: Successful cybersecurity students can work autonomously on projects, employing creative problem-solving techniques, building solutions, and analyzing systems.
  • Passion for the Subject Matter: While not every aspect of a cybersecurity curriculum may captivate every student, those destined for success in the field exhibit a genuine enthusiasm for cybersecurity issues. This passion drives ongoing learning and facilitates staying abreast of the ever-evolving cybersecurity landscape.

In essence, thriving in cybersecurity education and careers requires a combination of foundational skills, resilience, effective communication, and a genuine interest in the subject matter. These attributes not only foster academic excellence but also pave the way for long-term success in the dynamic field of cybersecurity.

Choosing the Right Degree

Numerous academic and alternative pathways exist for entering the cybersecurity profession. While this versatility offers opportunities for professionals to transition between various roles during their careers, the abundance of similar degree options and job positions can be overwhelming. Degrees encompassing computer science, information assurance, cybersecurity, information technology, computer programming, information systems, and more can all lead to careers in cybersecurity. Fortunately, many academic programs commence with broad coursework, allowing students to explore a diverse range of subjects before delving into specific areas of interest. Additionally, a significant portion of cybersecurity learning occurs on the job and through subsequent certifications. Consequently, opting for a general cybersecurity degree initially and then refining your specialization once in the workforce is a viable approach. For individuals seeking specialization in their coursework, below are some general differentiating factors among related cybersecurity program types.

Common Types of Cyber Security Degrees:

  • Cybersecurity Degree: This degree focuses directly on cybersecurity, an interdisciplinary field. Coursework typically includes IT fundamentals, computing basics, specific cybersecurity tools, and interdisciplinary studies covering forensics, management, cybersecurity policy, and politics.
  • Information Assurance Degree: This degree leans slightly more towards broader policy and managerial concerns compared to cybersecurity or computer science degrees. Information assurance programs often include less technical coursework and instead offer studies in politics, decision-making, management, business, law, and forensics.
  • Computer Science Degree: Many computer science programs offer specializations in cybersecurity or information assurance. In a computer science degree, students study high-level computing and gain expertise in various programming languages. Other coursework covers algorithm analysis, software engineering and architecture, as well as operating systems. A focus on security within computer science prepares students for technical roles such as security architect or security engineer.
  • Information Technology Degree: A significant portion of cybersecurity work involves securing hardware and networks, making an information technology degree a popular choice for those interested in cybersecurity with a focus on hardware.
  • Information Systems Degree: Cybersecurity professionals often operate within complex organizational settings involving diverse stakeholders. The ability to understand how information assurance integrates into broader systems or services is essential. Information systems or management information systems degrees bridge this gap by incorporating cybersecurity into coursework alongside studies in business, management, and advanced computing. Some information systems degrees offer additional emphases on networking or information assurance.

Choosing a Cyber Security Degree Based on Career Goals

Choosing a cybersecurity degree aligned with your career aspirations can significantly enhance your prospects of securing your dream job in the field. While a cybersecurity degree is generally beneficial for those aiming to work in information assurance, selecting a specific cybersecurity-related degree tailored to your desired role can further elevate your chances of success. Broadly speaking, cybersecurity organizations encompass three main domains: engineering, policy, and incident response. Additionally, certain non-profits and government agencies may incorporate an investigative (or forensic and law) component into various positions. Below, we’ll outline some of the most suitable degrees based on the role you envision within a cybersecurity organization.

Best Degrees for Cyber Security Engineering Roles

Within cybersecurity organizations, engineering operations encompass routine maintenance of critical digital assets and devices. A common entry to mid-level positions in such organizations is the security administrator role. While technical-heavy information assurance degrees can prepare individuals for IT positions, the most suitable degree types include computer engineering, information technology, or a cybersecurity degree with a focus on networks or hardware.

In today’s digital landscape, integrating security considerations into all software development processes is imperative. For those aspiring to contribute to software development and potentially lead teams of developers as security architects, ideal degree choices include programs featuring high-level computing courses and proficiency in multiple programming languages. Such degrees encompass computer science, computer programming, and cybersecurity.

For individuals interested in identifying weaknesses in systems and conducting analysis of critical digital infrastructure, two main roles come to the forefront: penetration tester and security analyst. Penetration testers, often referred to as “ethical hackers,” can prepare for their role through various technical degrees, often complemented by certifications like Certified Ethical Hacker. Degree options for ethical hackers include information technology, computer science, and cybersecurity. On the other hand, security analysts require a blend of business acumen and analytical skills. Much of the role involves preparing reports on vital systems and effectively communicating findings to diverse stakeholders. For security analyst positions, degrees in management information systems, information systems, and information assurance are favorable choices.

Best Degrees for Cyber Security Policy Roles

Policy roles within cybersecurity encompass a diverse range of positions such as security analysts, managers, auditors, vulnerability assessors, and forensics experts. These roles necessitate a blend of management, decision-making, analytical, and cybersecurity-specific skills. While there are various paths to enter these positions, possessing a background in technical disciplines can be advantageous. However, the most pertinent training routes typically involve obtaining degrees in information assurance or cybersecurity. As individuals progress in their careers within cybersecurity policy, many also pursue additional education such as MBAs, along with formal or informal training in analysis, data management, and leadership.

Best Degrees for Cyber Security Incident Response Roles

Roles within incident response in cybersecurity encompass a variety of positions such as penetration testers, incident responders, security administrators, and incident response managers. These roles are particularly appealing to candidates who excel in quick thinking and operating under tight deadlines. While possessing technical expertise is valuable in incident response, it’s essential to have a deep understanding of cybersecurity-specific applications and tools. While a computer science degree may provide a broad understanding of computing, it’s crucial to master specific tools and scenarios relevant to cybersecurity. Therefore, preferred degree options for incident response roles typically include cybersecurity and information technology with a specialization in cybersecurity. Cybersecurity may be more suitable for individuals focusing on software, whereas information technology could be a better fit for those emphasizing hardware and networking in incident response.