Combat Rising Threats in Cyber Security with a Degree in Information Assurance

Cyber security continues to be one of the hottest topics in the news, and while experts have yet to agree upon the best way to combat cyber threats, everyone agrees that cyber security issues will radically transform the we way we live. At the personal and business level, cyber security attacks are expected to cost $6 billion in annual damages by 2021, or twice as much suffered in 2016. In 2017, ransomware damages will cost $5 billion, or fifteen-times suffered in 2015. Following the recent Equifax breach, it’s estimated that at least 143 million Americans’ data was stolen; and yet because of the massive trove of personal data already traded on the black market — about 825 million records, per the Identity Theft Resource Center — it’s virtually impossible to know the true extent of the Equifax hack. The waters are too muddied.

Still, despite these scary numbers, state actors remain the largest cyber risk, both as victims and belligerents. In December 2016, Forbes predicted that 2017 would be the year of cyber warfare, and a series of governmental hacks have since validated the claim, including the May 2017 WannaCry attack which affected nearly 200 countries (and which might have compromised 65 million more systems if not for an emergency kill switch.)
To be sure, governments have increased security measures, but a large chunk of the tech community argue that present initiatives aren’t enough. Hence, perhaps, the increasingly popular vigilante approach: single-actor hackers and hacktivist collectives are on the rise, resulting in several high-profile hacks within just the last five years.

Why Get a Master’s in Information Assurance?

Given all the above, you might be considering a master’s in cyber security or a cyber-related field, and, from a career perspective, it’s a good bet. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects computer and IT jobs to grow 12% through 2024, which equals about 500,000 jobs. Most importantly, information security roles are predicted to grow 18%, or more than twice the average rate.

So why pursue a master’s in information assurance? And what’s information assurance, anyway? In general, information assurance focuses on quality cyber defense policy and management. Where other cyber specializations may emphasize in-the-trenches tech skills, information assurance combines technical expertise with big picture and day-to-day managerial responsibilities. In other words, a good information assurance professional will have an excellent tech base (multiple programming languages, multiple OS proficiencies, certifications, etc.), but also needs to be comfortable with a wide range of soft skills, i.e., strategy and management, leadership, decision-making, and oral and written communication.

Still confused? Let’s break down it down by degree.

Master’s in Information Assurance vs. Related Degrees

  • Information Assurance: combines studies in advanced technical skills and managerial practices with a multidisciplinary curriculum in areas like criminology, the social sciences, computer and business ethics, and law
  • Cyber Security: builds on IT fundamentals to develop specific technical skills, with additional interdisciplinary studies in forensics, management, politics, psychology, and business
  • Computer Science: a broad-based curriculum that focuses on high-level computing, cyber security programming, software engineering and architecture, and other advanced technical skills
  • Information Technology: a theory-heavy degree that ranges across business, ethical, and strategic aspects of IT
  • Computer Engineering: a tech-heavy degree that emphasizes hardware and software infrastructure, plus reverse engineering, intellectual property protection, operating systems, and digital forensics

Master’s in Information Assurance: Core Curriculum

No MS in Information Assurance is the same, but most degrees consist of about 36 credits and take 1-3 years to complete. A typical core progression might look like:

  • Applied Cryptography
  • Network Protocols and Security
  • Information System Security
  • Ethics, Legal Issues & Policy
  • Information Warfare
  • Management Information Systems
  • Business Process Systems

Master’s in Information Assurance: Electives

Often, the MSIA also includes built-in elective options like:

  • Security Risk Management and Assessment
  • Information System Forensics
  • Cyberlaw
  • Decision Making in Critical Infrastructure
  • Intrusion Detection and Intrusion Prevention

Master’s in Information Assurance: Careers

Perhaps the most surprising fact about the cyber work force is that, despite predicted gains in employment, experts still project a shortfall of 1.5 million skilled workers. In other words, a massive demand for cyber security and information assurance professionals is going unfilled, particularly in high-paying, upper-level roles. If you’ve earned a master’s in information assurance, you’re qualified for many roles, but some stand out:

  • Information Security Manager: responsible for protecting an organization’s computers, data, and networks, using security remission protocols and procedures, forensic investigations, vulnerability audits, and security products.
    • Median Salary: $88,004
    • Job Outlook, 2014-24: 18%
  • Security Architect: a mid- to senior-level information assurance role that develops, implements, and manages secure networks and computer systems. This is the highest role in cyber security on the tech side, and typically requires soft managerial skills like strategy development, project and team leadership, and training and mentoring junior team members.
    • Median Salary: $98,430
    • Job Outlook, 2014-24: 13%
  • Security Software Developer: another mid- to senior-level role that builds and integrates security at every level of software development. In addition to managing malware, spyware, and intrusion detectors, security software developers design forensic tools, build prototypes, and manage junior team members.
    • Median Salary: $102,280
    • Job Outlook, 2014-24: 17%
  • Security Director: effectively the CISO, this roles oversees every aspect of cyber security, including incident response, budget, security protocol, and staff.
    • Median Salary: $135,800
    • Job Outlook, 2014-24: 15%