Is a Cyber Security Degree right for me?

When considering whether or not a cyber security degree is the right choice for you, one can break the question down into two stages. First, is the degree right for me? Do I have the general skills through which to succeed academically in an information assurance-related degree? Do I have the time and the money for schooling? And finally, am I most interested in one subset of cyber security? As referenced on our degrees page, there are a number of nuanced differences between degrees in cyber security, information assurance, computer science specializing on information security, information technology, and so forth. While you may be interested in topics that fit into the broad category of cyber security, there are a wide range of roles in the field and choosing the right type of cyber security degree will greatly increase your odds of getting the role you want. We’ll lay out these tracks in greater detail below.

Secondly, one should consider the outcome of the degree. What sort of job in cyber security are you trying to get? Does this job involve work that is naturally interesting and rewarding to you? Is it best to obtain the minimum amount of schooling needed to get in the door, then work your way up? Or is it a better fit for you to specialize through education before entering the field. As with many tech fields, there are a number of ways to achieve most positions including being self-taught and relying on a portfolio, going to a formal academic program, or transitioning from another IT field. For a detailed guide on ways to prepare for a career in cyber security, check out our guide on cyber security career prep.

Now that we’ve outlined some of the general questions you’ll want to ask yourself before pursuing a cyber security degree, let’s tackle the two stages of questions in more detail.

Is Cyber Security a Academic Fit?

At the lowest academic level, an associates degree in cyber security should be a course of study that most people who are college ready can undertake. For those interested in getting directly into the field of cyber security, an associates can be a great option. Not only are they often the quickest degree type, but also the most affordable. And there are a number of cyber security positions an associates can lead to that make from $60-$70,000 in salary. For ensuing degree levels — bachelor’s, master’s, graduate certificates, and doctoral programs, students who will really excel will likely have a mixture of the following skills:

Important Skills for Cyber Security Degree Excellence

  • Analytic Mind: students who excel in cyber security are logically sound, they can think in systems, abstract logic, and break problems down into the component parts that need to be solved.
  • Critical Thinking: students who excel in cyber security will be able to compare and contrast different abstract and practical methods for solving problems. They should also be able to do this in teams.
  • Resilience: students who excel in cyber security — and most computing fields — are resilient. This is because — contrary to popular belief, a great deal of tech work does not rely on “flashes” of genius. But rather on tireless troubleshooting.
  • Communication Skills: though there is a stereotype that particularly IT-related fields don’t require people skills, cyber security is different (and so is general IT for that matter). Cyber security professionals often work on teams in fast-paced environments. They also aren’t siloed, and are often working with a variety of stakeholders and will need to explain their thinking in technical and non-technical ways.
  • Ability to Work Independently: this isn’t meant to be contradictory with communication skills, just another requirement. Quality cyber security students and professionals are often required to work entirely alone on projects, finding out creative ways to systemically locate and fix problems, build solutions, and analyze systems.
  • Finally, interest in subject matter: while few students will find every subject included in a course of study interesting, successful students and successful lifelong learners in cyber security should be invigorated by issues in cyber security. This is particularly important for keeping up-to-date throughout your future cyber security career. Cyber security is a rapidly changing field, and those who love to continue learning about the trade will more successfully excel in the future of cyber security.

Choosing the Right Degree

There are a number of academic (and other) paths through which you can gain entry to cyber security professions. While this should be hopeful through the fact that most cyber security professionals have the chance to transition between different roles throughout their career, the number of similar degree types and positions can seem overwhelming. Degrees in computer science, information assurance, cyber security, information technology, computer programming, information systems, and more can all lead to careers in cyber security. Luckily, many courses of study start with more general coursework, giving students the ability to sample a wide subject matter and then dive into more particular details of interest. Furthermore, a great deal of learning in cyber security actually occurs on the job and through subsequent certifications. So choosing a general cyber security degree and then honing your area of emphasis once you’re in the work force is also a very viable option. For those who would like to specialize in their coursework, below are some general guidelines about the differences between related cyber security program types.

Common Cyber Security Degree Types:

  • Cyber Security Degree: this degree type focuses directly on cyber security, which is an interdisplinary topic. Course work in degrees titled cyber security often mixes IT basics, computing basics, specific cyber security technical tools and interdisciplinary studies in forensics, management, cyber security policy, and politics.
  • Information Assurance Degree: this degree type is generally slightly more related to broader policy and managerial concerns than cyber security or computer science degrees. Put another way, information assurance degrees often have slightly less technical coursework and often offer coursework in politics, decision making, management, business, law, and forensics.
  • Computer Science Degree: many computer science degrees offer specialization areas in cyber security or information assurance. In a computer science degree, you’ll get courses on high level computing as well as expertise in a number of programming languages. Other coursework include analysis of algorithms, software engineering and architecture, as well as operating systems. Computer science with an emphasis on security is often a great way to get into more technical roles like security architect or security engineer.
  • Information Technology Degree: cyber security isn’t all about software, in fact a massive portion cyber security work focuses on security hardware and networks, making information technology one of the go-to degrees for entering cyber security with a focus on hardware.
  • Information Systems Degree: most cyber security professionals work in settings with a wide variety of stakeholders. The ability to see where information assurance fits into a broader system or service is paramount. That’s where information systems degrees, or management information systems degrees, meet cyber security. A number of information systems degrees offer additional emphases on networking or information assurance, which is blended with courses on business, management, and high level computing courses.

Choosing a cyber security degree based on career goals

As we mentioned earlier in the article, you can’t really go wrong with getting a cyber security degree if your end goal is to work in information assurance. With that said, if you are seeking a specific cyber security position choosing the most suitable cyber security-related degree can up your chances of getting your dream job even more. In general terms there are three main silos within cyber security organizations: engineering, policy, and incident response. In the case of some non-profits and government agencies there is also an investigative (or forensic and law) component to a number of positions. Below we’ll break down some of the most suitable degrees based on what role you see yourself inhabiting in a cyber security organization.

Best Degrees for Cyber Security Engineering Roles

  • Part of the engineering operations of cyber security organizations are involved with routine maintenance of critical digital assets and devices. Security administrator is often one of the most common entry to mid-level positions in cyber security organizations. While most technical-heavy information assurance degrees can help you prepare for IT positions, the most suitable degree types include computer engineering, information technology, or a cyber security degree with an emphasis on networks or hardware.
  • In today’s day and age, factoring security considerations into all software is crucial. For individuals looking to help develop software, and potentially lead teams of developers in the future in security architect roles, the best degree choices include courses of study featuring high level computing courses and programming in a number of languages. These degrees include computer science, computer programming, and cyber security degrees.
  • For those looking to probe for weaknesses in systems and perform analysis of crucial digital infrastructure, there are two main roles you might be interested in: penetration tester and security analyst. Penetration testers, sometimes known as “ethical hackers” can be prepared for with a number of technical degrees and often in conjunction with the certified ethical hacker certification. Degree types for an ethical hacker include information technology, computer science, and cyber security. For a security analyst, some business and analysis acumen is required. A large portion of the job involves preparing reports on crucial systems and being able to explain your findings and their importance to a wide range of stakeholders. For security analyst positions, degrees in management information systems, information systems, and information assurance are good bets.

Best Degrees for Cyber Security Policy Roles

  • Policy roles include security analysts, security managers, security auditors, vulnerability assessors, and forensics experts. All of these roles require an interdisciplinary skill set that mixes management, decision making, analysis, and cyber security-specific knowledge. While there are many routes to these positions, and more technical-heavy degrees won’t go amiss, the most topically relevant training routes include information assurance and cyber security degrees. Particularly as one moves up the ladder on the policy side of cyber security, many individuals also hold MBAs as well as formal or informal training on analysis or data and management.

Best Degrees for Cyber Security Incident Response Roles

  • Incident response roles in cyber security include penetration testers, incident responders, security administrators, and incident response management. For the right type of candidate who thrives on thinking on their feet and stringent time tables, incident response roles can be some of the most thrilling in technology. While more technical expertise is always better in incident response, you’ll want to know cyber security-specific applications and tools. Whereas a computer science degree might teach you more about computing in general, you’ll want to have mastered very specific tools and situations. For that reason, our top degree choices for incident response jobs include cyber security and information technology with a focus on cyber security. Cyber security is potentially a better major for those dealing with software, while information technology is potentially a better major for incident responders focusing on hardware and networking.