Choose The Right Cyber Security Degree

Your Guide for Degree Options, Curriculum and Options

Most individuals interested in pursuing a computer-related occupation choose between earning a degree in either cyber security or computer science. While both program types can result in a very rewarding information technology career, there are a few important distinctions you should be aware of before enrolling in a program.

Why Earn a Degree in Cyber Security?

Are you considering a career in cyber security? If you enjoy working with computers and have an interest in database administration or network security, this field may be a good fit for you. Most of these professionals fall under the umbrella of information security analysts, who plan and carry out security measures intended to protect a company, organization, or government’s computer systems. Because the frequency and breadth of cyberattacks are continually increasing, the responsibilities of cyber security experts are constantly changing and expanding.

Overview of Cyber Security & Computer Science Education

Most cyber security degrees prepare students for employment specifically related to information security, while the majority of computer science degrees focus on developing the communication, math, and logic skills necessary to succeed in other computer-related careers. Cyber security graduates typically find work as information security analysts, information technology auditors, network architects, and information technology consultants. Computer science graduates are frequently employed as software developers, system analysts, web designers, data scientists, and network systems administrators.

Because a computer science degree often covers broad topics within the computing field, some professionals encourage prospective students to complete it first. By doing this, students can gain extensive experience in computer and information research, which is valuable in any information technology position they may apply for in the future. In this way, a degree in computer science functions as a solid foundation for further study and work in cyber security. It is important to realize, however, that earning a computer science degree is not required to enroll in a cyber security program. Doing so may increase the amount of education needed before joining the workforce and will likely result in greater student loan debt.

The two degrees are separate, unique, and not dependent upon one another. Those interested in information technology have to determine for themselves which degree best suits their career goals.

Degree Levels and Types Available

Individuals interested in a cyber security or computer science career must choose between earning an associate, undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral degree. The majority of employers in this field require candidates to have an undergraduate degree. While you’ll be able to find entry-level employment with this degree, preference for management or any higher position is usually given to those with advanced degrees.

Additionally, some colleges and universities offer undergraduate and graduate certificate programs. These can be completed in less time than traditional degrees, often requiring no more than a year of classes. To streamline the curriculum, certificate programs exclude general education coursework. Most undergraduate certificate programs are designed to provide a basic introduction to the field or prepare students to pursue a bachelor’s degree. The majority of graduate certificate programs provide current professionals an opportunity to increase their knowledge, become more marketable in the field, or prepare to pursue a master’s degree.

Specific degree offerings and curriculum vary from institution to institution. You will need to review both the program requirements and coursework before determining which one is right for you. Common cyber security titles names include:

  • Cyber Security
  • Information Assurance
  • Information Security
  • Information Systems Security
  • Cyber Operations
  • Computer Forensics and Digital Investigations

There are also several computer science degrees available. Common names include:

  • Computer Science
  • Information Technology
  • Technology in Computer Science and Engineering
  • Engineering for Computer Science

Why Accreditation is Important?

When looking for a cyber security degree program, it’s important to keep the institution’s accreditation status in mind. While colleges and universities are not required to become accredited nor have individual programs accredited, most reputable schools choose to go through this process with the appropriate organization or agency. Accredited institutions and programs must adhere to various academic and field standards, which serves to reassure students, employers, and the general public that the education provided adequately prepares graduates for success. Accreditation status says a lot about the overall value of the degree offered.

There are no international or national accreditation agencies for cyber security and computer science degree programs. Prospective students should, however, look for colleges and universities that are regionally accredited. Regionally accredited schools are able to prove that they meet general academic expectations and standards for a particular region of the United States.

There are six regional accreditation organizations:

  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges (ACCJC)

Traditional vs. Online vs. Hybrid

Many prospective cyber security professionals choose to pursue their degrees by enrolling at a traditional, four-year, undergraduate college or university. Traditionally students must attend classes on campus and, in many cases, live in school dormitories or find nearby housing.

Attending classes on campus is not, however, always an option. Depending on your unique circumstances, you may be unable to earn a degree in the traditional way. A common alternative offered by many institutions are online programs. These are ideal for individuals who are already employed full- or part-time and/or have personal responsibilities that keep them close to home. Distance learning allows for flexible course scheduling and can make a degree in cyber security more easily attainable. There is rarely a difference in program length or course availability.

It is important to realize, though, that online degree programs are not perfect. One major drawback is that students are unable to network with other individuals in the field. This limits their development of personal contacts, which can be instrumental in finding employment. Additionally, some students retain information better when instructed in person.

In an attempt to minimize these drawbacks, some colleges and universities now offer hybrid cyber security degrees. Hybrid programs are designed to bridge the gap between on-campus and online learning by requiring students to participate in short, periodic residencies. While the majority of coursework can be completed from anywhere, students will occasionally need to travel and stay on campus to complete certain expectations. This type of program does allow students to interact with professors and peers in person, though not daily.

How to Choose a Degree Program

There are several factors you must keep in mind when choosing a cyber security degree program. Every institution is different, so careful research is necessary to ensure you will be adequately prepared for your desired career. Pay close attention to the following elements before making your final selection.

Accreditation

As previously mentioned, an institution’s accreditation status is extremely important. Choosing to attend a college or university without proper accreditation can have significant consequences. You may have difficulty transferring credits and/or enrolling at another school. It may also negatively impact your income potential and hirability. Some employers pay employees less when they have degrees from unaccredited institutions, while others refuse to consider them as candidates for open positions at all. You also cannot receive any federal funding or assistance in paying for college if the school you attend is unaccredited.

Always verify a school’s accreditation before submitting your application materials. Most colleges and universities have this information prominently displayed on their websites. If you do have trouble locating it, contact the admissions department directly.

Available Degrees

While most institutions offer some variant of a cyber security or computer science degree, not all of them do. Confirm that the college or university you are interested in has your intended degree early in your search. A list of degree programs should be easily found on the school’s website.

Available Specializations

Many colleges and universities offer students an opportunity to customize their degree to meet their professional goals and personal interests. For example, some computer science degree programs allow those enrolled to specialize in cyber security. Specialization is not required, nor is it always available, but it can make finding employment and advancing much easier. If a school offers specializations, they can be found with the program of study information online.

Graduation Rates

An institution’s graduate rate refers to the number of students who complete their degree within a reasonable time frame. Some institutions have higher graduation rates than others, possibly due to course difficulty and/or retention problems. This data is often available on school websites. Be sure to review it thoroughly before enrolling, as it can help you project your own graduation time frame. If a college or university has a particularly low graduation rate, take time to research why.

Retention

Retention statistics are also important. There are many reasons that a school’s retention can be low: students may not receive the academic support they need, faculty and staff may be difficult to get along with, available services may be limited, campus life may not be appealing, and/or the cost of attendance may be too much. While it can be difficult to determine the ultimate cause of low retention rates, this data can warn of potential trouble.

Online Coursework

Some cyber security programs offer or require online coursework. Depending on your academic preferences and current circumstances, taking classes online may or may not be optimal. You can often verify course offerings and online availability, as well as instruction method(s).

Professor Experience

Another factor that warrants serious consideration is the level of experience obtained by an institution’s professors. Some colleges and universities are known for employing highly-experienced instructors, whereas others employ individuals who only recently graduated themselves. You can usually find professor biographies online, which can provide some insight regarding their experience. Professionals who are published authors or have conducted official research will have more in-depth knowledge of the field.

Campus Environment

If you plan to attend classes traditionally, a school’s campus environment is also important. The best way to determine whether or not a college or university has a campus life that suits your preferences is to visit it in person. Most admission departments offer tours, during which you can see the campus in person, ask questions about extracurricular activities, and even speak with current students.

Student Services

While every institution is different, most offer a wide variety of student services. From academic tutoring to career preparation, colleges and universities usually provide much more than just a curriculum. Find out what resources are available to enrolled students by exploring the school’s website or speaking with an admissions counselor.

Degree Levels & Curriculum Outline

Those interested in a career in cyber security will need some level of formal education. While most employers require candidates to have an undergraduate degree, certificates, associate, graduate, and doctoral degrees are also available. Your ultimate career goals will determine which option is best for you.

Certificates

Some colleges and universities offer cyber security certificate programs in addition to regular degrees. These are designed to be completed by students in less time than an associate or bachelor’s degree program. In fact, some consist of only 12 credit hours of coursework and most students can graduate in a single year.

Undergraduate certificate programs exclude general education coursework from the curriculum and, instead, focus coursework on core subjects necessary for success in the field. Graduates may be able to find entry-level work, but more commonly enroll in a bachelor degree program later.

Graduate certificate programs are a little different. While they consist of approximately the same number of credit hours and can be completed within a single year, they are more varied. Undergraduate certificate programs provide a general introduction to cyber security, but the graduate programs are usually specifically designed for current professionals interested in delving deeper. This is a good option for individuals interested in earning a master’s degree in the future.

Program Entry Requirements:
Undergraduate certificate seekers must be able to provide a school diploma or equivalent. Those enrolling in a graduate certificate program will need a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution and a background in computer science or information technology.

Program Length:
Typically, 12 to 18 credit hours of coursework

Sample Courses:

  • Network Systems and Security
  • Security Administration
  • Digital Forensics
  • Cyber Law

Career Options:

  • Web Developer
  • Information Technology Technician
  • Network administrator

Associate Degrees

An associate degree in cyber security provides a foundational introduction to the field. This type of program is designed to prepare graduates for further education or for entry-level positions. It is important to realize, however, that most employers expect job candidates to have, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree. While it may be possible to find employment with nothing but an associate degree, you will be competing for the same work against many people who have a higher level of education. This can make finding a position difficult and may result in lower pay.

One benefit of earning an associate degree in cyber security is that it takes less time to complete than an undergraduate degree does. In most cases, programs consist of approximately 60 credit hours of coursework, which full-time students can complete in as little as two years.

Additionally, as long as the institution is regionally accredited, graduates can transfer credits to a four-year undergraduate college or university. These credits can be applied to a bachelor’s degree program and will likely decrease the necessary enrollment time frame by about two years.

Program Entry Requirements:
Associate degree seekers must be able to provide a school diploma or equivalent. Some schools may require a minimum high school grade point average.

Program Length:
Approximately two years for full-time students

Sample Courses:

  • Introduction to Computer Forensics and Cyber Crime
  • Introduction to Networking
  • Database Security
  • CompTIA Security

Career Options:

  • Computer Support Specialist
  • Computer Programmer
  • Database Administrator

Bachelor Degrees

While an associate degree in cyber security may be enough to qualify candidates for some entry-level positions in the field, most professionals choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree. This type of program gives students an opportunity to explore information technology in greater depth while also providing a well-rounded liberal arts education. Graduates may also be able to specialize in a particular sub-field, depending on the courses offered by the institution.

Bachelor degrees usually consist of 120 credit hours of coursework and take full-time students approximately four years to complete. It is possible to shorten this time frame, however, if you have transfer credits from advanced placement classes in high school or community college credit. Those who already have an associate degree from an accredited institution may be able to complete the remaining requirements in as few as two years. Graduates can either continue their education or find employment.

Program Entry Requirements:
Bachelor degree seekers must be able to provide a school diploma or equivalent. Some schools may also require a minimum high school grade point average. Additional requirements include SAT/ACT scores, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement.

Program Length:
Approximately four years for full-time students

Sample Courses:

  • Fundamentals of Networking
  • Installing and Configuring Windows Server
  • Ethical Hacking
  • Information Systems

Career Options:

  • Cyber Security Analyst
  • Information Security Analyst
  • Computer Forensic Analyst

Master’s Degrees

A master’s degree is not required to have a career in cyber security but earning one can be extremely beneficial. This level of education often results in more employment opportunities and makes candidates significantly more competitive in the job market. Graduates often earn higher salaries, are promote faster, and have more job security.

Most cyber security master’s degree programs consist of 30 to 60 credit hours of coursework and can be completed by full-time students in about two years. Transfer credits from a graduate certificate program can also shorten this time frame. The topics covered are more specific within the field and are often intended to prepare graduate for more administrative positions. Graduates may also consider continuing their education further by applying for and enrolling in a doctoral program.

Program Entry Requirements:
Master degree seekers must have a bachelor’s degree in cyber security or a related field and, in most cases, a minimum grade point average for major courses. Additional requirements include GRE scores, letters of recommendation, years of experience, and a personal statement.

Program Length:
Approximately two years for full-time students

Sample Courses:

  • Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Analysis
  • Applied Cryptography
  • Digital Forensics
  • Information Security Strategy and Policy

Career Options:

  • Security-Application Programmer
  • Penetration Tester
  • Vulnerability Analyst

PhD / Doctorate Degrees

A doctoral degree in cyber security can help professionals attain the research, analytical, and advocacy skills necessary to be an active leader in the information technology field. While few jobs specifically require a doctoral degree, having one can be extremely beneficial. Not only do graduates have more employment opportunities, but they often quality for advanced positions, earn more promotions, and make more money.

The coursework associated with a doctoral degree in cyber security is often rigorous and research-based. Students are given the opportunity to focus on a particular area of interest, such as embedded systems, cyberinfrastructure, or human-centered computing. Graduates can expect to find employment in highly technical positions or as educators.

These programs usually consist of about 60 credit hours of graduate-level coursework and take between two and three years to complete. After finishing the necessary classes and passing any qualifying exams, students are expected to pursue independent research and prepare a detailed, scientific account report, otherwise known as a dissertation. This process often takes three to five additional years.

Program Entry Requirements:
Doctoral degree seekers must have a bachelor’s degree in cyber security or a related field and, in most cases, a minimum grade point average for major courses. Additional requirements include GRE scores, letters of recommendation, years of experience, research work, publications, and a personal statement.

Program Length:
Approximately five to eight years with a dissertation requirement

Sample Courses:

  • Full Scope Security Testing
  • Advanced Malware Analysis
  • Theory of Computation
  • Advanced Algorithms

Career Options:

  • Corporate Researcher
  • Policy Advisor
  • University Professor

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