If you are at all interested in becoming a cybersecurity professional, this article is intended to serve as a guide to kick-starting your cybersecurity career decision tree.
Recommended Education Requirements for a Cyber Security Career
As businesses and governments combat a rise in cybersecurity threats and attacks, the Bureau of Labor (BLS) estimates that cybersecurity-related professions will continue to grow at a higher-than-average rate between 2019 and 2029. For example, BLS estimates employment for information security analysts will grow by 56% in computer systems design and related areas between 2019 and 2029.
Cybersecurity is a broad and growing field of study and professional discipline. You can become a cybersecurity professional responsible for varying roles and duties depending on the career path you are interested in. A cybersecurity professional may be involved in providing security during the development of data centers, networks, and software systems or you may be responsible for searching, detecting, and responding to cyber threats and intrusions. Your specific responsibilities will vary greatly based on the career path you take but your daily roles and responsibilities will be centered on information management and protection of both the information and computer infrastructure of an organization.
Some cybersecurity professional career paths include information systems security managers, security architects, network security engineers, systems security administrators, data security analysts, and information security analysts. Most computer security experts recommend training in IT to introduce you to the fundamentals of systems, networks, databases, and coding. This means you can transition into the cybersecurity discipline without much discomfort from most IT-related disciplines. If you do not have formal education or professional training, you may consider enrolling in a cybersecurity program. A cybersecurity degree can improve your career prospects by distinguishing yourself from other candidates and colleagues.
Many elect to pursue a computer science or cybersecurity degree as a prerequisite to seeking a cybersecurity job. By majoring in computer science, you will gain a strong foundation though cybersecurity degree programs can often be a more direct path to a cybersecurity career given the specific coursework and curriculum design. Recently, universities in the United States are offering undergraduate degree programs with a specialization geared toward cybersecurity including:
Network security design and hardening
Ethics in information technology and security
Mobile and wireless security
Most bachelor’s degrees in cybersecurity require you to complete 120 semester credits (the equivalent of 4 years for full-time students). There are options to enroll in an accelerated or all-year-round program to complete your bachelor's degree in a shorter period of time. The admission requirements for a cybersecurity degree program will vary by institution and the cybersecurity specialization you will be pursuing. However, most U.S. institutions require a minimum of a high school diploma or a GED equivalent. Each institution will also have different minimum GPA, ACT, or SAT requirements. Additional admission requirements might include essays, letters of recommendation, and resume.
Depending on the institution, you may benefit from a credit transfer from a qualified certification or associate degree related to cybersecurity. Advancing your knowledge with specialized certifications or committing to a master's or doctorate degree in cybersecurity will also open up additional career opportunities and allow you to scale to higher-paying cybersecurity careers.
While higher education such as an associate, bachelor's, or master's degree in cybersecurity is a common path for cybersecurity professions; certifications, cybersecurity boot camps have recently emerged as alternative paths to provide the necessary training you need to become a cybersecurity professional.
While an undergraduate degree in computer science or cybersecurity is a traditional qualifier, employers tend to now be evaluating candidates who have certifications that validate their knowledge and understanding of cybersecurity best practices. Cybersecurity certifications are often designed to train entry-level cybersecurity professionals on using specific cybersecurity tools and technologies and provide a means for seasoned cybersecurity experts to verify their mastery and skill. You can pursue an academic certification as discussed before through an undergraduate or master’s degree program. Most academic institutions that offer cybersecurity programs have different certifications that you can choose from depending on your needs and circumstances.
Professional certifications are another type of cybersecurity certification usually designed for people already employed or with experience in cybersecurity or related disciplines. These certifications aim to train professionals on the newer technologies or methodologies for the detection and prevention of cybersecurity issues. Some of the popular cybersecurity professional certifications include:
The Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) certification
The GIAC Security Essentials
CompTIA Security +
CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner
Certified Information security Manager
Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
Systems Security Certified Practitioner
Certified Information Systems Auditor
Certified Information Systems Manager
Cisco Certified Network Associate
Certified Incident Handler
Offensive Security Certified professional
Some of these certifications may require you to meet certain conditions before you enroll. You may need to present verifiable university coursework or work experience. You must also pay a fee to enroll in these certifications. In addition to these prerequisites, the certification provider might recommend other courses that might help you during the certification. If you are looking to expand your cybersecurity expertise through certification, you can evaluate suitable programs from these reputable organizations:
The International Information System Security (ISC)2
Global Information Assurance Certification
These organizations offer varying certifications in the cybersecurity discipline for you to choose from. The best way to choose a cybersecurity certification that suits you is to examine your career goals and research the organizations offering these certifications.
Job descriptions from some of the organizations you would aspire to work with will also help you determine the certifications they prefer. Ultimately, the best certification is one that meets your career goals and allows you to expand your cybersecurity knowledge and mastery.
Skills Needed for a Career in Cybersecurity
Cybersecurity jobs can be highly rewarding financially with an entry-level cybersecurity analyst making an average salary of $82,565 per year. It is often the case that before an employer completes the hiring process for a cybersecurity position, they will assess you for the skills you have. You may need a combination of soft and hard skills, meaning you must understand the technical parts of your cybersecurity specialization and have the soft skills to work with other employees and interact with clients.
A strong technical knowledge base is critical and forms the basis of your success in cybersecurity. You will need practical hands-on experience, including the ability to code or test a system. The specific technical skills you need for the job will vary depending on the specific cybersecurity profession.
Actual job listings in your area of specialization can shed more light on the specific technical skills employers expect. Conceptual technical skills are an added boost to your hands-on experience. Conceptual technical skills include an understanding of different computer systems, OSI models, analytics, etc. You can gain conceptual technical skills through continuous study in cybersecurity.
The desire to learn is another distinguishing skill in cybersecurity. Due to the changing nature of the threat landscape and developments in technology, cybersecurity experts must have a deep desire to keep learning to remain relevant in their professions.
Technologies become obsolete fast and criminals invent new ways to exploit systems; therefore, experts must be prepared to keep up with the evolving world of cybersecurity.
Logical reasoning is another important skill that employers look for in a cybersecurity candidate. Logical reasoning allows you to detect a problem and apply the right solution to that problem and mastery comes from the continuous experience in cybersecurity. The experience and repetition helps you identify patterns and troubleshoot (eventually anticipate) problems.
Communication and collaboration are also valuable skills that you will need to be successful in a cybersecurity career. Communication skills allow you to pass information to colleagues, employers, and clients, while collaboration skills ensure you can work well with other experts within and outside the organization.
Using Your Resume to Showcase Your Cybersecurity Skills
While you might have all the necessary skills for a cybersecurity career, a poorly structured resume may deny you the chances you could have had with organizations that interest you. Fortunately, you can take a few steps to strengthen your resume for a cybersecurity career. Here are the dos and don’ts:
Include unrelated work experience. If you have any work experience that showcases any of the skills employers look for, then you should consider including it in your resume even if it is unrelated to cybersecurity. For example, a customer service role you have previously held could demonstrate your communication skills while your military experience would be a clear positive when looking to work with defense companies and governments which may require certain clearance or background checks.
Gain cybersecurity experience even if you are unemployed. While it might be tempting to wait until you are employed to gain experience, creating and uploading projects to GitHub or taking on pro-bono work that will build your expertise. Showcasing your skills on professional platforms show employers that you are a self-driven individual and they can evaluate your skills before they communicate with you.
Emphasize your soft skills. Technical skills are important for a cybersecurity career but without the right combination of soft skills, it becomes impossible to succeed in your position. Soft skills such as teamwork, communication, and leadership are hard to teach compared to technical skills like coding.
If the next step is exploring the best educational program to kick-start your career, we recommend the next section. Otherwise, jump over to our article on exploring the career paths of a cybersecurity professional.
Best Cybersecurity Bootcamps to Kick-Start Your Career
A cybersecurity boot camp is an alternative path to getting started in a cybersecurity career. Cybersecurity boot camps are flexible programs, and employers are beginning to hold these programs in higher regard, especially now when the number of cybersecurity job openings is so high.
Cybersecurity boot camps are focused training programs that offer knowledge at different levels of expertise in order to help the learners gain skills that help them qualify for jobs immediately upon graduation. These programs are usually flexible to allow different people to fit the learning into their daily schedules. A cybersecurity boot camp can be online, part-time, full-time, or self-paced, depending on your needs.
Cybersecurity boot camps focus on equipping you with information related to cybersecurity as well as practical hands-on skills. These boot camps alternate between intense learning and the application of the lessons you learn from each session.
The curriculum covered will vary depending on the program, but most programs focus on covering emerging threats, cybersecurity trends, and techniques. However, you can generally expect to learn the following in a cybersecurity boot camp:
Intrusion detection and forensics
Underlying platform knowledge
Scripting and OS tools
Secure network design and architecture
Attending a cybersecurity boot camp allows you to earn essential skills to move you forward in your cybersecurity career. With businesses across multiple industries needing the services of an information security expert, cybersecurity boot camps can be a solid path to earning the skills that make you a valuable contributor to an organization or company.
We recommend you search for cybersecurity bootcamp programs which are accredited as many bootcamp providers are not yet accredited. And while a bootcamp program is likely less expensive than the cost to enroll in a bachelor’s or a master’s degree, candidates can often still access scholarships, grants, loans, and flexible payment options which helps to make these programs more affordable. Many cybersecurity boot camps even offer income sharing agreement programs (ISAs) or deferred tuition plans which allow for students to pay back the cost of the program only after they graduate and secure a job.
Participating in a cybersecurity boot camp also allows you to network with other cybersecurity professionals. You can work with them on the different programs and contribute your skills to each joint project. Different institutions provide in-person and online boot camps to allow you more flexibility to choose a boot camp that meets your expectations and fits with your schedule. A simple Google search for a cybersecurity boot camp will yield multiple results, which can be overwhelming to choose from. So how do you narrow down the results to the most appropriate program? Here are some tips:
Choose a boot camp that aligns with your learning style. Most cybersecurity boot camp providers will tell you what to expect during the learning process, so you can choose the learning style that suits you best.
Look closely at the curriculum the boot camp covers to ensure that you will learn skills that prepare you for your career.
Check the accreditation status and credentials of the provider
Ask for resumes or details about the bootcamp instructors and faculty teaching the program
Read reviews from other students who have taken the program
Request the bootcamp completion rates, hiring rates, and hiring salaries (as well as hiring companies) for graduates
Negotiate the cost of attendance - inquire about scholarship and payment plan availability
Top Cybersecurity Degree Programs
If you are interested in pursuing a career in cybersecurity and a bootcamp isn’t the right option for you, we recommend exploring a more traditional bachelor’s or a master’s program (depending upon your educational accomplishments to date). Hundreds of U.S. universities and education providers now offer various cybersecurity programs which are designed to set graduates on a positive career path. However, choosing the program that best meets your needs can be overwhelming.
How do you evaluate the cybersecurity degree options to choose one that is suitable for you? Here are some strategies to help you:
After the COVID19 pandemic, online learning has become an important part of how we learn. Therefore, it might be a good idea to explore those programs that allow you to study online or in a hybrid offering. Online cybersecurity programs can be less expensive when compared to in-person programs and may allow you to study without compromising your work-life balance.
Another way to look at a program’s flexibility is whether you can enroll in the program part-time or full-time. If you are a full-time professional or have other responsibilities, a flexible part-time program may be ideal for you. The program you select should ultimately fit your goals while reflecting your present lifestyle. If you are a working family person, it should allow you to balance work, life, and family.
A school’s reputation may matter as much as the cybersecurity program offered. Whether you are obtaining an undergraduate or a master’s degree, you should select an institution with a respected cybersecurity program and a strong brand. Graduating from a reputable institution can make it easier for you to secure employment based on the alumni referrals and the breadth of the career services available. In addition to the school's reputation, the faculty's reputation also matters when choosing a cybersecurity degree program. Check the bios of different faculty members to see their contributions to the industry, accomplishments, and pedigrees.
Ask your coworkers, managers, and peers for their recommendations. If you are not working and do not know any cybersecurity experts, review the trusted rankings publications (such as U.S. News & World Reports and The Princeton Review) and spend time reading student reviews on websites like Niche.com or Quora. LinkedIn is also a critical tool to help you find reviews and recommendations for the best cybersecurity programs. Take your research further and identify cybersecurity professions from top companies. Look at their bios to determine the institutions from which they obtained their cybersecurity degrees.
The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) is one of the accreditation bodies that review the cybersecurity curriculum of various institutions to determine whether different programs meet the highest standards of education. Other organizations that provide accreditation for cybersecurity programs include the National Center of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity of the National Security Agency. Cybersecurity programs with CAE or ABET accreditation could be considered strong investments as they benefit from strong employer trust.
The curriculum is certainly one of the most important considerations when narrowing your list of target cybersecurity degree programs. Since cybersecurity is a constantly evolving field, it is important to find institutions whose curriculum reflects the changes in the industry.
Some of the knowledge you can expect from a cybersecurity curriculum include:
Look at the collaborations the institution has with the cybersecurity community who are key in providing insights to ensure the curriculum reflects current and relevant cybersecurity trends.
Program Tuition and Costs
An undergraduate or master’s degree in cyber security is a significant investment that can dent your finances for decades to follow. Therefore, you should evaluate the cost of a program before you commit.
Exploring a Few of the Top Cybersecurity Degree Programs
Many institutions offer different cybersecurity programs and concentrations to prepare you for a career in cybersecurity. To get you started in finding the best program for you, we have listed the highly reputable programs from respected institutions across the country.
Here are some of the best undergraduate cybersecurity programs:
Carnegie Mellon University
Georgia Institute of Technology
University of California – Berkeley
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Purdue University – West Lafayette
University of California – San Diego
University of Maryland – College Park
University of Michigan Ann Arbor
University of Washington
For more advanced studies, here are several highly respected master’s in cybersecurity programs:
Johns Hopkins University (Master of Science in Cybersecurity)
University of Southern California (Master of Science in Computer Science with a focus on Computer Security)
New York University (Master of Science in Cybersecurity)
George Washington University (Master of Engineering in Cyber Security Analytics)
Brandeis University (Master of Science in Information Security Leadership)
University of Delaware (Masters in Cybersecurity)
Liberty University (Masters in Cybersecurity)
University of Dallas (Master of Science in Cybersecurity)
Drexel University (Master of Science in Cybersecurity)
Cybersecurity programs will offer various concentrations for their cybersecurity undergraduate or master's degrees depending on the institution. These concentrations allow you to gain more specialized knowledge and skills within cybersecurity and position you for higher-paying positions.
Some of the concentrations available for students include:
Computer forensics and vulnerability management where you learn to identify, preserve, analyze, and present digital evidence during legal proceedings
Information warfare and security management in which you learn the national security issues and threats from the internet
Ethical hacking (also can be referred to as penetration testing)
Network security management and operations
Advancing Your Career
Whether you are a recent high school graduate looking to enter a cybersecurity career or are a working professional who wants to shift gears to cybersecurity, you have different strategies at your disposal to explore an information security career. You can pursue a cybersecurity degree (undergraduate or graduate) program, enroll in certification programs, or attend reputable cybersecurity boot camps to sharpen your skills and ultimately seek out gainful employment opportunities.