Most cyber security jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree, and advancing through the ranks often means additional training. Possible degree paths for cyber security professionals include:
Bachelor’s Degree in Cyber Security
Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Forensics
Bachelor’s Degree in Information Security
Master’s Degree in Cyber Security
Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice: Cyber Criminology
As an undergraduate, you may choose to focus on Computer Science or Computer Information Systems. But if you’re interested in a cyber security career, you would also do well to focus your education on security topics from the beginning, with classes like Intro to Networking, Information Security, Computer Ethics, and Digital Forensics.
Wondering how to choose the right school? One of the most important things to look for in a cyber security program is accreditation.
Accreditation is a term that indicates an institution has met and maintained a certain level of standards, as set by an accrediting agency. It’s a checks-and-balances system, ensuring that your education is backed by a reputable agency that is committed to the highest standards.
What are these agencies? There are many accrediting agencies, and not all are reputable. With the rise of for-profit schools, bootcamps, and the like, it’s easier than ever for fraudulent online schools to claim accreditation from equally fraudulent agencies. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of recognized accrediting agencies. While the Department of Education does not directly accredit any of these academic programs, it maintains oversight of the agencies that do oversee accreditation, and publishes an annual update of the agencies that have met its requirements for accurately vetting academic programs in the United States.
Most accrediting agencies specialize in certain types of academic programs and institutions. For example, the agency that accredits a nursing school is, in most cases, not going to be the same agency that accredits a Master of Social Work program or a Cyber Security program.
In addition to the simple fact that you probably want your education to be of the highest quality, finding an accredited school is important for a number of other reasons. Employers typically expect candidates to disclose the institution from which they graduated, and a school or program that lacks accreditation is an instant red flag. In addition, if you plan on transferring from one school to another, accredited colleges will not accept transfer credits from non-accredited schools. Furthermore, federal financial aid may not be available to students at non-accredited colleges or universities.
The risks associated with attending a school that is not accredited include finding yourself saddled with debt, worthless credit hours, and a degree that hiring managers won’t consider valid. Even if the education you receive is legitimate and valuable, you likely won’t experience the same respect and benefits without proper accreditation.
Cyber security is a booming industry of great importance to companies around the world. For this reason, hiring managers want to be sure that the talent they’re investing in is reputable, trustworthy, and skilled. No manager wants to be responsible for hiring a Cyber Security Specialist whose degree turns out to be fraudulent or worthless. All else being equal, most companies will go with the safer choice of hiring a candidate whose degree is fully accredited. That’s why it’s so vital to choose a Cyber Security program that’s fully accredited by a reputable agency.
If you already have a program or programs in mind, the easiest way to check on their accreditation is to visit the U.S. Department of Education’s accreditation agency database. The school in question should also have information about their accreditation on their website, or in another location that is available to prospective students. Be sure to confirm that not only is the school accredited, but the agency that accredited them is a reputable and valid one.
If you don’t have a program or school in mind as of yet, but still want to be sure you’re only looking at those with proper accreditation, a great place to start is with the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA, invested in the cyber security of the nation, partners with schools to ensure that they are training true experts in science, technology, engineering, math, language and analysis.
The NSA maintains a list of Centers of Academic Excellence (CAE). In their words, "The National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jointly sponsor the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense (CAE-CD) program. The goal of the program is to reduce vulnerability in our national information infrastructure by promoting higher education and research in cyber defense and producing professionals with cyber defense expertise."
By choosing one of these CAE-designated schools, you can guarantee that the program you will attend has met stringent criteria and will be recognized as valid and valuable once you’ve graduated.
NSA sponsors two types of CAE: One in Cyber Defense and one in Cyber Operations.
In general, attending a four-year college that carries full accreditation is always going to be your safest bet. If you can find one with a dedicated Cyber Security degree, you won’t have to worry about any further accreditations.
It can also be helpful to look at respected groups and associations in the cyber security industry, including ISC2, the SANS institute, ISACA, and ISSA. Many such organizations offer grants to or have partnerships with institutions of higher education, and can be good resources in helping choose a school. They can also be great resources for networking, volunteering, and otherwise engaging with the cyber security community as you begin your education and career path.
A tech-focused degree path such as cyber security is a natural fit for online education, and many very good accredited programs are available online. But you should be diligent when researching online-only schools or bootcamps, and limit yourself to only those institutions with true accreditations from reputable agencies.