Master’s in Cyber Security or a Master’s in Homeland Security?

Master’s in Cyber Security or a Master’s in Homeland Security?
Cyber security master’s programs tend to attract professionals with a computer science background, while homeland security programs often draw those with a defense background. Image from Pexels
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella October 18, 2021

Deciding between a master's in cyber security and a master's in homeland security can be challenging. Both can lead to high-paying careers in the federal government and private sector protecting civilian and national interests.

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In fiscal year 2023, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) managed a budget of over $175 billion. That’s more than the government spent on the Department of State and the Environmental Protection Agency combined.

It’s no mystery why DHS is so robustly funded. The agency handles some pretty hefty responsibilities, including protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure, combatting terrorism (including domestic terrorism), and improving the nation’s cyber security practices.

Mitigating cyber risk has become a significant homeland security concern, especially as malware attacks increase in frequency, cost, and damage. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) is poised to take on a greater role within the DHS in the coming years.

If you are looking to pursue a graduate degree in national defense, you may be wondering whether to earn a master’s in homeland security or a master’s in cyber security. Each degree can lead to similar jobs, but they’re far from identical. Read on to learn about the differences and similarities. This article addresses the questions:

  • Should I pursue a master’s in cyber security or a master’s in homeland security?
  • What is a master’s in cyber security?
  • What is a master’s in homeland security?
  • Top online master’s in cyber security and master’s in homeland security programs

Should I pursue a master’s in cyber security or a master’s in homeland security?

The answer to this question ultimately comes down to your goals. The two disciplines overlap. Many homeland security master’s programs, including the one at Virginia Commonwealth University include cyber security coursework. The difference between that degree and one focusing on cyber security, such as the program at University of Tulsa, is you’ll learn less about the technical side to the field, focusing instead on utilizing policy and management to combat cyber threats.

Broadly, most cyber security master’s programs attract professionals with a computer science background, while most homeland security programs draw professionals with a defense background. Both degrees represent excellent options that can prepare you to work both for federal agencies and the private sector. You may even work for a non-profit.

Pros and cons of each

Pros of a cyber security master’s

  • __High return on investment: A cyber security master’s degree can put you on course for a six-figure salary
  • Improves your skill set: This degree should broaden your knowledge base substantially
  • Less time than a PhD: Many computer science professionals (cyber security is a discipline of computer science) opt for a PhD; a master’s can qualify you for many of the same positions

Cons of a cyber security master’s

  • Expensive: Even “cheaper” master’s programs can cost over $30,000 per year.
  • Potentially unnecessary: While many cyber security professionals hold graduate degrees, you can find good jobs with certificates, bootcamps, and self-teaching, especially if you have a solid computer science foundation
  • Time-consuming: Full-time programs typically take around two years to complete, which means you’ll miss out on two years of work experience and opportunities; part-time programs can allow you to work and study, but leave you with limited time for anything else

Pros of a homeland security master’s

  • __Helps with a career transition: Many retired service members pursue a master’s degree to try a new role in protecting critical infrastructure, such as emergency management and national disaster mitigation
  • Prepares you for leadership positions: A homeland security master’s can help move your resume to the top of the pile

Cons of a homeland security master’s

  • Another degree might be better: You could opt for a master’s in criminal justice or law enforcement instead
  • New degree: As a discipline, homeland security is relatively young; there isn’t an accreditation body for programs yet, meaning degrees can be of varying quality
  • Potentially unnecessary: Training and certificate programs can help you achieve your goals in the homeland security sector, though a homeland security degree usually complements other credentials.

Do I need a degree to work in cyber security?

You do not need a master’s degree to work in cyber security. However, if you want to secure one of the top jobs in the field, you should consider one. Having a master’s degree on your resume can open more doors.


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What is a master’s in cyber security?

A master’s in cyber security prepares graduates to advance their careers in the field. It’s a great way for computer science professionals to specialize in this popular and increasingly crucial area.

Admission requirements/prerequisites

In addition to common master’s admissions requirements like standardized test scores, resumes, and letters of recommendation, many cyber security programs have field-specific prerequisites. It’s helpful to understand at least one programming language, and many applicants have two or more years of work experience in a discipline like:

  • Cyber security
  • Information technology
  • Computer science

Candidates typically hold jobs in information assurance, digital forensics, or penetration testing. Master’s programs typically build on computer science experience, meaning many students enter with a bachelor’s degree in the subject. Programs that admit students without a relevant background usually ask them to complete bridge courses to catch up before classes start. Courses can include introductory programming or advanced mathematics, such as calculus and algorithms.


The typical cyber security master’s curriculum covers subjects like:

  • Assurance for information systems
  • Cryptography
  • Cyber law and ethics
  • Defensive technologies
  • Digital forensics
  • Hardware security
  • Network security
  • Penetration testing
  • Security auditing
  • System administration
  • System security


Computer science and engineering master’s programs commonly offer cyber security as a specialization option. STEM MBAs have become increasingly common in recent years; many offer a cyber security pathway. MBAs prepare students for management careers and are not technical.

There also are specialized cyber security programs. Tulane offers a cyber security management master’s degree that prepares students to oversee teams and develop and implement cyber incident response strategy.

Master’s in cyber security career options (who’s hiring and how much can I earn?)

The average salary for someone with a cyber security master’s is over $93,000 per year, according to PayScale. Six-figure salaries are common. Experienced managers earn nearly $150,000 per year, and the very best professionals can earn around $500,000 annually at top companies in major markets.

Top cyber security jobs include:

You’ll have many options of where to work, too. According to University of San Diego, top industries include:

  • Finance
  • Government
  • Healthcare
  • Manufacturing
  • Retail

Major players looking for cyber security talent include:

  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • Deloitte
  • DHS
  • JP Morgan Chase
  • Lockheed Martin
  • Northrop Grumman
  • Oracle
  • PayPal
  • FBI
  • Secret Service
  • United States Army

What is a master’s in homeland security?

A homeland security master’s prepares students for careers keeping the nation safe, including roles in federal or local government agencies, private corporations, or nonprofits. The term homeland security may conjure images of bomb threats and tracking down terror suspects, but the field encompasses much more than that. It includes disaster response, national cyber security, and critical infrastructure protection.

Admission requirements/prerequisites

Prerequisites for homeland security programs cover a broad range. Applicants to the Penn State program should have at least two years of relevant experience. In contrast, American University doesn’t list any experience requirements.

Some programs ask inexperienced students to complete bridge courses to prepare for challenging coursework. Those who are admitted to the University of Alaska complete Principles of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. You’ll also take Emergency Planning and Preparedness and Community Planning, unless you earned a bachelor’s in emergency management degree from the school.

The standard-bearer for homeland security programs is the Naval Postgraduate School. Though admissions requirements are somewhat open-ended, the school states that “most students in the program are experienced or fast-rising state, local, tribal, territorial or federal officials.” You might spend decades gaining work experience before applying for the program.


Many homeland security curricula are based on the Naval Postgraduate School’s, which includes coursework like:

  • Comparative Government for Homeland Security
  • Critical Infrastructure: Vulnerability Analysis and Protection
  • Intelligence for Homeland Security: Organizational and Policy Challenges
  • Internet, Society, and Cyberconflict
  • Multi-discipline Approaches to Homeland Security
  • Strategic Planning and Budgeting for Homeland Security


Students can complete program tracks in areas like:

  • Counterterrorism
  • Cyber security policy
  • Emergency management
  • Information security
  • Public health preparedness

You also might be drawn to another relevant degree. Other program titles that may be attractive to current or aspiring homeland security professionals include:

Master’s in homeland security career options (who’s hiring and how much can I earn?)

You can pursue many careers with a homeland security master’s, including at agencies and organizations like:

  • Department of Homeland Security
  • Department of Labor
  • Department of State
  • Department of Transportation
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • FEMA
  • Red Cross

Top job titles include:

  • Emergency management specialist
  • FBI intelligence analyst
  • Fire chief
  • Health services manager
  • Police captain
  • Risk management specialist
  • Secret Service technical security investigator
  • Supervisory IT cyber security specialist

You may need supplemental education, including training programs, graduate certificates, and even another master’s degree, plus substantial experience to land these roles.

Top online master’s in cyber security and master’s in homeland security programs

Finding the time to complete a master’s degree can be difficult. Many students find themselves looking at online programs because they provide more flexibility.

Schools with top online cyber security programs include:

There are not many online homeland security programs, but respectable options include:

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: CybersecurityHomeland SecurityInformation Technology & Engineering