Cybersecurity

Am I Qualified to Get Into a Cybersecurity Master’s Program?

Am I Qualified to Get Into a Cybersecurity Master’s Program?
Cybersecurity specialists are problem-solvers who must pair a creative mindset with in-depth computer science training. Image from Unsplash
Ginny Bartolone profile
Ginny Bartolone May 25, 2021

A STEM undergraduate degree or work experience in tech may be the only qualification you need to enter a cybersecurity master's program. Learn more about this career-boosting credential.

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Considering applying for a cybersecurity master’s degree? You’re not alone. Everyone from the US military to today’s top tech companies is on the hunt for highly trained online security experts. Smart techies know that cybersecurity is a field rich in opportunities.

We barely go a week without news of another cyberattack. In 2020, cybercriminals stole a record amount of data and significantly upped their hacking game. New technologies mean new ways to upend our tech-dependant world and new cyber fortresses to defend.

Think back over just the last year. The US recently battled the DarkSide attack of the Colonial Pipeline. And then there were the countless ransomware attacks aimed at remote workers.

The demand for information security professionals is so high, in fact, that the New York Times predicted a whopping 3.5 million cybersecurity jobs will be open and unfilled in 2021. Many will pay extremely well.

To advance in this profession, you’ll need the kind of training that a master’s program can provide. But how do you know whether you’re qualified to get into a cybersecurity master’s degree program? Here’s some good news. Admission requirements are not as set in stone as they are for other graduate programs. Universities recognize that they need a diversely skilled and creative task force to take on the challenge. You may qualify even if you think you don’t. We’ll explain why in this guide, in which we cover:

  • What is cybersecurity?
  • What will you learn in a cybersecurity master’s program?
  • Am I qualified to get into a cybersecurity master’s program?
  • Should I get a master’s in cybersecurity?

What is cybersecurity?

Nearly every facet of our lives depends on some form of technology and data storage. Our money, financial history, and even online conversations are at risk to hackers. The federal government encourages citizens to have a basic knowledge of cybersecurity to protect themselves.

Both the private and public sectors need strong cybersecurity defense teams. Without a game plan, a single attack can grind entire social structures and corporations to a halt. That’s why you’ll likely find cybersecurity positions in your field of choice, including:

  • Government and military agencies
  • Health care
  • Investment firms and banking
  • Manufacturing and infrastructure
  • Nonprofits
  • Retail
  • Social media and tech

Available positions

As security software company McAfee notes, cybersecurity involves far more than analyzing complicated computer networks. The field needs everyone from marketers and salespeople to cryptography and data whizzes.

Cybersecurity tackles three main stages of an attack: detecting it, stopping it, and preventing it from happening again. To execute all three effectively, computer scientists at every step of the process must work hand-in-hand. Engineers build secure programs, and risk assessment specialists find the weak spots. Analysts keep an eye out for suspicious activity hidden in the daily stream of data.

Available career paths at each stage include:

  • Cybersecurity sales manager
  • Cybersecurity consultant
  • Developer or penetration testing specialist
  • Information security analyst
  • IT security architect
  • Senior network engineers
  • Software security engineer

A day in the life

Cybersecurity specialists are problem-solvers who must pair a creative mindset with in-depth computer science training. Their workday varies depending on their specialization.

Some roles have to find the problem, stop it, and then communicate what happened to the rest of the company in a way that makes sense. Others analyze software or network security and point out vulnerabilities. At the management level, leadership positions ensure the whole team is working in tandem.

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What will you learn in a cybersecurity master’s program?

Post-graduate cybersecurity programs—particularly those offered online —are ideal for working professionals. They can help you start a total career shift or dig deeper into security management roles without leaving your job.

Coursework typically covers both hard and soft skills, including collaboration, attention to detail, and strategy. On a more technical side, you may tackle various programming languages, operating systems, and hardware, all from a security perspective.

Consider the University of Tulsa’s online MS in Cybersecurity. Students complete 30 credit hours of coursework both independently and with the help of synchronous online lectures.

The program covers topics like:

  • Defensive cybersecurity technologies
  • Hardware security
  • Information assurance
  • Leadership perspectives

Between core courses and electives, students experience a valuable mix of information technology and real-world leadership tactics. Complete this program in around four years or as quickly as 20 consecutive months.

Specialty programs

A Master of Science in Cybersecurity is not the only path for graduate school. You’ll find a range of more specialized master’s programs that touch on cybersecurity. Consider an MBA with a cybersecurity concentration or a Master of Science in Computer Science with a cybersecurity focus, for example.

Other programs, like Virginia Commonwealth University‘s Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, train students from a public perspective while still touching on private-sector topics. VCU classes cover the role of technology in national security threats and terrorism,as well as the laws and policies surrounding it.

Degree requirements

Cybersecurity graduate degrees typically require between 30 and 36 credits hours. Courses include a balance of basic computer engineering and specialized electives. You’ll likely need to maintain a 3.0 GPA through graduation. In some cases, the school may also require students to complete a thesis or capstone project at the end of the program.

What to look for in a program

Always start your search with accredited institutions. From here, look for details that make the program stand out from the rest.

For example, Fordham University in New York received designation from the NSA as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education.

You should also keep an eye out for interdisciplinary classes that cover your specialization. Fordham, for example, offers electives such as:

  • Cloud computing
  • Digital forensics
  • Incident response and risk management
  • Social networks

Above all, flexibility and a robust online support community are essential. Small class sizes, schedule options, and accelerated full-time programs are ideal.

Am I qualified to get into a cybersecurity master’s program?

Now for the million-dollar question: what do you need on your resume to get into the program?

The majority of cybersecurity master’s programs require a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. In some cases, you’ll need a related degree or coursework in computer science or cybersecurity, but not always.

Most programs simply want to see proficiency in a related field. Work experience, previous schoolwork, or a combination of both will often do. Many schools understand that professionals come from various backgrounds, often with on-the-job training and skills.

For this reason, top programs like the one at Johns Hopkins University allow students to test out of some prerequisites. If you do not meet the minimum requirement on your transcripts but have substantial industry experience, you can apply to take the test to aid your application.

Application requirements

Additional prerequisites include:

  • 3.0 GPA score from your undergraduate degree
  • GRE, LSAT, GMAT, or MAT test scores (or TOEFL scores if necessary)
  • Official transcripts from all post-secondary institutions attended
  • Experience or training in the field

When you apply for the program, the admissions office may also request a statement of purpose or intent. This is where you’ll get a chance to tie in your past with your future goals. Your letters of recommendation and professional resume can serve the same purpose.

While most schools require an application fee, many are waiving the cost for the 2021 school year.

Applicant backgrounds

The majority of applicants apply to these programs with some advanced education in math or technology. However, there are many pathways within cybersecurity. Perhaps you come from an engineering or science background and worked at a tech firm after college. Or, maybe you’ve always been a master at Java, C++, and Python and can catch the vulnerabilities in complex coding.

Since technical skills themselves are so versatile, so are their applications. In-depth knowledge of these computer science topics can translate to a systems security position.

Some universities, like St. John’s University, outline specific skills either from the field or past education. Prospective students must have networking or and programming skills from:

  • Industry certifications
  • Transfer courses
  • Undergraduate courses
  • Work experience

Since student backgrounds vary, you’ll likely meet with a department chair to explain your background and career goals after entering the program.

Should I get a master’s in cybersecurity?

As in many technical fields, some students opt for online cybersecurity boot camps instead of grad school. However, there are vital differences in the experience. For one, a boot camp typically homes in on one specific cybersecurity key skill. You may not access the wide-ranging topics of a grad program, such as security policy and leadership methods.

Master’s programs are also all about making connections, no matter the topic. In a multi-year program, you work alongside some of the top experts in the cybersecurity field. After graduation, they can provide a leg up into your dream job or company.

Cost considerations

On the other hand, tuition costs always play a role in a big decision like this. Today’s top cybersecurity master’s programs cost anywhere between $20,000 and $50,000 total.

To offset tuition, however, some universities, such as George Washington University, offer financial aid to current or past military members. The government’s focus on training cybersecurity professionals opens the door to a range of funding.

On the other hand, advanced degrees in cybersecurity may also unlock higher-paid positions in the field. Many positions run in the six figures, with top officers looking at salaries in the $300,000 range.

Final thoughts

There is no shortage of cybersecurity positions, and with the rise of cyber threats, they don’t appear to be going anywhere soon. The window of opportunity is unlikely to close if you pursue an advanced degree.

Whether this step is right for you comes down to where you see yourself in two to five years. While cybersecurity positions occupy a niche, nearly every industry is on the lookout for the next member of its team.

Luckily, the qualifications for master’s programs in cybersecurity run the gamut. Engaged professionals with a background in tech and a passion for problem-solving often find a home in this fast-paced field.

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