"The world that was behind me when I went to school that morning was gone forever, and the new one waiting for me that afternoon was wildly different." With these words, spoken at a 2007 commemorative memorial service, Army Sergeant Gregory J. Barbaccia eloquently expressed what so many there understood: that the tragic events of September 11, 2001 had changed the world profoundly and irreversibly. "The violence of the September 11 attacks helped me decide to join the military," he added; many others, like Barbaccia, also heard the call to service in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
A number of those wound up at the Department of Homeland Security, an agency established in November 2002 to address the challenges of this new world. Today it's the third-largest agency in the federal government (behind the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran Affairs).
Many DHS positions require advanced training. That's where graduate programs in homeland security come in. The purpose of a master’s in homeland security is to prepare students for careers in counterterrorism, immigration law enforcement, cybersecurity, and disaster prevention and response.
Homeland security covers a broad range of functions; most programs in the field are designed to expose you to a little of each. You’ll likely learn something about counterterrorism, data mining, policy creation and implementation, federalism, cybersecurity, criminology, psychology, risk assessment, resilience planning, emergency management, intelligence systems, public-private partnerships, bioweaponry, food safety, public health, and the history and techniques of terrorism.
You will not learn as much about any single one of these subjects as you would in a more specific graduate program, however. Some students will feel the need to pursue further specialization subsequent to completing the degree. Many homeland security master’s programs, including those offered by top institutions, are offered partly or entirely online. Virginia Commonwealth University offers one such program, which can be completed in 1.5 to 2 years.
Just about anyone interested in a career in homeland security can be a candidate for this master's. Programs generally do not require specific undergraduate majors or even courses as prerequisites to admission. The major qualification is the ability to pass a background check and gain security clearance (not to attend the master's program, but to qualify for a job afterward).
A significant number of degree-seekers in this field currently work at DHS and other homeland-security-related agencies. They are looking to improve their career prospects and speed career advancement. Former military personnel in search of new careers are also well represented in these programs.
Homeland security is one of the largest job sectors in the federal government; its nearly 200,000 jobs account for approximately 10 percent of the federal workforce. Nor is the Department of Homeland Security the sole employer for homeland security degree holders: the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Labor, the Department of State, the various military branches, and state and local law enforcement all hire homeland security experts.
Private companies and nonprofits also hire security specialists to protect their employees, customers, computer networks and information. Job titles include intelligence analyst, information security analyst, data analyst, intelligence collector, counterintelligence specialist, program manager, emergency manager, computer scientist, and network and systems engineer.
According to PayScale, salaries at the Department for Homeland Security for those holding master's degrees range from $57,000 to $127,000. Georgetown University reports a median salary of $76,000 for graduates of its Master's in Applied Intelligence program.
This is the $64,000 question. Homeland security undoubtedly offers opportunities for a rewarding career, but is a master’s in homeland security the best path to that goal? The discipline is still young and imprecisely defined; there’s not even an accreditation organization to determine which programs are, and aren’t, academically rigorous enough to confer a master’s degree.
There are other master’s degrees—in public administration, law enforcement, engineering, criminal justice, or emergency management—that will help you find a career in homeland security and will better qualify you for other options, should homeland security fail to pan out. You can supplement these alternative master's with one or more certificate programs in homeland security specializations.
Yet another option is to seek entry-level work at the Department of Homeland Security, then enroll in some of the the many training programs that DHS offers its employees. You’ll get your career started earlier (albeit at a lower entry point) while gaining valuable experience and professional development.
There is one master’s in homeland security that is unquestionably worthwhile: the MA in homeland security at the Naval Postgraduate School Center For Homeland Defense and Security. The program is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best; its curriculum has, in fact, been adapted without change by a number of other master’s programs in the field. Unfortunately, the program is open only to employees of local, tribal, territorial, state or federal government agencies or the US military. Admission is competitive, but for those fortunate enough to qualify, tuition is free (although a two-year commitment of further service post-graduation is required).