Cybersecurity

Should You Get a Master’s in Cyber Security? Yes, and Here’s Why

Should You Get a Master’s in Cyber Security? Yes, and Here’s Why
It's worth looking into the best master's in cyber security programs first because these are the ones where students get real-world, on-the-job experience and have opportunities to work with top experts in the field before graduation. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry May 19, 2020

The answer is an unequivocal yes, because this discipline has a near-zero unemployment rate. More importantly, six-figure salaries make it easy to pay for (or pay off) school.

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Nearly $600 billion is lost to cybercrime every year. Yes, that’s billion, with a B. If that’s not alarming enough, consider that every day:

  • Cybercriminals perform 80 billion malicious scans
  • Hackers destroy 780,000 records
  • Hundreds of thousands of malware applications are installed
  • Thousands of people fall for phishing attempts that make all this possible

The vulnerabilities in computer systems fall into two categories. Insecure networks and devices allow some. Others result when users fall for some scam and thereby unwittingly facilitate malicious activity. Cybercriminals exploit both.

As more and more of our personal and professional information goes digital, hackers have more to gain. And as new technologies and safeguards emerge, attackers adapt to them quickly. The only thing preventing them from taking down banks, medical systems, and governments is a relatively small army of cyber security professionals.

“There’s a substantial demand for these professionals, and a considerable shortage of talent,” Jose Sierra, associate director of Northeastern University‘s Master of Science in Cyber Security program, said in a post on the school’s blog. That talent shortage (coupled with the growing number of opportunities for hackers to steal money or simply cause chaos) explains why cyber security experts command six-figure salaries right out of master’s degree programs or even bachelor’s degree programs.

Given that, you might be wondering whether you really need to go to graduate school to work in cyber security. In this article, we answer the question “is a master’s in cyber security worth it?” We’ll cover the following:

  • What is a master’s in cyber security?
  • Which schools have the best master’s in cyber security programs?
  • What do students in cyber security master’s degree programs study?
  • Which careers do people with this degree pursue?
  • What are the advantages of having a master’s degree in cyber security?
  • What kind of salary can I earn with a master’s in cyber security?
  • Are there alternatives to getting a master’s in cyber security?
  • What else do I need to know about pursuing a master’s degree in cyber security?
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What is a master’s in cyber security?

A master’s in cyber security is a category of advanced degrees typically designed for professionals who already work in IT or cyber security. Some have earned a BS in Cyber Security or a similar degree, while others just have experience in the field. The specific graduate degrees students pursue include the:

  • Master of Public Administration with a cyber security concentration
  • Master of Science in Applied Information Technology with a cyber security concentration
  • Master of Science in Computer Engineering with a cyber security concentration
  • Master of Science in Computer Information Systems & Cyber Security
  • Master of Science in Computer Science with a cyber security concentration
  • Master of Science in Cyber Security
  • Master of Science in Cyber Security Engineering
  • Master of Science in Cyber Security Management
  • Master of Science in Information Systems and Security Management
  • Master of Science in Security Informatics
  • Master of Science in Technology, Cyber Security and Policy
  • MBA with a cyber security concentration

All of these degree pathways prepare students to step into higher-level management roles. Graduates of the Master of Science in Computer and Information Systems Security program at Virginia Commonwealth University, for example, are qualified “to take on leadership positions, including as chief security officer, in computer and information systems security in organizations.” In these roles, professionals perform security tests, build more robust safeguards, analyze and detect potential intrusions, monitor security systems, and find ways to mitigate the risks associated with emerging threats. In the online Master of Science in Cyber Security at University of Tulsa, students “master the theory, concepts and techniques to defend the world’s most critical networks, protect invaluable private data and strengthen core infrastructure at top organizations.”

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“I’M INTERESTED IN CYBER SECURITY!”

In its 2022 Cybersecurity Workforce Study, (ISC) estimates the size of the the global cyber security workforce at 4.7 million. It also indicates that the current workforce is 3.4 million workers short. That’s over 3 million positions waiting to be filled by qualified cyber security experts (nearly half a million of them in North America alone). (source)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, top-paying employers in cyber security analytics include those in:

- Information services: $149,500
- Securities, commodity contracts, and other financial instruments: $142,000
- Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences: $129,000
- Scientific research and development services: $128,500
- Software publishers: $126,000
- Publishing: $125,700

The average salaries of professionals with a Master's degree are between $91,000 and $109,000, respectively. About half of all professionals in this field hold a graduate degree. (source)

University and Program Name Learn More

Which schools have the best master’s in cyber security programs?

Schools offering strong cyber security programs and offer degrees in this discipline at the master’s degree level include:

It’s worth looking into the best master’s in cyber security programs first because these are the ones where students get real-world, on-the-job experience and have opportunities to work with top experts in the field before graduation. These colleges and universities often also tend to have connections to government agencies and security firms that can open doors afterward. If you earn your master’s degree in cyber security from one of these schools, chances are good that you’ll get recruited soon after graduation.

What do students in cyber security master’s degree programs study?

Master’s degree programs in cyber security typically cover topics related to security technologies, best practices in cyber security, security planning, and risk assessment. Students take courses in

Keep in mind, however, that every school approaches this discipline differently. Some master’s in cyber security programs allow students to specialize in specific areas of cyber security by choosing a focus and selecting from among elective classes related to that focus. Other programs focus exclusively on fundamentals and don’t offer any concentration tracks. Some programs spend more time on programming and discrete probability and programs that devote more class time to digital forensics.

Cyber security master’s degree programs also come in many formats. The University of Tulsa, for example, offers an online Master of Science in Cyber Security, along with multiple on-campus offerings. There are thesis and non-thesis options, and even an accelerated Master of Science in Cyber Security that pairs undergraduate and graduate study so students can earn both degrees in less time.

That’s why you should always read program descriptions and course lists carefully before submitting applications. Enrolling in a master’s in cyber security program will only be worth it if that program supports your career goals.

Which careers do people with this degree pursue?

Given how much of our data is stored digitally—from our medical records to our bank statements—it should come as no surprise that master’s in cyber security graduates work in a broad range of fields and wear a broad range of hats. With a master’s in cyber security, you might become a:

You’ll find cyber security experts in technology and finance, as well as in industries like retail, entertainment, healthcare, travel, and manufacturing. Many assume that cyber security is primarily concerned with keeping people’s social security numbers and bank account information safe. However, this field is a lot bigger than the individuals who benefit from it. A well-timed cyberattack could cripple economic systems, take down governments, or even kill people.

What are the advantages of having a master’s degree in cyber security?

A cyber security master’s degree should make you more attractive to potential employers. While that may not matter as much today (given that there is still a talent shortage in the field), you can be confident that this field will grow increasingly competitive over time. Indeed recently listed nearly 4,000 open positions for cyber security professionals with a master’s degree. According to Fortune, “Graduates with a master’s degree in cyber security are reporting average salaries of $214,000.”

What kind of salary can I earn with a master’s in cyber security?

Salaries in cyber security are high—the average salary for cyber security jobs is almost $111,000—and having a master’s degree can give you the leverage you need to negotiate for the highest possible salaries.

More salary data:

In other words, with a master’s in cyber security in hand, your early- to mid-career earnings may look a lot like late-career salaries in many other areas of IT.

This might change as the cyber security workforce grows and employers have more applicants to choose from when hiring for open positions, but it wasn’t that long ago that there was a zero percent unemployment rate in the field. It will be some years before cyber security becomes a buyer’s market.

Are there alternatives to getting a master’s in cyber security?

There’s still plenty of debate in the IT world about whether a master’s in cyber security is worth it. That’s probably because many respected cyber security experts got where they are today with computer science bachelor’s degrees and/or IT security certifications. Some argue that it’s possible to advance in this field with nothing more than certifications like the:

These certifications can definitely help you advance in a cyber security career, but keep in mind that this isn’t an either/or calculation. A master’s degree in cyber security can’t replace certifications, but neither can certifications replace the value of a master’s degree—especially if you want to qualify for management-level positions.

Some master’s degree programs in cyber security even help students get certified. Master of Science in Information Security students at Carnegie Mellon University, for example, are able to earn a CyberOps certification without completing any additional coursework.

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What else do I need to know about pursuing a master’s degree in cyber security?

First and foremost, you need to know that earning a master’s in cyber security represents a starting point, not the end of your education. As technology changes, the threats to information security and our privacy will also change. To succeed in cyber security, you need to commit to a lifetime of learning, whether you ultimately make the decision to pursue a master’s degree or not.

More importantly, you need to know that a lot of cyber security positions go unfilled. According to the ISC2, the cyber security workforce gap reached 3.4 million in 2023. That’s a lot of jobs, which means it’s still a seller’s market. High salaries are still the norm in this field. Job security for capable cyber security professionals is all but guaranteed. And with the right experience, you might be able to get a job in cyber security management and then convince your employer to foot the bill for your master’s degree.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

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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