Emergency Management

Should You Get a Master’s Degree in Homeland Security?

Should You Get a Master’s Degree in Homeland Security?
Master's in homeland security degree programs are relatively new; the first ones were established about 20 years ago. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella November 27, 2022

A degree in homeland security can help graduates begin or advance their careers in many sectors, including criminal justice, emergency management, and cybersecurity.

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Created in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) today encompasses 22 different federal departments and agencies. Its responsibilities extend far beyond counterterrorism; DHS professionals work in infrastructure protection, disaster mitigation, public policy, and more.

Government agencies falling under the DHS umbrella include the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), United States Secret Service (USSS), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), U.s. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD). These agencies employ nearly 250,000 people. Homeland security professionals also work for the military and private companies; many receive government contracts.

Homeland security is a massive industry. In 2022, the DHS managed a budget of over $185 billion. Spending went primarily to FEMA ($90 billion), customs and border protection ($25 billion), the Coast Guard ($19 billion), immigration and customs ($10 billion), and the TSA (10 billion).

When used wisely, spending in this area delivers a substantial return. According to 2018 FEMA statistics, the federal government saves $6 for every $1 it spends to mitigate natural disasters.

The DHS also dedicates resources to improve homeland security education. It offers scholarships and other programs in many sectors, including cybersecurity, health and science, criminal justice, and law enforcement to help people start or advance their careers. Students also pursue homeland security bachelor’s degrees and graduate degrees. The DHS works directly with several schools across the country.

This article focuses on answering the question should you get a master’s degree in homeland security? It covers:

  • Reasons to get a master’s in homeland security
  • What training do you need to advance your homeland security

Reasons to get a master’s in homeland security

This article covers many viable reasons to earn a master’s in homeland security.

Numerous career options

It should be clear from the sheer number of places you can work with a master’s in homeland security that the field offers numerous career paths across many specializations.

A homeland security master’s can help first responders, including police officers and firefighters, improve their rank. Fire chiefs and police captains often hold a master’s—both jobs require planning, financial decision-making, and leadership skills. Secret service members and FBI agents often have a master’s degree.

Emergency management director and other high-level emergency management positions also frequently require a master’s degree. These professionals plan for and respond to public safety issues, including natural disasters like hurricanes and floods and human-caused disasters like nuclear reactor meltdowns. They often lead teams and collaborate with local and federal leaders.

Cyber attacks represent a growing threat to national security; government and private organizations require cyber security experts to perform essential tasks like conduct risk assessments and improve network infrastructure. According to the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Careers and Studies, the need for cybersecurity professionals is outpacing the general job market by 12 fold. In 2022, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency oversaw a $3 billion budget.

Keep in mind a master’s in homeland security isn’t the only (or even most common) higher education degree for people in this field. An information technology supervisor specializing in cybersecurity may pursue IT certifications or a data science master’s degree. An emergency management organizer specializing in infectious diseases may pick a public health master’s. Finally, graduate education is a valuable qualification but cannot fully replace experience; top homeland security professionals have copious work experience.

Good pay

What you earn depends on experience, where you live, and education level. PayScale reports that police captains earn an average salary of over $80,000 nationally. A New York Police Department (NYPD) captain earns closer to $185,000 per year, according to the same salary reporting website. Glassdoor says a cybersecurity manager in the federal government makes over $130,000 annually. A master’s can help experienced professionals reach both of these positions.

If you work for the federal government, you’ll likely earn raises and bonuses on either the Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) or General Schedule (GS) scale. The government determines salary using a rubric based on experience and education, then adjusts pay rates to match the cost of living in the employee’s area. An emergency management director at a G13 pay grade earns between $106,823 and $138,868 per year.

The security of government work

Federal employees benefit from excellent job security; they stay largely insulated from the massive layoffs private sector workers can face during economic downturns. Firing a federal employee for poor performance is a lengthy process that requires extensive documentation.

Government workers receive excellent benefits. Packages can include student loan forgiveness, health insurance (including dental and vision), child care subsidies, professional development opportunities, elder care, maternity and paternity leave, life insurance, retirement pension, and paid holidays.

Private sector options

Many private-sector homeland security opportunities are tied to the government. The defense company Northrop Grumman, for example, recently received a contract worth potentailly more than $3 billion to design ground defense systems. On the intelligence front, the DHS engages in a public-private analytic exchange program in which analysts from both sectors join forces. Cybersecurity has an especially high crossover rate, because large companies require the sort of experts who work for the government.

Finally, retired government workers can transition to the private sector. A homeland security background may qualify you for the position of security director at a hospital or university. Salary.com indicates that these professionals earn an average of almost $220,000 per year.


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What training do you need to advance your homeland security career?

A master’s in homeland security may provide one component of your skills and knowledge portfolio. You may want or require other credentials. The NYPD offers several continuing education opportunities for officers. Information security certifications help cybersecurity professionals bolster their skillsets. The DHS itself offers coursework in areas like firearm management, maritime safety, private sector security, and public health.

Before you earn a master’s, carefully research how it can advance your career goals. If you do decide to pursue this degree program, here’s what to expect.

What is a master’s in homeland security?

Master’s in homeland security degree programs are relatively new; the first ones were established about 20 years ago. Students can choose between in-person and online programs like the Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness at Virginia Commonwealth University. Schools offer homeland security programs in either a Master of Arts or Master of Science format; which degree you earn depends on how the university you attend classifies the department offering it.

The two main homeland security graduate program classifications are master’s in emergency managment and master’s in homeland security. Emergency management students focus more on disaster preparedness, while homeland security students focus more on counterterrorism.

The Naval Postgraduate School offers the best-known homeland security program. Admissions requirements include several years of relevant work experience, usually in the federal government or military. Prospective students must currently work at a government (including state, local, and tribal) agency or a branch of the military (or National Guard) in a homeland security position. Other programs, such as VCU’s online master’s degree, are open to career changers.

Naval Postgraduate students learn about homeland security threats and the proper technology and planning strategies to mitigate them. The program includes a capstone project in which students apply their learning to a real-world scenario. The school does not offer electives. Many other homeland security programs base their curricula on the Postgraduate School’s.

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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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