Online Cybersecurity Certificate Programs: What to Expect

Online Cybersecurity Certificate Programs: What to Expect
Cybersecurity experts come from many backgrounds and reach their career goals via certifications, degree programs, and/or on-the-job training. Image from Unsplash
Angela Miller profile
Angela Miller August 22, 2022

Cybersecurity professionals protect online networks and the sensitive information they store from cybercriminals. Certificate programs teach essential up-to-date skills and applications.

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Cybersecurity is having a moment. Rising rates of cybercrime have fueled an increased demand for professionals in the field, creating 715,000 unfilled U.S. cybersecurity jobs, according to Emsi Burning Glass. Noting 33 percent growth in the job market between 2020 and 2030 (a rate five times higher than the overall job market growth rate), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks information security analyst among the 20 fastest-growing jobs in the country.

Cybersecurity experts come from many backgrounds and reach their career goals via certifications, degree programs, and/or on-the-job training. So, what’s the difference between a cybersecurity master’s degree and a certification? The differences primarily boil down to program cost, curriculum, and length. In this article, we explore those differences. We also discuss what you can expect from a cybersecurity certificate program.

Master’s degrees vs. certifications

A master’s degree can take between two to five years to complete. In contrast, earning a certification may require several days, weeks, or months. Certifications typically offer a more cost-effective option at hundreds or several thousand dollars; master’s degrees typically cost tens of thousands of dollars.

That’s not to denigrate master’s degrees. Those seeking an in-depth understanding of cybersecurity, a grounding across all cybersecurity fundamentals, and a strong theoretical foundation will probably be better served by a graduate degree. Those looking to hone specific skills or learn specific applications, on the other hand, should look into certifications.

In a July 2022 article published in Fortune, Steve Morgan, founder of Cybersecurity Ventures said: “Too many people are scared away from our field when they hear associations saying that you need a master’s degree or other qualifications… for most positions in our field. While some portion of cyber workers in highly technical positions or executive roles may have a master’s degree, that is not true for the bulk of people employed in our field.”


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Why get a cybersecurity certification?

Accenture’s State of Cybersecurity Resilience report estimates that the number of cyber attacks rose by 31 percent between 2020 and 2021. IBM’s Cost of a Data Breach study reports that a single data breach can cost a company millions of dollars.

Too long, didn’t read? In short: cybercrime is a serious problem.

Standing out in a competitive job market requires more than a top-notch resume and relevant professional experience. According to CompTIA, 97 percent of employers look for certifications in potential IT hires.

A cybersecurity certification can help you:

  • Upskill for career growth. With additional qualifications and experience provided by a certificate program, you may qualify for more advanced cybersecurity positions. You might also use certification to negotiate a raise or promotion.
  • Transition to a new career. Certifications offer a simple path to gaining the skills and foundational knowledge needed to pivot into the cybersecurity field.
  • Expand your professional network. Connect with your peers and industry experts. Certification courses provide opportunities to bounce ideas off your classmates and collaboratively solve problems in real time. When you broaden your network, you also expose yourself to more professional opportunities.
  • Prove your commitment to the field. Employers not only seek candidates who hold relevant cybersecurity skills and expertise, but they also look for those with initiative and the drive to continue learning. Certifications offer a great way to signal your commitment to the field.
  • Set yourself apart from other candidates. The right credential can make you more attractive to both recruiters and hiring managers. It also mitigates risk for hiring managers since your skills have been validated by a third party.
  • Validate your knowledge of best practices. Because cybersecurity is an ever-evolving field, it requires adaptable professionals who remain abreast of current trends. Whether you’re a seasoned professional or launching a new career, certifications offer a convenient way to keep your skill set fresh.

Nick Schneider, CEO of cybersecurity firm Arctic Wolf, recently told Fortune that cybersecurity is “ evolving at an exponential rate,” requiring “a chameleon-like mindset to roll with the punches.” Schneider added that “a specific degree might be nice to have” but “the threat landscape is the wild west where hands-on, real-world experience is critical.”

Can I get my cybersecurity certification online?

Yes! The good news? There’s no shortage of online cybersecurity certification programs. The bad news? There’s no shortage of online cybersecurity certification programs. That can complicate your search.

The National Initiative for Cybersecurity Careers and Studies (NICCS) offers a comprehensive list of well-known industry cybersecurity certifications. Once you find the program that fits your needs, use their interactive map and filters to find relevant providers. You can sort by delivery mode, proficiency level, and location. Most programs offer several online delivery options.

Online cybersecurity certification courses: What to expect

Online cybersecurity certificate programs allow you to learn and complete coursework from anywhere, and they’re flexible enough to be self-directed and completed on your own time. Because many cybersecurity tasks are performed remotely, online certification programs offer a natural progression into the field. Learning how to solve common cybersecurity issues in an online modality translates well to the modern workspace.

Online cybersecurity certification courses offer similar experiences to those you’d encounter in an on-campus environment. You’ll tackle various forms of coursework and assessments, including:

  • Analyzing data
  • Solving complex problems
  • Participating in discussion boards
  • Engaging in virtual lab assignments
  • Delving into real-world case studies
  • Applying various security principles and practices
  • Communicating through written reports and presentations

Some lab assignments may even include “virtual machines,” a simulation of a machine or computer where you can solve problems in real time. Practical skills are critical in any cybersecurity program. A key difference between many cybersecurity degree programs and certifications lies in an emphasis on the theoretical versus the practical.

What will I learn in a certification program?

Cybersecurity certification programs are not one-size-fits-all. It can be overwhelming trying to decide which specialization to pursue. Are you interested in app and data security? How about compliance? Safeguarding computer networks? Or is cloud security more your thing? Zeroing in on a single area of focus can show hiring managers where specifically you can make an impact.

Check out the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) Framework to get a rundown of the tasks, knowledge, and skills that are needed to perform varying cybersecurity tasks.

Topics covered can include, but are not limited to, cryptography; cybercrime investigations; cyberdefense; digital forensics; network security and protocols; penetration testing; web communication security; governance and management of information technology; information assurance; information systems operations; protecting information assets; and acquisition, development, and implementation of information systems.

High-demand certifications include:

  • Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA): Prepares you to explore Cisco networks and security.
  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP): Demonstrates that you’re experienced in IT security and capable of designing, implementing, and monitoring a cybersecurity program.
  • Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA): Provides the skills needed to assess security vulnerabilities, design and implement controls, and report on compliance.
  • Certified Information Security Manager (CISM): Teaches you how to manage the risks in security infrastructure.
  • Control Objectives for Information and Related Technologies (COBIT): Equips you with foundational knowledge about the governance surrounding security.
  • Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH): Covers the skills needed to ethically hack a computer system. This certification demonstrates your abilities in penetration testing, attack detection, vectors, and prevention.
  • CompTIA Security+: Offers the foundation to assess the security of an organization, as well as monitor and secure cloud, mobile, and internet of things (IoT) environments.
  • GIAC Security Essentials Certification (GSEC): Builds your skills in security tasks like active defense, network security, cryptography, incident response, and cloud security.

Some university cybersecurity certificate programs offer programs relevant to specific industries. San Diego State University’s Cyber Tech Academy, for instance, offers specialized training in the form of four 14-week certification options including Cyber Security in Healthcare, Securing the Nation and Enterprises with Artificial Intelligence, Cloud Security and Governance, and Cyber Governance and Risk Management.

How long do certification programs take to complete?

Some online cybersecurity certificate programs can be completed in as few as one semester. Some can be completed in a matter of days, weeks, months, or as long as a year or two. Bottom line? Certification programs typically span a much shorter timeframe than bachelor’s or master’s degree programs.

How many certifications do cybersecurity professionals get?

There are hundreds of cybersecurity certifications available, from entry-level and advanced to general and vendor-specific, like those offered by IBM. Depending upon your area of interest and career goals, there are many paths to take when it comes to choosing the right program.

Professionals may choose to earn multiple certifications to diversify their skill sets or to address varying employer needs.

Should I get an online cybersecurity certification?

This is a decision only you can make. Consider your desired timeline, career goals, program cost and financial aid, admissions requirements, and the potential to further your education down the line.

Certifications can be an efficient option for working professionals and those juggling competing priorities. They’re generally more affordable than degree programs and have more lenient admissions requirements. They’re also ideal for specialized training options.

According to (ISC)2, certified cybersecurity professionals earn $33,000 more annually than their uncertified peers.

The value you’ll add

Now that you know what you’re getting into with an online cybersecurity certificate program, consider the impact you can make. Cybersecurity is vital and important work. When you gain the tools to successfully identify threats and mitigate risk, you’re providing exponential value to an organization, positioning yourself as a true asset.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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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: CybersecurityInformation Technology & Engineering