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.
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.”
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). (
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. ( )
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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:
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.”
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 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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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