Cybersecurity

Switching Careers to Cybersecurity: Do You Need a Master’s Degree?

Switching Careers to Cybersecurity: Do You Need a Master’s Degree?
According to an industry report, the cybersecurity profession had a shortfall of over 3 million qualified professionals in 2023. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella April 26, 2021

You may not need a master's in cybersecurity to transition careers, but many employers prefer candidates with this credential. If you're looking for work in information security, network security, and cybersecurity management, this degree can help.

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If you’re thinking of transitioning to a cyber security career, you probably already know about the field’s substantial need for qualified professionals. In case you missed it: according to a study from (ISC)2, the cyber security workforce gap sat at 3.4 million in 2023.

That’s down from an astounding 4 million in 2019. Still, that’s a massive gap to fill. Clearly, companies and governments need qualified cyber security professionals who can step into technical and leadership roles.

Salaries for advanced cyber security professionals can reach well into six-figure territory, but these jobs typically require extensive training and experience. A master’s degree may help you land a high-level position, but can it help those attempting to earn their first cyber security job? The answer is yes, provided the field you’re moving from and the type of position you’re looking for check the right boxes.

Certifications, degree programs, self-learning: which is the path for you? This article breaks down the process of switching careers to cyber security: do you need a master’s degree? It also offers perspective on the best path for you. Topics include:

  • What is cyber security?
  • Cyber security careers
  • Do I need a master’s to advance in cyber security?
  • Cyber security master’s degrees
  • Should I get a master’s degree to switch careers to cyber security?

What is cyber security?

According to Ready.gov, “Cyber security involves preventing, detecting and responding to cyberattacks that can have wide-ranging effects on individuals, organizations, the community and at the national level.” The term covers several different types of security processes, including bolstering infrastructure and strengthening cloud, network, and application security.

Cyber security tasks range from designing computer architecture for an entire company to changing passwords and using a VPN. Because the field is so broad, careers for professionals with all kinds of technological backgrounds abound.

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Cyber security careers

According to (ISC)2, cyber security professionals primarily work in information technology (IT), but jobs also exist in:

  • Consulting
  • Education
  • Finance
  • Government
  • Healthcare
  • Manufacturing
  • Retail or wholesale

Job descriptions may be similar across these fields. However, many require specialized knowledge. For instance, professionals in healthcare likely need to know medical terminology and processes.

Top cyber security careers include:

Do I need a master’s to advance in cyber security?

You do not need a master’s to advance in cyber security, but having one can be extremely useful. How useful depends on your goals. Upper-level cyber security managers typically hold advanced degrees. CIS managers usually have a Master of Business Administration, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, though a cyber security-focused degree can also qualify you.

Keep in mind, a master’s isn’t the only qualification for upper-level positions. Your educational background and previous experience also factor into an employer’s hiring decision. Those looking to switch careers likely won’t reach one of these roles immediately.

Don’t discount the value of certifications in advancing a cyber security career. According to the (ISC)2 study, “Certificates are seen as critical to professional and career growth. This is one reason why many cyber security professionals earn multiple certifications throughout their careers.” The report indicates that 63 percent of all cyber security professionals are currently earning or considering a certification within the following year. According to global numbers, certified professionals traditionally make more than un-certified counterparts—$85,000 versus $67,000.

Certifications are an excellent way to strengthen specific areas of your skillset. For instance, you may earn one on the Cisco or Microsoft platform. Common certifications include:

Those looking to enter cyber security may benefit from completing an introductory bootcamp. These programs can teach fundamental skills like programming, basic cryptography, and computer forensics. Graduating from a bootcamp at a reputable school like The University of Texas at Austin may be all you need to launch a career.

Master’s programs typically build upon existing skills. A master’s can be worthwhile, even if you’ve completed a certificate or bootcamp. Many professionals have a master’s degree and certifications. To see how worthwhile, scan online job postings for cyber security professionals and count how many require or prefer candidates with master’s degrees.

Cyber security master’s degrees

Cyber security master’s degree programs can help you improve your skillset, earn more money, and qualify for better jobs.

But which master’s degree should you earn? There are numerous options. Which you choose can have a significant impact on your post-graduation career options.

The rest of this article summarizes popular cyber security degree paths. This article doesn’t address differences between on-campus, online, part-time, and full-time programs because schools typically use the same curriculum across program formats.

Standard admission requirements for all programs include submitting Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores, personal essays, undergraduate GPA and transcripts, and letters of recommendation. Finally, most accredited institutions require students to complete either a thesis or capstone project, though there are programs that have non-thesis tracks. Be sure to research each program before applying.

Master of Cyber Security (MS, MEng)

You can earn a Master of Science or Master of Engineering in cyber security; the degrees have slightly different focuses. Duke University offers a MEng that provides students with a combination of technical and leadership skills. Students take courses like:

  • Business Fundamentals for Engineers
  • Cyber Security in the Software Development Life Cycle
  • Cyber Security Risk Management

According to PayScale, potential careers for those with a cyber security MEng include:

  • Information security analyst
  • Security consultant
  • Senior systems engineer

In contrast, the University of Tulsa offers an MS program approved by the National Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Security. It teaches students to apply “concepts and techniques of information assurance and network defense in real-world environments.” Students complete courses like:

  • Hardware Security
  • Information Systems Assurance
  • Network Security Concepts and Applications

Potential careers include:

  • Operations manager
  • Risk manager
  • Security architect

Cyber security graduate degrees typically build on computer science principles, meaning a technical background is likely a prerequisite for applying to a reputable program.

Master of Computer Science

Cyber security is a computer science discipline, meaning that all cyber security professionals know computer science but not all computer science professionals know cyber security. Regardless, a master’s in computer science can prepare you for cyber security careers.

Computer science students at Tufts University, study:

  • Algorithms
  • Computer security
  • Networks and protocols

After graduation, students can pursue careers like:

  • Computer network architect
  • Information technology director
  • Senior solutions architect

Students can also pursue a concentration in subjects like:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Cyber security
  • Operating systems

Specializing in cyber security in a computer science program can help you qualify for many of the same positions as someone with a specialized master’s.

Master of Homeland Security

Though master’s in homeland security programs typically focus on preventing and planning for national emergencies or terror attacks, they can also lead to cyber security positions. Graduates from the Virginia Commonwealth University program can bring cyber security perspectives to jobs in law, law enforcement, and emergency response.

Homeland security core courses address more than cyber security. You’ll complete courses like:

  • Cyber Security Law and Policy
  • Government, Industry, and Strategic Planning
  • Institutional Challenges of Security Preparedness

Master of Information Systems

The Master of Science in Information Systems (MSIS) is an IT management degree.

Students at University of Washington – Seattle Campus “learn to inspect and protect information assets, detect internal and external threats, and design an information security architecture.” Relevant course titles include:

  • Cyber Security Policy, Management, and Compliance
  • Information Security in a Networked World
  • Managing Information Technology Projects

Potential jobs include:

  • Data warehouse engineer
  • Information technology director
  • Operations program manager

Not all IT master’s programs offer cyber security concentrations, so be sure to check before starting your application.

Master of Information Technology

Tulane University of Louisiana offers a Master of Science in Cyber Security Management through its information technology program. Students can also select a Master of Professional Studies in Information Technology Management, which allows students to complete cyber security certificates, including those for cyber defense and leadership.

Graduates can become leaders who handle both business and technical IT challenges. Students complete courses like:

  • IT Project Management
  • Security & Cyber Threats
  • The Business of IT

Students can also complete a three-course cyber security specialization, which “presents students with an in-depth exploration of enterprise security of networks and communications as well as cyber incident response and investigation.”

Master of Network Administration

Rochester Institute of Technology offers an MS in Networking and Systems Administration through which students learn about administering network security, scaling networks, and managing cloud systems. Having a background in network administration is great for cyber professionals.

Students take courses like:

  • Advanced Large-Scale Computing
  • Advanced OOP for Networking and Systems Admins
  • Enterprise Computing

Career outcomes may include:

  • Linux administrator
  • Network technician
  • System administrator

Master of Network Engineering

Not many schools offer a network engineering degree. Still, it’s a credential worth seeking out if you come to it with several years of experience in IT. Cyber security jobs requiring deep knowledge of network engineering principles are a good fit for candidates with this graduate degree.

Students at the Southern Methodist University Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE) program learn the latest software design strategy. The curriculum is lab-intensive and includes many hands-on exercises. Course titles include:

  • Network Protocols
  • Switching and Routing
  • TCP/IP Network Administration

Potential careers in network engineering include:

  • Cloud network engineer
  • Network architect
  • Principal network engineer

Master of Network Security

Master’s in cyber security programs are more common, but some schools do offer specific degrees in network security. SUNY Polytechnic Institute offers a network and computer security concentration as part of the school’s master’s in cyber security. Graduates qualify “for management and technical positions in the fields of cyber security research and IT security management.”

Courses include:

  • Advanced Network Protocols and Standards
  • Internet of Things Security
  • Network Administration

Network security is essentially just a title. Students complete much of the same coursework as traditional cyber security degrees and qualify for many of the same jobs.

Potential careers include:

  • Information security and risk specialist
  • Network security analyst
  • Security engineer

Master of Security Engineering

A Master of Cyber Security Engineering focuses on the technical aspects of cyber security rather than management. This program typically attracts experienced cyber security professionals or those with backgrounds in subjects like engineering or computer science.

University of San Diego students complete courses like:

  • Applied Cryptography
  • Digital Forensics and Incident Response
  • Secure Network Engineering

Though these MS programs usually target those looking to develop practical skills, that’s not always the case. University of Southern California offers a MS in cyber security engineering that prepares students for information security-focused doctoral degree programs plus computer network operation carers.

Potential careers include:

Should I get a master’s degree to switch careers to cyber security?

The answer is: it depends on your career goals and background. If you’re already working in computer science and want to specialize, a master’s in cyber security could be great.

Not having a relevant background can make changing careers a challenge, but it’s hardly impossible. Those looking to switch careers entirely should spend time getting comfortable with computer science fundamentals. That means learning programming languages, basic system administration, and protocols.

It also depends on what you want to do in cyber security; not every position requires technical skills. Having transferable soft skills can be your ticket to a cyber security management career without learning actual cyber operations like ethical hacking, penetration testing, or authentication processes, according to a blog post on the McAfee website. A homeland security degree may be best for professionals who want to work in cyber security but not on the technical side.

Don’t discount the power of certification at the beginning of your career. Certifications help experienced computer science professionals transition and allow novices to build their skillset and get a first job, according to the National Initiative for Cyber Security Careers and Studies (NICCS).

According to NICCS, certifications are much cheaper than earning a master’s degree, even at universities. You’ll also likely spend a few weeks or months studying rather than two years or more for a graduate degree. Georgetown University offers a 12-credit hour certificate program that takes between six and 12 months and costs under $18,000. SOme schools, such as University of Rhode Island, allow students to transfer credits from certificates to a master’s or PhD program.

You can also earn entry-level and advanced certifications through professional organizations like (ISC)2 and ISCA. Open coursework sites like Udemy, Coursera, and even Khan Academy offer training and certification options, which can be especially useful for those looking to start the field.

Also, check to see whether you qualify for a scholarship. Veterans may be able to reduce their education costs by taking advantage of the GI Bill. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA) and is one of the largest employers of cyber security professionals in the United States, offers to finance up to 36 months for a cyber security graduate degree, undergraduate degree, or training.

Every situation is different, but generally speaking, a master’s degree helps professionals further their careers rather than begin them. Those with minimal technical skills, or even though who are advanced, may first consider earning certifications to qualify themselves for a job change. After a few years of experience, a master’s degree may be more appealing.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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