You'll study everything from network and hardware protection to cyber law and personnel management in a cyber security program.
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Lucien Formichella
Noodle Expert Member

November 05, 2021

As the need for cyber security increases, jobs and educational opportunities in the field grow. If you're thinking of pursuing a cyber security degree, here's a rundown of what you'll likely study.

As computer crimes like the Sunburst hack become more common, the need for effective countermeasures increases. That need is unlikely to be met any time soon: the number of unfilled cyber security jobs is currently in the millions.

With high salaries and a low (very low) unemployment rate, cyber security is one of the best career options available today. Now is the optimal time to earn a degree.

There is, of course, a catch. Effectively confronting online security issues requires expertise. It's a complex subject to master, which is why there's a shortage of cyber security professionals.

Cyber security is a computer science specialization, meaning students who begin an undergraduate degree—if they can find one in cyber security—sometimes don't finish; dropout rates in computer science programs are not insignificant. Understanding what you'll learn in a cyber security curriculum—on a bachelor's and graduate-level—can help you gauge whether this career path is right for you.

This article explores these questions by discussing:

  • Who typically gets a cyber security degree?
  • What will you learn in a cyber security program?
  • Best cyber security master's programs
  • Best online cyber security master's programs
  • Least expensive online cyber security master's programs

Who typically gets a cyber security degree?

This article focuses on cyber security bachelor's and master's degrees, but there are other ways to learn the subject, including earning a PhD or postgraduate certificate.

While not as common as cyber security master's programs, there are excellent undergraduate cyber security degrees available, which can lead to great job opportunities. Though bachelor's students have less experience than master's students, top bachelor's programs typically look for students with an existing foundation—especially in advanced math and programming. Extracurricular experience in a club like FIRST Robotics can be helpful.

The typical master's program student has two or three years of experience in cyber security or a related computer science field such as information technology. Completing a cyber security master's is an excellent way to continue your previous education, or—for those with a general computer science background—specialize.

Earning a master's degree typically leads to better jobs than a bachelor's, but it's also more expensive, time-consuming, and has higher admissions standards. If you're serious about a long-term career in cyber security, you will likely find that the benefits of a master's degree far outweigh the drawbacks.

Cyber security professionals can work for private companies or government agencies like:

Cyber security bachelor's degree

Common early career cyber security jobs include:

According to PayScale, the average annual salary for someone with a bachelor's in computer science is around $70,000.

Cyber security master's degree

Top jobs that a master's in cyber security qualify you for include:

  • Cyber security consultant
  • Cyber security director
  • Information security officer
  • Software security engineer

According to PayScale, the average salary for those with a master's in cyber security is slightly under $90,000. However, top-paying jobs can easily supersede that average; for example, software security engineers typically earn over $140,000.

What will you learn in a cyber security program?

Cyber security programs help students develop and refine protection and response methodologies. Graduate programs can allow students to specialize in an area of cyber security, such as digital forensics.

The following hypothetical curriculum utilizes course titles from the University of Tulsa Master of Science in Cyber Security, which represents common subject material, including select elective courses. Most programs also require students to complete either a capstone or thesis project.

Sample job titles in this section were primarily identified on Indeed and may require skills beyond those discussed here.

Defensive Cyber Security Technologies

To mitigate risk, cyber security students learn about defensive technologies and strategies, such as:

  • Backup disaster recovery
  • Encryption
  • Network diversification and VPNs
  • Risk profiling
  • Two-factor authentication

Coursework in the University of Arizona bachelor's in cyber security includes education on intrusion detection, incident response, and an "introduction to the policies, techniques, and operational capabilities and limitations involved in implementing defensible network architectures."

Master's coursework at the University of Tulsa focuses on "security frameworks and documented best practices" and allows students to familiarize themselves with current technology.

Understanding defensive technology is integral to working in the field of cyber security. Jobs include:

  • Cyber defense manager
  • Incident responder
  • Information system security professional

Information Systems Assurance

Information assurance is the process of mitigating data risk; it's one of cyber security's main focuses.

Drexel University students complete an information assurance course in the school's bachelor's degree in information systems. The course "provides an overview of threats, both human and computer, to the security of an organization's data and information resources."

Most master's programs cover information systems assurance, though in different capacities. New York University students learn about information security, why it's so important, and how to "integrate it into the systems-design process and life-cycle security management of information systems."

Information assurance essentially translates to data protection. It's useful in jobs like

  • Information assurance engineer
  • Information security manager
  • Systems engineer

Those who are especially interested in the subject may want to research a master's in information systems.

System Security and Cryptography

The definition of system security is self-explanatory—keep systems (and the data they house) secure. Working in this field involves navigating technical, legal and societal hurdles. Cryptography ensures secure information transmission. Both subjects revolve around privacy and are essential to cyber security, given how much daily activity takes place over the internet, including functions like autosaving passwords or buying shoes.

Undergraduates in the The University of Texas at Austin cybersecurity concentration take Network Security and Privacy, which offers instruction on combating cyber threats to software systems (think of malware). Students also complete a cryptography course, which offers math and algorithm-focused approaches to data security.

University of California - Berkeley MS students learn about "mathematical and practical foundations of cryptography" in a course called Cryptography for Cyber and Network Security, which also delves into individual cryptosystems and advanced topics.

Jobs requiring cryptography and security knowledge include:

  • Blockchain software engineer
  • Information assurance engineer
  • Security engineer

Security Audit and Penetration Testing

It's essential to monitor and evaluate defense systems continuously with methods like security auditing and penetration testing. These functions can help anticipate attacks and make sure the system works. Ethical hacking is another term for the process.

You may not specifically study penetration testing or security auditing in a cyber security bachelor's program, though programming or system security courses can prepare you for the role. You may also complete a certificate or professional education program, such as the one at Georgia Institute of Technology - Main Campus. These courses typically attract working professionals.

At the master's level, University of Dallas students engage in every facet of penetration testing and vulnerability assessment, including researching, hacking, and reporting findings.

Jobs that involve ethical hacking include:

  • Application security engineer
  • Software reverse engineer
  • Penetration tester

Cybersecurity Law and Policy

Cyber security law is an important and murky part of the industry. Major questions persist, e.g., should tech companies be allowed to sell user data? In Europe, the right to be forgotten case has impacted the entire field of computer science. Cyber security professionals need knowledge of laws regarding privacy and fighting attacks.

Most bachelor's programs offer a cyber law course. Students at St. John's University get an introduction to legal and ethical practices in the industry.

In addition to coursework, many schools offer cyber law-focused degrees. Students in the Boston College M.S. Cybersecurity Policy and Governance learn how to create strategies, translate technical language, and communicate with employers, investors, and government agents.

An understanding of cyber law can be helful in several careers, but common professions include:

  • Attorney
  • Lecturer
  • Director of incident response

These jobs may require education outside the cyber security field.

Network Security Concepts and Applications

VPNs, packet switching, and network architecture are significant aspects of network security. Understanding this field is essential for practically every cyber security job.

Bachelor's programs typically focus on establishing network skills. The Georgia Tech Information Internetworks specialty includes coursework on computer architecture and information security. Even if you don't attend a cyber security-focused bachelor's, it's possible to lay a strong foundation in network security.

In a master's program, students can hone their focus. The Berkeley Network Security course addresses "network programming in a language of the student's choice, understanding and analyzing packet traces using tools like Wireshark and Mitmproxy, as well as applying security principles to analyze and determine network security."

Relevant jobs include:

  • Cyber defense analyst
  • Information security engineer
  • Network security analyst

Secure System Administration

System administration is the process that keeps companies running. Modern system administrators commonly work in cloud computing, making security a premium.

You likely won't focus exclusively on system administration in a bachelor's program, though St. John's University offers Management of Information Security and Network Security.

Students at the University of Tulsa who take Secure System Administration study "accepted best practices and guidelines to secure information systems and networks. Detection of abnormal events, intrusion detection, incident handling, response, and recovery. Security policies, system configuration, integration, and maintenance."

Jobs that require systems security knowledge include:

  • Cybersecurity engineer
  • Information system security professional
  • Systems engineer

Hardware Security

Hardware security, which involves making the hardware of a device difficult to attack, is becoming increasingly important, even though it seems like everything is in the cloud. Examples include tamper pins, crypto acceleration, and memory encryption. Cyber security jobs frequently require hardware and software security knowledge.

Graduate students are more likely to complete coursework in hardware security than undergraduates. Even then, it's not always listed as a course. If you really want to focus on the subject, earning a postgraduate certificate or engaging in self-learning may be the way to go. University of Florida offers a Hardware and System Security Certificate designed for graduate students, which requires a bachelor's in a degree like electrical or computer engineering. It's also a common research subject, at institutions like the Carnegie Mellon University CyLab.

Jobs that may require a hardware security background include:

  • Principal cyber security engineer
  • Cybersecurity research engineer
  • Offensive hardware security researcher

Organizational Cyber Security

Everybody has to take steps to ensure cyber security, not just those who design and maintain operating systems. Having a password is of little use if it's just "passw00rd." Cyber professionals who can communicate the importance of security to non-computer oriented people are valuable.

Like hardware security, this is a more niche role, especially if you're a liaison to upper management or regulatory bodies. Undergraduates may want to focus on establishing their cyber security and basic computer science skills. For graduate students, the Boston College cybersecurity policy and governance degree can help students begin their careers.

If you want to focus on organizational cyber security, having an interdisciplinary background can be useful. A business degree may serve those looking for a management position. Baylor University offers a Master of Business Administration with a cyber security concentration.

Relevant jobs may include:

  • Cyber risk analyst
  • Cyber security consultant
  • Director of security compliance

Best cyber security master's programs

Top master's in cyber security programs include:

Remember, there's no such thing as "the best" cyber security school. Much of where you go depends on personal fit.

Best online cyber security master's programs

Top schools with online programs include:

Least expensive online cyber security master's programs

Completing a master's can be expensive, but there are affordable options. Accredited online programs that charge under $1,000 per credit include:

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