Switching Careers to Cybersecurity: Do You Need a Master's Degree?
November 13, 2022
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.
If you're thinking of transitioning to a cybersecurity career, you're probably already aware of the field's significant need for qualified professionals. In case you missed it: according to a study from (ISC)2, the cybersecurity workforce gap sat at 3.1 million in 2020. That's down from an astounding 4 million in 2019, but it's still a massive gap to fill. Clearly, companies and governments need qualified cybersecurity professionals who can step into technical and leadership roles.
Salaries for advanced cybersecurity 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 cybersecurity 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.
Those with technical backgrounds have an easier time transitioning than those in an unrelated career. Some professionals may even be better off self-studying and earning certifications. Still, you don't need the ability to build firewalls or sweep for security risks to get a top cybersecurity job. It takes all kinds of professionals to fight cybercrime.
Certifications, degree programs, self-learning: which is the path for you? This article breaks down the process of switching careers to cybersecurity: do you need a master's degree? and offers perspective on the best path for you. Topics include:
- What is cybersecurity?
- Cybersecurity careers
- Do I need a master's to advance in cybersecurity?
- Cybersecurity master's degrees
- Should I get a master's degree to switch careers to cybersecurity?
What is cybersecurity?
According to Ready.gov, "Cybersecurity 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 changing infrastructure—meaning actual technology—and strengthening cloud, network, and application security.
Cybersecurity 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.
According to (ISC)2, cybersecurity professionals primarily work in information technology (IT), but jobs also exist in:
- 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 cybersecurity careers include:
- Chief information security officer
- Computer and information systems (CIS) manager
- Cybersecurity architect
- Cybersecurity consultant
- Cybersecurity director
- Information security analyst
- Information systems security manager
- IT director
Do I need a master's to advance in cybersecurity?
You do not need a master's to advance in cybersecurity, but having one can be extremely useful. How useful depends on your goals. Upper-level cybersecurity managers typically hold advanced degrees. CIS managers usually have a Master of Business Administration, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, though a cybersecurity-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 cybersecurity career. According to the (ISC)2 study, "Certificates are seen as critical to professional and career growth. This is one reason why many cybersecurity professionals earn multiple certifications throughout their careers." The report indicates that 63 percent of all cybersecurity 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:
Certifications are an excellent option for professionals who already have a strong computer science background and are trying to hone their skillsets without earning a formal degree.
Those looking to try cybersecurity may benefit from completing an introductory bootcamp. These programs can teach fundamental skills like programming, basic cryptography, and computer forensics. They can prepare you for your first job or to transition into a more advanced program. 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 cybersecurity professionals and count how many require or prefer candidates with master's degrees.
Cybersecurity master's degrees
Cybersecurity master's degree programs can help you improve your skillset, earn more money, and qualify for better jobs. Earning a cybersecurity master's isn't that simple, however. There are many degree options. Which you choose can have a significant impact on your post-graduation career options.
The rest of this article summarizes popular cybersecurity 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 for multiple 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 Cybersecurity (MS, MEng)
You can earn a Master of Science or Master of Engineering in cybersecurity; 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
- Cybersecurity in the Software Development Life Cycle
- Cybersecurity Risk Management
According to PayScale, potential careers for those with a cybersecurity MEng include:
- Information security analyst
- Security consultant
- Senior systems engineer
In contrast, the University of Tulsa offers an MS program that is designated as National Center for Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity and 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
Cybersecurity 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
Cybersecurity is a computer science dicipline, meaning that all cybersecurity professionals know computer science but not all computer science professionals know cybersecurity. Regardless, a master's in computer science can prepare you for cybersecurity careers.
Computer science students at Tufts University, study:
- 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
- Operating systems
Specializing in cybersecurity 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 they typically focus on preventing and planning for national emergencies or terror attacks, a master's in homeland security can also lead to cybersecurity positions. Graduates from the Virginia Commonwealth University program can bring cybersecurity perspectives to jobs in law, law enforcement, and emergency response.
Homeland security core courses address more than cybersecurity. You'll complete courses like:
- Cybersecurity 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:
- Cybersecurity 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 cybersecurity concentrations, so be sure to check before starting your application.
Master of Information Technology
Tulane University of Louisiana offers a Master of Science in Cybersecurity Management through its information technology program. Students can also select a Master of Professional Studies in Information Technology Management, which allows students to complete cybersecurity 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 cybersecurity specialization, which "presents students with an in-depth exploration of enterprise security of networks and communications as well as cyber incident response and investigation."
Potential careers for those with a master's in IT include:
- Data scientist
- Information security analyst
- IT manager
Schools may combine information systems and information technology into one program. Claremont Graduate University offers an MS in Information Systems & Technology. Though it has a slightly different title, this program attracts students with similar career goals.
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. Cybersecurity 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 cybersecurity 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 cybersecurity. Graduates qualify "for management and technical positions in the fields of cybersecurity research and IT security management."
- 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 cybersecurity 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 cybersecurity engineering focuses on the technical aspects of cybersecurity rather than management. This program typically attracts experienced cybersecurity 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 cybersecurity engineering that prepares students for information security-focused doctoral degree programs plus computer network operation carers.
Potential careers include:
- Computer architect
- Computer engineer
- Software developer
Should I get a master's degree to switch careers to cybersecurity?
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 cybersecurity 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 cybersecurity; not every position requires technical skills. Having transferable soft skills can be your ticket to a cybersecurity 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 cybersecurity 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 Cybersecurity 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 cybersecurity professionals in the United States, offers to finance up to 36 months for a cybersecurity 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.
Questions or feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org