What Is a Homeland Security Degree? [Complete Guide]
April 23, 2021
Earning a master's degree in homeland security can qualify you for leadership positions in fields like emergency management, criminal justice, and counterterrorism in both the government and private sectors.
Over 240,000 people work for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its agencies, making it the third-largest department in the federal government (trailing only defense and veterans affairs). According to its website, the department pursues six core goals:
- Enforcing and administering immigration laws
- Preventing terrorism and enhancing security
- Safeguarding and securing cyberspace
- Securing and managing US borders
- Strengthening national preparedness and resilience
- Sustaining, strengthening, and maturing the DHS
These are lofty, open-ended objectives requiring a capable, well-trained workforce. Having the largest defense budget in the world is nice, but it takes more than money to keep the nation safe. That's where homeland security degree-holders come in.
A master's in homeland security is a graduate degree that helps professionals land leadership roles in emergency response planning and coordination, policymaking, training, and more. It can also lead to boots-on-the-ground positions in counterterrorism, criminal justice, and disaster response.
Beyond the federal government, there's a need for trained homeland security professionals at state and local levels, typically in emergency response and local law enforcement agencies. You may even find work in the private sector with this degree.
So, what is a homeland security degree? It depends on your career goals and experience. Read on to learn about one of the few degrees where a fire chief can share a classroom with a recent college graduate. This complete guide covers:
- What is homeland security?
- What is a master's in homeland security?
- On-campus vs. online master's in homeland security programs
- What can you do with a homeland security degree
- Top homeland security master's programs
- Top online homeland security master's programs
What is homeland security?
Homeland security means preventing threats to the nation, making its mission relatively open-ended. Beyond counterterrorism measures, homeland security professionals prepare for and respond to environmental disasters and cybercrime. The DHS is comprised of 22 agencies, including:
- Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
- Office of Intelligence and Analysis
- Office of Operations Coordination
- Science and Technology Directorate
- Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
- United States Coast Guard (USCG)
- United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
- United States Secret Service (USSS)
Homeland security policy is influenced by congressional acts, such as policies to combine agencies or detain refugees at the southern border, and leaders within the DHS, who work to allocate resources and implement new plans.
Local institutions also implement homeland security measures. Law enforcement agencies and fire departments often send high-ranking officers, or those with high potential, to master's programs to learn how to improve practices and preparedness. A local fire department leader may use their homeland security knowledge to develop a better communication system and upgrade response time.
Not all homeland security policies are universally embraced by the public. Much has been written about the way ICE and border patrol agents treat detainees, with reported incidents of child abuse and forced hysterectomies. Politicians on both sides of the divide have agreed to examine the use of deadly force among police officers and the use of excessive force during peaceful protests. Changes to policy and leadership are necessary. Homeland security degree programs address these (now and in the future).
What is a master's in homeland security?
Like most master's programs, homeland security degrees typically take one or two years to complete and are designed for students with relevant work experience. These programs can be highly specialized, attracting students with well-defined career goals and advanced backgrounds.
The purpose of a master's in homeland security degrees is to develop better leaders, especially in emergency preparedness and threat response. Homeland security programs give students the tools to implement ideas for institutions.
According to its website, graduates from the Naval Postgraduate School "help mayors, governors, other elected officials and federal leaders improve homeland security preparedness by developing actionable policies and strategies." They can work to develop plans for an individual event like a large parade or at an organizational level, perhaps reorganizing an entire department.
The homeland security umbrella covers several degrees, each with different purposes. For instance, the Master of Science in Emergency Management and Master of Science in Homeland Security are both homeland security programs, but with different scopes.
Emergency management degrees usually prepare graduates for natural disaster planning and response, including risk assessment, rather than counterterrorism. Some programs, such as the Virginia Commonwealth University Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, cover both fields.
Other degrees under the umbrella include:
- Homeland Security Master of Professional Studies
- Master of Professional Studies in Homeland Security and Criminal Justice Leadership
- Master of Science in Emergency Preparedness
- Master of Science in Emergency Service Administration
- Master of Science in Disaster Medicine and Management
Homeland security may also be available as a concentration in another graduate program. For instance, George Mason University university offers a Master of Public Administration with an Emergency Management and Homeland Security Concentration. Students in this program complete policy management and implementation education with a focus on homeland security.
Admissions requirements depend on the school. Like most graduate programs, you'll need to submit undergraduate transcripts, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, and personal statements. Work experience can be essential for applying to a homeland security program—more so than other programs. However, the spectrum is broad, and not every school requires prior professional experience.
Pennsylvania State University - World Campus requires applicants to have two or more years of experience, while VCU considers recent graduates from a bachelor's program. Tulane University of Louisiana does not list any work experience requirements. Neither does American University. AU does put a strong emphasis on the personal statement, which must demonstrate a "serious commitment" to the field.
University of Alaska Fairbanks requires applicants without prior work experience to take the prerequisite course "Principles of Emergency Management and Homeland Security." Those who didn't earn a degree from the University of Alaska emergency management undergraduate program must also complete:
- Emergency Planning and Preparedness
- Community Planning
Just because a program doesn't require experience doesn't mean you should apply right away—students often self-select. Applicants commonly gain several years of experience before deciding to commit to a program. According to the Naval Postgraduate school, "most students in the program are experienced or fast-rising state, local, tribal, territorial or federal officials."
Homeland security degrees commonly require risk assessment coursework across multiple disciplines, including terrorism, natural disaster response, and cybersecurity. You'll also likely take courses in ethics, law, and public policy.
Applicants usually have established backgrounds and defined career goals; many seek specialized training. Common concentration options include:
- Cybersecurity policy
- Emergency management
- Information security
- Public health preparedness
Students complete concentrate-specific coursework in addition to core program requirements. For instance, Northeastern University students in the port security concentration complete maritime and aviation security courses, which emergency management students don't take—they focus instead on budgeting and critical infrastructure.
The Naval Postgraduate School curriculum serves as the framework for many other programs. Course titles include:
- Comparative Government for Homeland Security
- Critical Infrastructure: Vulnerability Analysis and Protection
- Intelligence for Homeland Security: Organizational and Policy Challenges
- Internet, Society, and Cyberconflict
- Multi-discipline Approaches to Homeland Security
- Special Topics in American Government for Homeland Security
- Strategic Planning and Budgeting for Homeland Security
Postgraduate students also complete a capstone course, which provides a real-world opportunity to practice their new skills and create innovative policies on an institutional level.
Many degrees can lead to a homeland security career, even when homeland security doesn't appear in the degree title. Georgetown University offers a Master of Science in Biomedical Science Policy and Advocacy. Students learn about biomedical science and how to create policy, and they complete internships. The program is listed on the FEMA website, where the agency provides a list of approved homeland security and emergency management degree programs.
Cybersecurity is perhaps the top emerging homeland security focus, which makes sense considering how many individuals set easily guessable passwords. Many companies lack adequate cyber defense plans, another field of opportunity for homeland security professionals.
Attacks like the Sunburst hack impact financial, government, and technology sectors—sometimes all at once. Sunburst hackers targeted SolarWind, an IT contractor working for the government, and stole DHS information. Private and public interests are often linked, meaning that good cybersecurity practices must account for both.
Homeland security programs typically address cybersecurity from a policy standpoint. Specialized degree programs, like the one at the University of Tulsa, are designed for professionals with a computer science background—they usually have a bachelor of science in computer science. The goal of the University of Tulsa program is to produce "technical and managerial leaders" in the field of cybersecurity.
Students who pursue these degrees may already work in cybersecurity or have a traditional computer science background. You need a strong background in both computer science and cybersecurity to work in the field. This means cybersecurity specialists can earn more than their computer science counterparts because they meet a greater need, according to the University of Tulsa. The talent pool is much smaller.
Most government agencies and private companies need cybersecurity professionals, but the NSA is perhaps the largest employer in the US. Potential jobs include:
- Capabilities development specialist
- Computer network defense analyst
- Computer network operator
The outcome of a homeland security program depends substantially on your career goals. Not everybody is looking to earn a new job; you may simply want to become a better leader in your current position. If this is the case, a homeland security master's is often just one part of your required training. It's usually completed in conjunction with training and certifications from other sources, including higher education institutions, government agencies, and state institutions, often at the behest of your employer.
According to the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), "High-level education is offered now to select Department officers in a variety of ways, including a master's program, three executive leadership courses, and graduate-level instruction, run jointly with the US Military Academy at West Point." Additionally, candidates may attend FDNY training seminars and symposiums. These resources address potential terrorist attacks as well as fire and emergency response. You can expect to find similar employment opportunities for public safety and law enforcement professionals.
For those looking to continue their education, the DHS offers a Pathways Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program, a development program geared to recent graduates (within the past two years) of advanced programs. The program continues your training and can lead to full-time government employment.
Government agencies also offer homeland security training and certifications. DHS programs include:
- Chemical sector training and resources
- Civil rights and civil liberties training
- Critical infrastructure security and resilience training
- Cybersecurity training & exercises
- Law enforcement training
At FEMA, you can take courses like Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness or complete the Advanced Professional Series (APS). Whatever program you attend, research its accreditation status.
On-campus vs. online master's in homeland security programs
There isn't a huge difference between the actual content of on-campus and online homeland security degree programs. Each covers topics in disaster response, emergency preparedness, and action plan development and implementation. Students in online programs can also specialize in a homeland security sector, depending on the program.
On-campus programs typically offer more classroom time, making them more conducive to actual training exercises. Certain schools like University of Nevada - Las Vegas require online students to attend six weekend in-person training sessions. American University students complete a residency in Washington DC where they "see and interact with members of the Washington, DC, national security policy world up close and builds on concepts and ideas discussed in the online environment."
Ultimately, flexibility is the most attractive aspect of online programs. They frequently attract working professionals who want to maintain their careers while attending school. Online programs often mean more options. There aren't many homeland security graduate degree options—especially when compared to other popular degrees like a master's in computer science or Master of Business Admnistration—and geography can be an even more limiting factor. A school may offer a specific specialization that would be far more convenient to study online. For instance, students in the continental US may not travel to Fairbanks to complete the University of Alaska's arctic security concentration.
Online programs are conducive to working professionals, and they're also historically easier for those with less work experience to get into than traditional programs. American University students are among top candidates for government pathway programs and homeland security internships, meaning they may have less experience going into a program. UNLV does not list a work experience requirement; it just requires three letters of recommendation, which can come from professors in a bachelor's degree program or another graduate program, or professional contacts. Online programs can be a foray into the field for those looking to transition careers or start a new one.
Applicants for the Arizona State University - Tempe online MA in Emergency Management and Homeland Security only need a previous master's or bachelor's degree in one of the following subjects:
- Applied sciences
- Criminal justice
- Environmental sciences
- Fire service management
- Parks and recreation management
- Public administration
- Public health
- Public safety
- Public service
- Social work
What can you do with a homeland security degree?
Master's in homeland security degree holders are qualified to work in government (federal, state, and local) agencies and private companies. The DHS may be the government's top employer of homeland security professionals, but it's not the only one. Others include:
- Department of Labor
- Department of State
- Department of Transportation
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
Additionally, there are positions in the military for homeland security professionals, including the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard.
After the Sunburst hack, there has been an increase in focus on homeland security in the private sector, especially among contractors with access to classified government information. You can also expect to find jobs with private companies that work adjacent to government agencies. For instance, a shipping company may need a TSA policy manager to comply with shipping regulations.
Nonprofit organizations, especially those specializing in disaster relief, need homeland security professionals. The Red Cross is one of the largest disaster relief organizations in the world. It often collaborates with FEMA; for example, the two collaborated on a 2014 initiative to reduce forest fires in California. You'll likely focus on emergency planning and disaster management in one of these roles.
Don't rule out earning a master's in homeland security at the end of a long career. Robert Ituarte attended the University of Alaska program after 24 years in the Air Force. Upon graduating, he pivoted to "volunteering with my city's Emergency Operations Center in regional training activities." Earning a master's can help experienced professionals in homeland security or homeland security-adjacent fields specialize and start a new track.
Listed below is information about top jobs you can earn with a master's in homeland security or cybersecurity:
- Computer information systems (CIS) manager: These cybersecurity professionals typically work in the private sector, including for institutions providing computer information systems design for financial and manufacturing services, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This job requires advanced technical and people skills. You'll communicate with and manage systems analysts, software developers, and information security professionals. Much of the job revolves around assessing security plans. CIS professionals typically have a Master of Information Systems or a Master of Business Administration, though they may also have a master's in computer science or cybersecurity.
- Cybersecurity architect: This is another position that requires extensive knowledge of computer systems and likely a cybersecurity degree. Cybersecurity architects design and upgrade hardware and data communication networks, with a focus on information security. The job requires high-level hacking abilities and experience with malware.
- Cybersecurity director: This is a top cybersecurity position. These professionals typically handle day-to-day defense operations for the cyber defense framework. They'll likely report to the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) or Chief Information Officer (CIO). This usually means creating and signing off on plans rather than designing systems. You'll likely need extensive technical and managerial experience (with a heavy computer science background) before landing this role.
- Emergency management specialist: Commonly employed by FEMA, these professionals assess and improve disaster and emergency management plans. Specialization is expected in this field. You may focus specifically on wildfire response in California, meaning a background in firefighting can be extremely useful. In Florida, emergency management specialists may focus on tornados.
- FBI intelligence analyst: These professionals sift through information to identify threats, meaning they need to have excellent judgment and comprehension skills. While this career doesn't pay as much as some others on the list, analysts with a master's degree may be up for promotions, often to management positions.
- Fire chief: Because they're responsible for organizing the department, fire chiefs need many, many years of experience as firefighters. As an administrator, you'll work with budgets, maintaining department personnel (it may be different for chiefs of volunteer departments), ensure that equipment is clean and current, and help organize inspections and permitting standards with other local agencies.
- Health services manager: Your job as a health services manager depends on the sector. If you work in a hospital, you may focus on legal compliance and care coordination. In government, health services managers address policy. Advancement paths include becoming a hospital executive, though that may require a healthcare-focused degree in public health or healthcare administration.
- Network and systems engineer: This information security position requires professionals to work with network infrastructure, both software and hardware. This frequently means maintaining LAN and WAN networks and setting network policies. You'll likely need a master's in cybersecurity to move into this role. The position is similar to CIS manager, though you'll likely spend more time working with technology than directing a team of people.
- Police captain: You'll oversee a division of either detectives or officers. This means taking on supervisory duties, including discipline and compliance with standards, plus budgeting, hiring new officers, and teaching classes. Duties can differ based on where you work, especially between rural and urban captains. Rural captains may have more responsibilities but fewer people depending on them; large police departments may have multiple captain levels (the LAPD has three). Experienced captains can become a police commander, deputy chief, or chief of police.
- Risk management specialist: In this role, you'll "identify, assess, and make recommendations that will manage and mitigate... operational risks," according to the Society for Human Resources Management. This is another position that both private and public companies need. A financial institution may employ a risk management specialist to evaluate data sharing portals and provide technology recommendations.
- Secret Service technical security investigator: Another DHS position, you'll work in the field of technical law enforcement, meaning investigators have experience with surveillance technology (setting it up and maintaining it), electronics, dismantling explosives, and counteracting chemical and biological attacks. Technical security investigators usually appear at the climax of an action movie. They can advance to upper-level management positions, such as branch or assistant division chief, especially with a homeland security degree, where they are less likely to appear in the exciting parts of movies.
- Supervisory I.T. cybersecurity specialist: Most large organizations (public and private) need to fill this position, which requires a deep technical background and extraordinary management abilities. These professionals lead teams that build cybersecurity defense systems. In the private sector, companies may refer to the supervisory IT cybersecurity specialist as a chief information security officer. Wherever you work, you'll likely opt for a master's degree in cybersecurity.
Though many positions on this list may require training and experience beyond a master's in homeland security or cybersecurity, you may not need a master's for entry-level positions. For example, technical security investigators likely begin their careers without a master's. However, earning one can lead to management positions and higher pay.
Police captains and fire chiefs in particular must accrue potentially decades of experience before reaching their final positions. In these cases, a master's degree is just one of many qualifications.
Most professionals in the discussed jobs earn over $100,000 per year or can make that much with advancement. A master's degree can help you qualify for higher earnings, especially when combined with experience. Cybersecurity is one of the highest-paying fields. The average salary for each position on this list is over $100,000 per year on average, with chief information security officers earning the most. They make an average salary of over $160,000 per year, and many earn significant incentive payments beyond their salaries.
Most federal employees get paid on the General Schedule, which has 15 levels, each with ten step increases. Graduate degree-holders typically earn at least GS-13 level pay, which goes from nearly $80,000 to around $103,000 per year, depending on your experience and location. The government uses cost of living numbers to weight salaries. For instance, federal employees in New York City earn a larger paycheck than those in rural Alabama, even though they're paid equivalent amounts. Government employees typically have excellent benefits as well.
Top homeland security master's programs
There's no such thing as a top program in any field because each student has different needs and goals. This principle is especially applicable to homeland security degrees, where specializations can be so diverse. The Naval Postgraduate School is the gold standard for homeland security education, but that doesn't automatically make it the best if you want to study disaster management.
Rankings can still provide a good starting point for your school search. Here are a few of the top-rated homeland security and emergency management programs, according to US News & World Report:
- American University
- Arizona State University - Tempe
- Columbia University
- CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice
- George Mason University
- George Washington University
- Naval Postgraduate School
- University of Maryland - College Park
- University of North Texas
Top online homeland security master's programs
Many schools offer online homeland security programs, though there are certainly fewer opportunities than at traditional schools. FEMA doesn't rank or endorse any particular program. This list includes respected schools that offer online degree or graduate certificate options and are listed on the agency website:
- Adelphi University
- East Carolina University
- Georgetown University
- John Jay College
- Pennsylvania State University - Penn State Harrisburg
- Texas A & M University - College Station
- Thomas Edison State University
- University of Alaska
- University of Nebraska at Omaha
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