Cybersecurity Degrees and Alternatives: Your 2021 Guide

Written by Coursera • Jul 13, 2021

What degree do you need to get started in cybersecurity? Do you need a degree at all?

A student in a cybersecurity degree program works at her laptop in a coffeeshop.

As more and more of our lives move online and into the digital space, cybersecurity has become critical for just about every business. There are more cybersecurity jobs than there are qualified candidates to fill them. Launching a career in cybersecurity can mean good pay and job security, as well as the chance to work in a fast-paced field that’s always evolving.

Getting started in cybersecurity often means building the right skills and qualifications. For many cybersecurity professionals, this means earning a degree. In this article, we’ll discuss what types of majors set you up for success in cybersecurity, as well as degree alternatives that might be a better fit for you.

Do I need a degree to work in cybersecurity?

Most cybersecurity professionals enter the field with a bachelor’s degree, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [1]. A study from Burning Glass Technologies found that 88 percent of cybersecurity job postings specifically request a bachelor’s degree or higher [2]. 

While the most common path toward a career in cybersecurity involves earning a degree, you don’t have to have one in order to find a job in the field. In fact, just over 30 percent of those working in the field do not have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the BLS [3]. We’ll discuss how to get into cybersecurity without a degree a little later in this article.

Get started in cybersecurity

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Cybersecurity degrees: What should I major in?

While a degree isn’t always necessary to get a job in cybersecurity, earning one can help you develop core skills, open up new job opportunities,  and make you a more competitive candidate when you start looking for jobs. Cybersecurity professionals come from a variety of backgrounds. If you know you’re interested in cybersecurity or information technology (IT), these are a few majors that cover relevant skills.

Possible majors for cybersecurity professionals

  • Cybersecurity: Not all universities offer cybersecurity degrees, but they are becoming more popular as the need for skilled security professionals increases. If you know you want to pursue cybersecurity (and your university offers it as a major), this could be a good choice for you.

  • Computer science: Computer science ranks among the most popular computer-related bachelor’s degrees. These programs generally cover a wide range of technical skills, including programming, systems engineering, networking, and security. Consider this widely-available degree if you’re interested in IT but want to keep your options open beyond cybersecurity.

  • Information technology: While similar to computer science, IT focuses more on using technology to solve problems. If you choose IT as your major, be sure to take a few programming classes to build up your code-writing skills.

  • Computer engineering: A bachelor of science in computer engineering combines computer science with electrical engineering, with coursework on hardware, software, and computer programming. This path may interest you if you’d like to work with the security of embedded systems.

Should I get a master’s degree in cybersecurity?

Nearly a quarter of cybersecurity job listings require a graduate degree, so earning one can open up new opportunities in your career [2]. Some universities offer master’s degrees in cybersecurity. Others, like the Online Master of Computer Science from Arizona State University, offer the option to concentrate in cybersecurity.  

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Cybersecurity coursework: What will I study?

Coursework in cybersecurity programs will vary from school to school. Generally, you can expect to take classes in topics like:

  • Programming

  • Networking

  • Cryptography

  • Penetration testing

  • Digital forensics

  • Security law and ethics

Is a cybersecurity degree worth it? Facts to consider

Earning a degree takes time and money. It’s something you should consider carefully before deciding whether it’s right for you. These are a few things you should keep in mind when deciding what learning path best fits your needs.

Cybersecurity professionals are in demand.

There are some 460,000 cybersecurity job openings in the US alone as of July 2021, according to Cyberseek [4]. The supply of applicants with cybersecurity skills is also low. If you have the right skills and qualifications, chances are good that you can find a job in the cybersecurity field.

Cybersecurity professionals are well paid.

While salaries vary by role, company, experience level, location, and a variety of other factors, cybersecurity professionals tend to have high earning potential. The BLS reports a median annual salary of $103,590 for information security analysts in the US, as of May 2020 [1]. That works out to just under $50 an hour.

Degrees involve a time and monetary commitment.

Paychecks and job openings aside, earning a degree still represents an investment of both time and money. Online degree options make it easier to earn a degree while working, raising a family, or managing other life obligations.  

A degree is the most common entry-level requirement.

While it is possible to get a job in cybersecurity without a degree, many employers still require one. As you consider your options, do some research on the types of companies you’d like to work for. What are their degree requirements? Do they put a higher priority on skills or certifications?

Degrees can open up more advanced job opportunities.

Generally speaking, higher-level cybersecurity positions, particularly at the management and executive level, are more likely to require a bachelor’s or graduate degree. Roles like cybersecurity engineer, cybersecurity architect, cybersecurity manager, and penetration tester come with a requested education level or at least a bachelor’s degree in over 90 percent of job listings [4].

A degree can help you earn a top certification.

Some of the most popular cybersecurity certifications, including the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA), require several years of work experience to qualify for the exam. A degree often counts toward part of that experience requirement.

Read more: Going Back to School: 7 Things to Consider

Alternatives to a cybersecurity degree

Earning a degree isn’t the only career path in cybersecurity. Here are some other options for developing the skills needed to get a security job.

  • Certification: Earning a cybersecurity certification can show recruiters and hiring managers that you have the skills needed for a job in cybersecurity. In fact, 59 percent of job listings request at least one certification [2]. Preparing for a certification exam gives you a framework for what you need to learn to succeed on the job, and many top organizations offer certifications for entry-level, mid-career, and advanced practitioners.

  • Job experience: Another option is to start off in an entry-level IT position, like an IT support specialist, where a degree isn’t always required. As you gain experience in the real world, you may be able to move into a more specialized cybersecurity role.

Read more: How to Get a Job in IT: 7 Steps

  • Self-teaching: You’ll find no shortage of free and inexpensive learning materials on the internet. If you’re self-motivated and enjoy learning independently, it’s possible to develop key cybersecurity skills on your own. If you choose this route, keep in mind that a certificate or other credential may help your resume stand out.

Get started in cybersecurity

Gain foundational cybersecurity skills and hands-on experience with top industry tools when you complete the IBM Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate. Earn a credential for your resume in less than six months, even with no prior experience.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

How long does it take to get a cybersecurity degree?

A bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity typically takes four years of full-time study to complete. A master’s degree involves another two years of full-time study, though some universities offer accelerated or part-time programs that may take shorter or longer to complete.

What can I do with a cybersecurity degree?

As you begin a career in cybersecurity, you’ll find a variety of different roles and specializations to pursue. Earning a degree in cybersecurity could be a step toward career opportunities like:

  • Penetration tester or ethical hacker

  • Information security analyst

  • Security architect

  • Security engineer

  • Incident responder

  • IT auditor

  • Security software developer

  • Digital forensic analyst

  • Cryptographer

  • Cyber crime investigator

  • Network administrator

Is studying cybersecurity hard?

The topics covered in a cybersecurity degree program tend to be technical. While skills like programming and network security can be challenging, it’s totally possible to learn them with the right attitude and plan of action.

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Information Security Analysts, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/information-security-analysts.htm." Accessed July 13, 2021.

2. Burning Glass Technologies. "Recruiting Watchers for the Virtual Walls: The State of Cybersecurity Hiring, https://www.burning-glass.com/research-project/cybersecurity/." Accessed July 13, 2021.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Educational attainment for workers 25 years and older by detailed occupation, https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/educational-attainment.htm." Accessed July 13, 2021.

4. Cyberseek. "Interactive map, https://www.cyberseek.org/heatmap.html." Accessed July 13, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Jul 13, 2021

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