Which cyber security courses are right for you?

cyber security professional tests code on laptop and mobile device

With cyber crime making the news and companies and businesses having to perform due diligence on security systems to protect information and user PII, there's increased demand for talented cyber security professionals. New cyber security courses and bootcamps are constantly being developed and updated in response to real-world needs in both the public and private sectors.

If you are already working in, or considering, an information technology job, you may want to consider specializing in the field of cyber security. We've highlighted what you need to know about pursuing a cyber security education below, including the classes you might take, your potential career paths and the potential value you could get from a cyber security education

Deciding on the level of education to pursue

There are several education levels, and it's important to consider your career goals and the pros and cons of each education option to decide the path that's right for you.

You could pursue a cyber associate's degree as part of a bachelor's in cyber or information technology, or from a certificate program. An associate's degree can be achieved in about two years of full-time school, while a bachelor's may take at least four years. A certificate program is likely to take less time but can take as much as a year to complete. These shorter courses and programs can provide you with solid foundational knowledge, but if you plan on pursuing a more advanced or supervisory position, like a cyber security manager, you may need to pursue additional education.

"...shorter courses and programs can provide you with solid foundational knowledge, but if you plan on pursuing a more advanced or supervisory position...you may need to pursue additional education."

Two-year master's degree programs in cyber security are available once you finish your undergraduate education. If you already have a bachelor's degree and are considering a certificate, check to make sure that your credits can apply towards a master's degree. Master's degree programs provide more advanced and detailed education in cyber security principles. These programs cost more than certificate programs but are often essential if you're pursuing a more advanced career, such as CISO or CIO, or management position.

Common undergraduate cyber security courses

It is important to research universities prior to enrollment and make sure that their programs align with your goals and will provide the very best courses and education—and that they are accredited. While undergraduate programs are likely to have their own unique approach to core curriculum requirements, you might want to make sure you'll find subjects similar to what's featured in your school's degree program. Here are some examples:

Operating Systems:
Learn about common operating systems, including their key features, the fundamentals of each system and how the systems can be used to develop security resources.
Network Security:
Explore network security concepts like security policies, IP security, access controls, authentication mechanisms and intrusion detection and protection.
IT Risk Assessment:
Learn the basic IT risk assessment concepts, including how to identify and assess risk, evaluate security policies, conduct information asset valuations, document vulnerabilities and apply risk control strategies.
Digital Forensics:
Learn about the fundamentals of computer forensics and cyber crime scene analysis, including laws surrounding computer forensic analysis, standards for analysis, and methodology for conducting forensic investigations.
AI and Machine Learning:
Understand and apply methods to reduce risk and create ethical, transparent and proactive artificial intelligence systems.
Computer Ethics and Privacy:
Explore ethical and legal principles surrounding cyber security, including laws and regulations that impact best practices, training and operational policies.
Data Management:
Learn about data models, explore how to create databases and tables and learn how to create conceptual data modeling. 
Cloud Security:
Explore how to protect cloud data and implement safe cloud service model solutions, learn how to conduct risk analysis and management and identify appropriate security policies for cloud applications.

Together, these courses provide you with the foundational skills you need to begin your cyber security career. Your coursework should feature plenty of projects that you'll work on with fellow students as well as faculty. It will be vital to form good working relationships to maximize the educational value of the experience and to form contacts that may be of mutual benefit after you graduate.

Graduate-level cyber security courses

If you choose to extend your learning to the master's level, your coursework will be more intense and focused. Sometimes these cyber security courses are found in MBA programs through the business department, though they are more frequently in the computer science, library science or engineering departments. These programs Some graduate-level courses you might take include the following:

Computer Forensics:
Learn how to extract information from devices, analyze data, record and present information, including in court testimony.
Cyber Law:
Explore key legal concepts and challenges surrounding data protection, privacy laws, intellectual property, risk management and due diligence to help reduce risk and ensure compliance with laws and regulations. 
Hacking Countermeasures:
Learn how to identify and respond to security incidents in information systems, including detecting threats, analyzing data, suggesting appropriate preventative measures and recovering from incidents.
Secure Software Design:
Explore the elements needed to ensure software security during the entire development process. 
Most programs also culminate in a practicum of capstone project, giving you the opportunity to select and explore a cyber security challenge, pose solutions and gain firsthand experience.

Roles cyber security courses may prepare you for

Cyber security courses help you to develop the key skills and knowledge needed to work in IT and cyber security fields. With the right security training, you may be qualified for many different careers:

Information security analysts work to protect a company's data and computer systems by installing software, monitoring the systems to watch for breaches and responding to attacks.

Information security specialists create and manage security measures to help secure data networks, protect a business from security breaches and enhances the network's overall security.

Forensic science technicians collect and analyze digital evidence that may be used in an investigation or court case.

Security software developers update existing programs and create new software to better withstand evolving cyber threats.

Security administrators work to protect a network by performing updates, implementing security protections, setting up and monitoring user permissions and identifying and resolving issues.

By specializing in a certain cyber security field, like IT auditing, ethical hacking or software development, you may qualify for a more specialized job opportunity, like working as a security software developer. Alternatively, you might specialize in an industry, like the financial or legal industry, and offer cyber security solutions tailored to that industry's unique challenges and risks.

Do research prior to enrolling in cyber security classes

Many schools offer programs in cyber security, and there may even be a good fit in your immediate area. When you seek out a school, do your research before jumping in. If you are already in the IT field, it's likely that your colleagues know a lot about programs in the area and their classes.

Use your networking skills and ask your colleagues about their experiences with their cyber security programs and what courses they took. If they are already working in the field, it may give you an indication of whether the school has programs in the area you're interested in, and has accredited status from a professional agency or regional accreditation office.

As you research schools and ask questions, you may discover that you are more drawn to cyber security policy and a multidisciplinary approach to the subject of cyber crime. Other people might be more interested in a hands-on approach and seek coursework in forensics and investigating cyber crimes.

When you research programs, you can begin to determine which of the many cyber security career paths interests you the most. If you are uncertain, you might look at programs that offer classes in programming and other areas of information technology so that you have a strong base upon which to support your eventual career.

There are plenty of resources to help you research potential programs and schools. The U.S. News & World Report ranks schools annually, which can help you to identify a reputable school. A Google search may also reveal additional information about a specific program or school.

On-campus vs online courses in cyber security

Consider whether you would prefer to study online or in a traditional classroom. Both have their positives and negatives, and each is suited to particular types of students.

For instance, a working parent might find the flexibility of an online program allows them to continue working and tending to family responsibilities while taking classes and making strides toward completing their education. Others might be able to attend classes during standard working hours. For them, the question is whether or not they need the added structure and interaction of a traditional course or not. Students who are in the military, live in a remote location or have a disabled person status that makes attending an on-campus course difficult, may also appreciate the flexibility of online cyber security programs.

Though many opt for online courses due to the flexibility in scheduling, there are some online programs that require that students log in at particular times to participate in chat room-based studies or to virtually attend a lecture. Keep in mind that if you are working on a group assignment your classmate might be in different time zones and find that scheduling times to collaborate is difficult. Before you enroll, it will be beneficial to discover how the school addresses these types of issues.

Make sure your online program is accredited, too. You'll want to ensure all your credits transfer if you choose to pursue another degree or attend a different school later on. Accredited status may also help you attain federal financial aid for your program as well.

Faculty background and depth of experience

The faculty background and experience they bring to the coursework affects the quality of the education you will receive. Try to research how many of the professors have hands-on experience in the field, and how they have interacted with companies or government agencies. It may be important to see how diverse the faculty is at your school, as one of the key attributes of the most successful programs is an interdisciplinary focus.

Many schools publish detailed faculty biographies, which can be a good place to start your research. You may be able to find additional information on a faculty member's LinkedIn profile. Entering the faculty member's name into Google may also help you to find out more about their background if they have a website or page attached to an employer site.

Enrolling in cyber security courses

Once you've found the cyber security class or program that is right for you, carefully review the admission requirements, including application materials and due dates. Some programs have annual application due dates, while others may accept applications more often.

Application requirements can vary significantly. Most bachelor's programs require a minimum GPA for high school coursework, a personal statement and standardized test scores, like SAT scores. Taking courses in math and science can also help to prepare you for the program.

Master's degree programs tend to be more competitive and have additional requirements. Programs often require a minimum cumulative GPA for undergraduate coursework, professional work experience, GMAT or GRE scores and a resume.

Cyber security internships and work experience

Completing a cyber security internship can help you to gain valuable hands-on experience. As an intern, you might research threats, test web applications, respond to minor security events and more. Internships may be available for pay or for credit, and your school program may already include an internship program or might help to connect you to placements within companies in your community. If you are seeking an internship independently, reach out to your school's career department and look for listings on online job boards. You may also try to contact local technology companies to see if they have upcoming internship opportunities.

During your internship, you may make valuable connections and build your professional network. When you're ready to find your first job, reach out to those connections, since they may be able to help you find a job. 

Getting started

In today's paperless society, cyber security is more important than ever, as the people who choose to earn an education in the field provide reassurance to a public threatened by data breaches and identity theft on a daily basis. If you feel committed to fighting cyber crime and staying ahead of rapidly evolving threats in data breaches, hacking, AI and other potentially vulnerable target areas, then a cyber security degree may help to prepare you for a career in this important field. Why not begin your quest to work in a fast-paced, continuously evolving industry? All you need to do to get started is click Find Schools to find online and classroom cyber security courses and bootcamps.

Updated: August 18, 2023

paige cerulli

Written and reported by:

Paige Cerulli

Contributing Writer

Cyber Security Education