If you are looking to get into cyber security by the more formal “degree route”, you will be confronted with the decision between choosing whether you should get a computer science degree or a cyber security degree. This decision depends on a lot of personal factors, but in this article, we will be breaking down the pros and cons of each route and help you decide for yourself.
Computer science degree vs cyber security degree? Both computer science and cyber security degrees will get you a job in cyber security. Comp sci is more technical but is less specific to the field of cyber security while cyber security degrees are more specific but may lack important computer science theory and fundamentals.
How Do You Choose Which Degree Is Right for You?
Many colleges have recognized the difference between computer science and cyber security and offer separate programs. This presents prospective students with a serious dilemma.
It used to be that universities offered security-focused courses within their computer science programs. With the serious skills gap that the cyber security industry is experiencing colleges have identified the demand for cyber security-specific programs.
Cyber Security Degree
The concept of a cyber security degree is a relatively new concept. Many colleges are still developing them as you read this article, because of this the concepts and topics that the degrees cover are not very uniform.
This is not to discourage you from a cyber degree at all, it just means that you need to do your research to ensure the college your selecting is covering the areas of cyber security you want to learn.
What Do Cyber Security Degrees Cover?
- Information Systems
- Information Technology
- Entry Level Programming
- Digital Forensics
- Cyber Security Ethics, Law & Policy
- Risk Analysis
- Offensive Security
- Security Operations
As you can see, cyber security degrees cover a very wide range of topics. This is by design; the cyber security industry is very broad and these degree programs are designed to introduce you to many of the areas within the field.
How Hard is a Cyber Security Degree?
Cyber security degrees range in difficulty widely. Some cyber security degree programs can get very technical and difficult. I will use Penn State’s Cyber Security Analytics and Operations Major as an example. This degree program is at the cutting edge of cyber security and it very technical and difficult.
This degree program covers technical topics such as:
- Incident Handling and Response
- Malware Analytics
- Cyber Analytics
- Advanced Programming Courses
I have included this information not to promote Penn State University, but to illustrate a more technical program that will really prepare you for a career in cyber security.
On the other hand, some schools provide a “cyber security degree” that is nothing more than an information technology degree with a class or two that focuses on security.
My final advice on cyber security degrees is to do your research and ensure you will be getting what you want from this 4-year investment.
In general, cyber security programs are focused on graduating as many qualified students as possible. This is due to the massive shortage of professionals cyber security is experiencing.
In my experience in taking both cyber security and computer science courses, cyber security professors and staff are much more supportive in ensuring that all students can succeed. Many other degree programs like engineering and comp sci have “weed-out courses” that are geared towards thinning out the heard because those job markets are more competitive.
In my personal experience, cyber security university staff will do whatever it takes to ensure that every student that is willing to do the work will be successful! Computer science feels more like an everyone for themselves type of mentality.
The Cyber Security Community
Cyber security degree programs also allow you to network with other security students and form clubs and organizations around specific interests. These connections go a long way and will really help you build hands-on experience that you can demonstrate to employers.
Cyber Security Degree Pros
- Specific security topics that directly apply to jobs in cyber security
- Tells companies you have foundational cyber security knowledge
- Can be very advanced if you find a mature cyber security college program
- More support
- Joining the security community
Cyber Security Degree Cons
- Cyber security degrees are not the same from school to school
- Cyber security degrees are new and will have “growing pains”
- Strong emphasis on concepts and theory (not every college)
Computer Science Degree
Computer science is the study of the theoretical foundations of information and computation and their implementation and application in computer systems.
Computer science degrees are very technical and can be very valuable for cyber security jobs. While comp sci degrees aren’t specific to the field of cyber security, they can really set you up with a strong foundation to build upon.
If you are very technical and are willing to learn security on your own time and get involved with the cyber security community, comp sci may be the best route for you.
The Computer Science Degree Route Is More Work
Let’s face it, computer science is a notoriously difficult degree. Most comp sci degree programs have many “weed out” courses where they try to cut out the students who cannot pass. This is not something we have to deal with in cyber security degree programs.
In addition to taking harder courses, if you choose to go the comp sci route you will have to learn security on your own time. There may be some courses that touch on security, but for the most part, it is on you to learn security and get involved with the community.
This degree program covers technical topics such as:
- Mathematical foundations
- Algorithms and data structures
- Artificial intelligence
- Computer architecture
- Programming languages and compilers
- Software engineering
- Theory of computation
The Generalize Then Specialize Approach
The generalize then specialize approach is very applicable with the comp sci degree route into cyber security. Learning the fundamentals of computing before learning any security is my preferred approach and I wish that cyber security degree programs would adopt this mentality. This approach ensures that you have a very good understanding of the systems your securing.
Should You Get A Computer Science Degree for Cyber Security?
If you are willing to put in the extra work, a computer science degree will make you a very important member of a cyber security team. “Generalize then specialize” is a very valid concept and a great approach to cyber security. If you go this route you will have to make an extra effort to get involved with cyber security clubs and organizations, but if you do it right it will pay dividends!
Computer Science Degree Pros
- Very strong foundation in math and computer theory
- Generalize then specialize
- Provides a great foundation for pen testers or very technical security engineers
Computer Science Degree Cons
- Not specific to cyber security
- Very difficult and math-based
- Requires additional “extracurricular” cyber security research and practice
- “Weed out” courses are very difficult
- Less support
There is no perfect approach to going to college for cyber security. If you are fortunate enough to have access to a mature accredited cyber security program then you should consider it. If you chose this route, make sure you are not neglecting the computing theory even if you have to learn this information on your own time. Going the comp sci degree route can really set you up well for a technical role in cyber security as long as you are willing to put in the work and learn cyber security on your own time.