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Cyber security certification vs degree: Which is best for your career?

There are benefits to taking either a cyber security certification or a degree, but they might be suitable for different levels of experience and ambition

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Cyber criminals have become more sophisticated over the last couple of decades, with the number and scale of attacks escalating. UK ISP Beaming, for instance, recorded 687,489 cyber breach attempts on UK businesses in 2022, or approximately one cyber attack every 46 seconds. In this context, cyber security experts are currently, and are expected to stay, in high demand over the years to come.

There are many qualification pathways available for those hoping to get started in cyber security, or even sharpen their skills, including cyber security certifications as well as cyber security degrees. There are also an array of online courses, but these two serve as key routes into the field. Both offer different benefits, as well as opening up possibilities for one's career. For instance, according to a recent study, achieving cyber security certifications can lead to some of the highest paying jobs for IT professionals, but there are downsides too. For that reason, budding cyber security experts will question whether it’s best to pursue a certification or a degree.

What do certifications and degrees offer?

If you’re considering how to advance in your cyber security career, the decision between pursuing a certification or a degree can be tricky. Both routes offer unique advantages and are geared towards professionals at different levels of experience and with different career goals.

Certifications are an excellent choice for those who are looking to expand their skills in a specific area, or meet the requirements for a particular cyber security role, having already trained and worked in their own industry for a number of years. Plus, they tend to be cheaper and less time-consuming, making them more accessible for full-time professionals. However, there are advanced-level certifications for professionals with substantial work experience too.

A cyber security degree, either at undergraduate or postgraduate level, is normally branched away from the broader computer science field, and may be the better route if you want to gain a comprehensive understanding of the field, particularly for those coming out of of school or making a complete fresh start. Many degree programmes also offer internships or hands-on experience, such as a year in industry, which provides valuable real-world experience. These programmes also open doors to more advanced positions such as management or research roles.  

What are some examples of cyber security certifications?

Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) 

A globally recognised certification that is administered by (ISC)², designed for professionals who have at least five years of experience in information security. It covers a wide range of security topics, including access control, network security, and risk management.

Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)

A certification offered by the International Council of E-Commerce Consultants (EC-Council) and is designed for any professional who wants to learn how to become an ethical hacker

Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) 

This certification is offered by the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA) and is designed for professionals who manage, design, and oversee an enterprise’s information security.

Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP) 

A certification offered by (ISC)² and is designed for professionals who want to specialise in securing cloud computing environments.

CompTIA Security+ 

A vendor-neutral certification that covers the essential principles for network security and risk management. It is internationally recognised, and it certifies foundation-level knowledge and skills needed for a career in IT security.

What are some examples of cyber security degrees?

Imperial College London: MSc in Information Security

A degree programme which is designed to provide a comprehensive education in information security taught by leading experts in the field.

University of Bristol: Computer Science with Cyber Security 

A degree programme that focuses on both the technical and the policy aspects of cyber security, making it well-suited for students interested in getting a deeper understanding of the field.

King's College London: Cyber Security MSc

This programme offered by King's College London is designed to provide a balance of technical and theoretical knowledge and has a practical component.

What are key the differences between cyber security certifications and degrees? 

When comparing certifications and degrees in cyber security, there are several key differences in terms of the quality of training, level of education, qualification level, and job prospects.

Certifications are a popular choice for current cyber security professionals, as potential employers often view them as more practical and hands-on than degrees. Many certification programmes, which often last between several weeks to up to several years, also focus on specific technologies or skill sets. 

These certifications demonstrate a professional's expertise in a particular area and can help them stand out in a crowded job market. Additionally, certifications are often cheaper and less time-consuming than a degree, making them a more accessible option for many professionals. 

Nature of training

Certifications tend to be more practical and hands-on, focusing on specific technologies or skill sets, often providing training on the latest tools and techniques used in the industry. A degree course provides a more comprehensive education in cyber security and tends to offer an in-depth understanding of the field. 

Time commitment 

Certifications typically require fewer hours of study or training than degrees. They often focus on a specific technology or skill set, and the training period is usually shorter. Degrees provide a more comprehensive education and require a more significant time commitment, sometimes up to four years.


Compared to taking a full university or college degree, cyber security certifications cost relatively little. For example, the standard registration fee for the CISSP certification exam in the UK is £585. Taking an undergraduate degree programme, by contrast, could cost up to £37,000 for a four-year course. There are some financing options available, but it's still a stark difference in cost.

Level of qualification 

Certifications are typically seen as a way to demonstrate expertise in a particular area and can benefit those looking to advance their careers in a specific area. Employers view degrees more favourably, however, and are a better option for those pursuing advanced career opportunities.

Future job prospects 

The opportunities available to those pursuing a cyber security career will depend on your education level and current qualifications. Certifications can open the door to specific roles in cyber security, while a degree may open up more advanced career opportunities, such as management or research roles down the line. 

What are the advantages and disadvantages of taking a cyber security certification?

Advantages of a cyber security certification

A cyber security certification can often be completed in less time and at a lower cost than a full-fledged degree programme. A cyber security certification can also be a great way to demonstrate current knowledge and skills to potential employers. They can be a great route to get started in cybersecurity without committing to a full degree programme.

Disadvantages of a cyber security certification

A cyber security certification may not be as well-respected or widely recognised as a degree by some employers. Without also having undergone degree-level training, a cyber security certification may also provide fewer opportunities for professional development.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of taking a cyber security degree?

Advantages of a cyber security degree

A cyber security degree can provide a more comprehensive education and a deeper understanding of the field. They can be an excellent route to gain a broader set of skills that you can apply to a more comprehensive range of jobs. A cyber security degree can be a great way to qualify for more advanced or management-level positions, leading to more opportunities for professional development.

Disadvantages of a cyber security degree

A cyber security degree can be more time-consuming and expensive to complete in comparison to a certification. A cyber security degree may be less helpful for someone looking to quickly gain a specific set of in-demand skills in a short timespan. 

Which is the best option?

Choosing between a cyber security certification or a cyber security degree will depend on your career goals and current experience level. Certifications are often a more practical, quicker, and cheaper way of gaining expertise in a particular niche area, and may be of more use to professionals with some prior experience in the field, who are looking to advance their careers. A degree, meanwhile, provides a broader overview for those who are starting out, and might also open up some advanced career pathways. Ultimately, the best choice between the two depends on an individual's career goals and experience level.

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