The pathways into cyber security careers are as varied as the types of threats cyber security staff will face. Qualifications are available from institutions of all types and at all levels, with cyber security certificates and degrees the most sought after – although there are also plenty of shorter courses for those who need to brush up or upskill to a new role
Cyber security certifications can lead to some of the highest paid jobs in IT, but along with degrees in cyber security, they have their pros and cons.
It's challenging enough to decide which path to take in your career, so we've compared cyber security certification vs degree to give you a better idea of what is most suitable for achieving your goals.
Cyber security certification vs degree
Certifications and degrees in cyber security are geared towards IT professionals who'll operate at different levels and have different career goals, with each type leading to different kinds of experience.
If you're hoping to attain skills in a niche area or address specific cyber security issues but you've already worked in the area for a few years, a certification might be for you.
They tend to be less expensive and usually impose less of a drain on your time, which makes them an attractive choice if you're already working, although more advanced certification courses that include work experience components are available too.
However, certificates are also a useful route for those looking to switch careers to cyber security. Although certificate exams require learning a syllabus, there are plenty of short courses available that will take someone with little to no knowledge of IT or security and equip them with all the tools they need to sit specific certificate exams.
If you want to approach cyber security from the ground level – for instance if you've just graduated – an undergraduate or postgraduate degree can be a better path following more generalised study in computer science.
If you pursue a cyber security degree there's also a higher chance your course will include real world experience like an internship inside an IT organisation. The advantages of doing so (on-the-ground experience in a live environment) are obvious, but you should also remember it can lead to more opportunities in cyber security leadership positions, such as management and research.
The following are some common cyber security certifications.
Examples of cyber security certifications
Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
The International Information System Security Certification Consortium (ISC2) offers this certification, recognised all over the world, for IT staff with at least five years experience in information security.
You'll learn about everything from access control and network security to risk management and more.
Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)
The International Council of E-Commerce Consultants (EC-Council) offers this certification for IT professionals who want to understand (and beat) the latest dangers to come from the world of hacking.
Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)
The Information Systems Audit and Control Association's (ISACA) cyber security certification gives you an understanding of the information security framework of an organisation where you'll learn management, design and oversight of a company's entire cyber security stance.
Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP)
Also from ISC2, this course will certify you to manage the security of cloud computing systems, a skill that is in incredibly high demand and will applicable in most workplaces.
This globally recognised certification will provide you with a foundation-level understanding of risk management and network security and will prepare you for several pathways into information security. It's one of the most popular security certifications and is often the first that learners acquire in order to prove foundational knowledge.
Examples of cyber security degrees
University of Bristol: Computer Science with Cyber Security
Cyber security is about policy as much as technology, and a degree such as this one recognises and includes the administrative responsibilities you'll face, giving you a solid grounding in cyber security methodologies.
King's College London: Cyber Security MSc
With strongly practical elements, this degree is about the technical aspects of cyber security, but includes the theory about how they're applied.
The main differences between a cyber security certification vs degree
The quality and depth of the course content, the qualification level you'll have when you graduate and the areas you're likely to find work in all vary depending on whether you pursue a certification or a degree.
Some employers favour certifications because they contain more direct experience with cyber security systems and scenarios. If you intend to focus on a specific technology niche or architecture, certification courses also tend to concentrate on skillsets and domains that are narrower than courses that cover theory about the entire field.
Certification will also give you the chance to stand out in a very crowded employment market, and if you're already working in the field it won't only be more affordable, it usually takes less time than a full degree.
1. Type of training
A certification often contains more practical components like experience in the industry as a placement or intern, so you'll be exposed to the latest systems and methods as they evolve and graduate with experience in more specific technologies or domains.
By contrast, a degree covers the overarching principles in and theory behind cyber security as a whole. You'll graduate with a deeper and wider understanding of the field and get the chance to focus subsequent training or career opportunities on the segments of the industry that interest you.
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2. Study duration
Overall, you'll spend fewer hours engaged in actual study in a certification than you will with a degree. Because certifications focus on a specific area or technology they're mostly shorter, whereas degrees are a full time commitment that can last up to four years.
3. Cost of training
Certifications can cost far less than an entire cyber security degree simply because of the time and materials needed to complete them. As an example, a typical CISSP certificate exam costs UK£585, whereas you can pay up to £37k for a full undergraduate degree over four years – quite a difference even when you consider student loan and finance choices.
4. Level of qualification
If you're looking for a job in a particular cyber security area, a certification will signal demonstrable expertise to employers. But if you're looking further down the road towards more advanced opportunities in a broader area, potential employers will favour a cyber security degree.
5. Future job prospects
As always, you'll get the job you've trained for. A certification will get your foot in the door of a specific cyber security field that matches your course content, but a degree will widen your search potential in case you decide to go into other fields like R&D or the administration or management of cyber security methods.
Certifications in cyber security have both potential upsides and downsides.
Pros and cons of taking a cyber security certification
- Certification in cyber security is often a much shorter process
- Training usually costs far less than a full degree
- Certificates are highly-specialized, and clear signal to employers that you know your stuff
- Generally considered an easier way into the industry, particularly for those switching careers
- Some employers will need cyber security generalists, which specialist certificates may not provide
- Specialized certificates make it harder for those new to the industry to explore a wide variety of topics
- You may need to train for multiple certificates in order to make up for a lack of a degree
Pros and cons of taking a cyber security degree
- Degrees typically have far better support structures than those offered by shorter courses and certificate programs
- Degrees provide solid foundational knowledge, making it more likely that you will fit the requirements for a wider pool of jobs
- Universities tend to have strong links with employers
- The broad knowledge degrees provide allows you to make more informed choices when it comes to specializing
- A degree requires an enormous amount of commitment, both in terms of cost and time
- Degrees tend to be more static and less reactive to emerging trends, compared to specializing with certificates
Cyber security certificate vs degree: Which is better?
The question is simple, the answer – less so. It depends completely on you, your goals and your starting point.
If you know the basic best practices and theory of the cyber security field and want to expand your practical skills in a specific niche, a certification is ideal. You will spend significantly less money on training and you will be able to bypass much of the introductory teaching that's associated with degrees, allowing you to get that certificate much quicker.
If you're starting out and want the broadest possible education about the area, or if you're not sure what specific career path you want to take, a degree will give you a solid foundation upon which to expand skills in the areas that most interest you, and when you figure those areas out, opportunities for advanced career goals will already be more accessible at your employers of choice.
Of course, this is just general advice. If you're new to cyber security, there are plenty of shorter courses available designed for those with zero knowledge of the industry that will prepare you for certificate exams. These are a great way to slowly build up your knowledge, although they require a bit more self discipline and won't be able to offer the same levels of support you will receive undertaking a full degree.
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Drew Turney is a freelance journalist who has been working in the industry for more than 25 years. He has written on a range of topics including technology, film, science, and publishing.
At ITPro, Drew has written on the topics of smart manufacturing, cyber security certifications, computing degrees, data analytics, and mixed reality technologies.
Since 1995, Drew has written for publications including MacWorld, PCMag, io9, Variety, Empire, GQ, and the Daily Telegraph. In all, he has contributed to more than 150 titles. He is an experienced interviewer, features writer, and media reviewer with a strong background in scientific knowledge.