Online cybersecurity certification programs serve two purposes. For people that already have a degree or work experience in the space, then certification programs provide fantastic vehicles for advancing careers by keeping industry knowledge current. And certification programs can also help people working in related fields to find their way into the cybersecurity industry.
There are important differences in the types of certification programs that professionals should be looking toward taking, and the kind of certifications that would benefit students and entry-level professionals most.
Professional certifications vs. academic certifications
Professional certifications are designed to expand on the skills and knowledge that already exist among industry pros. Typically, they are targeted at specialized topics within cybersecurity, or updating hands-on experience and technical knowledge already in place.
Current infosec employees utilize these certification programs, and the exams that often follow, to raise their level of expertise and help move their careers forward, as well to remain up to date in an ever-changing industry.
Academic cybersecurity certifications are targeted primarily at those trying to enter the infosec world, either from academia or another career. As such, academic certification programs tend to be more general in scope, and more introductory in nature. However, some academic programs can also serve as expedient and more affordable short-term substitutes for undergraduate and graduate college degrees.
These types of certification programs can give would-be cybersecurity pros earlier jump starts on their careers, or just provide a deeper insight into what life the infosec world is really like. The availability and selection of academic cybersecurity certification programs are wide and growing constantly, so be sure to research options thoroughly.
Online vs. campus-based cybersecurity certification programs
Campus-based, or real-life continuing education programs require a serious commitment in time. And they also may require compromises in which schools and programs are available due to geographic restrictions. Some people learn best in a traditional classroom, and for them, campus-based formats are usually best.
Today, however, there are hundreds of excellent educational choices available in an online format. The primary purpose of online courses is flexibility for students. Asynchronous online programs offer the greatest convenience, but synchronous programs also provide attractive advantages over campus-based programs. Lacking the commute of classroom-based courses, both types of online certification courses minimize the investment of time and hassle of fighting traffic.
Synchronous programs have set times for class instruction and often student discourse, so time and schedule flexibility are limited. Asynchronous programs, on the other hand, are largely without time restrictions and permit students to make their own schedule and progress at their own pace. And while online education has had a tarnished image in the past, high-quality courses from high-quality institutions are now readily available and quickly growing in number.
SANS Technology Institute is by far the world’s largest provider of cybersecurity training programs and certifications. SANS offers both synchronous and asynchronous online training, and has two options for each type. Everyone will have different needs and barriers to getting training, so each student/professional must choose the style of online coursework that best suits them and their lives.
What to look for in online cybersecurity certification programs
Information security careers necessitate professionals to be constantly changing, adapting, growing. The industry itself is constantly changing, because technology keeps moving forward and the threats posed to security are forever evolving. As in any technology-related field, the rule of thumb is to evolve or die.
Cybersecurity professionals must therefore adopt a career-long attitude of curiosity and education. Learning in this industry can never cease if professionals are to continue being successful.
Keeping up to date on technology and trends can be accomplished through a combination of multiple avenues. Industry associations provide an excellent opportunity for networking and discussing experiences with other professionals. They also often organize conventions, conferences, seminars and other gatherings that offer unique chances for education. But standardized certification programs provide tangible evidence of specific educational accomplishments that everyone in the industry can understand and identify.
For students trying to enter the infosec community and professionals looking to jump careers into cybersecurity, certifications and training can be invaluable. Some criteria to consider when searching for and choosing online cybersecurity certification programs include:
- Synchronous or asynchronous format and how each fits the professional’s life
- The time required to complete certification
- Cost of the certification program
- Employer tuition reimbursement offers
- Availability of exam that can be taken ahead of the course for equivalency
- Applicability of subject to career path/desired entry point
- Availability of credits toward degree programs
Professional online cybersecurity certification programs
Professional cybersecurity certification programs are tailored to industry needs for skills and knowledge of experienced professionals, as well as the needs of professionals to improve their value and careers in the industry. Topics and curriculums are carefully crafted to achieve maximum positive impact. Certification programs can be found for individuals in all types of specialties, as well as general skills and knowledge certifications targeted at advanced, high-level professionals.
Keep in mind that, because technology and security threats are constantly evolving, professional certifications must be consistently renewed in order to be current and valid. Whatever the specialty within cybersecurity, infosec professionals can find certification programs to update and improve their knowledge. There are several research and education institutions serving the needs of the industry for certifications, as well as industry trade associations.
Some of the most well-known and highly regarded professional cybersecurity certification providers available online are:
Academic online cybersecurity certification programs
Academic cybersecurity certification programs vary tremendously, in scope, in purpose, and in impact. Many of these programs are offered by individual colleges, and the programs are as individual as the schools themselves. But some are offered by industry continuing education organizations and other stakeholders interested in advancing cybersecurity awareness and increasing the workforce census. There are a few categories to be aware of in academic online certification programs.
- Introductory/training certification programs
- Undergraduate certification programs
- Graduate certification programs
Introductory/training certification programs
The focus on and interest in cybersecurity is growing daily as the world begins to grasp the full weight of having so many systems and information warehouses vulnerable through online connections. And every day, more people wonder if cybersecurity might be the perfect career for them. For those wondering how to find out if information security is a good fit for them, there are inexpensive, or even free options for getting an introduction. SANS Institute offers online courses designed to do just that. Through the Cyber Aces program, SANS offers free introductory courses, as well as more advanced courses.
Cybrary, another provider of industry training and certifications, offers an online course called Introduction to IT and Cybersecurity. This free course is designed to help beginners decide which career path within the industry is right for the student by teaching the four primary principles of IT and cybersecurity.
Once the decision has been made to move forward, baseline knowledge and skills certifications are great places to start for students and professionals looking to switch careers to cybersecurity. CompTIA Security+ is probably the best known and most widely recognized among the entry-level cybersecurity certifications, offered by CompTIA, an industry continuing education organization. It’s specifically designed for those already working in IT and looking to transition to cybersecurity. It’s available online from CompTIA and several other sources.
Some colleges offer training programs for beginning cybersecurity students. Each is individually designed by the school that offers it. The University of Washington has developed a certificate program it calls Essentials of Cybersecurity. This program provides would-be infosec professionals with an overview of cybersecurity departments in the real world, how they function, and how they’re organized. It also gives an introduction into cybersecurity terminology and concepts, and helps students begin to assess how well their knowledge and skills apply to the industry.
Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) has developed a certification training series it calls the Cybersecurity MicroMasters Program. Beginning with an introductory course called Cybersecurity Fundamentals, RIT offers students a view into the infosec world, network and system administration, information assurance concepts, and basic cryptography. And there is a path to certification after course completion. The MicroMasters Program has much more in the way of courses and certifications for more advanced training as well, including network security, forensics and risk management.
Undergraduate certification programs
Obviously, students can get a full bachelor-of-science degree in cybersecurity online. Our discussion here, however, is about training and certification programs not leading to degrees. An added bonus to the cybersecurity programs is that most credits earned would be transferrable toward a degree if students later decide to extend their education.
Some examples of undergraduate cybersecurity certification programs available online follow. There are many other online undergraduate certificate programs available. See the bottom of this page for a more extensive list.
- Utica College Cyber Technologies Certificate
- CSU Global undergraduate certificate in cybersecurity
- American Military University undergraduate certificate in cybersecurity
- Thomas Edison State University undergraduate certificate in cybersecurity
- Champlain College online cybersecurity certificate
Graduate certification programs
As with undergraduate cybersecurity certification programs, graduate programs typically gain the student credits that can be used toward a graduate degree. And as with undergraduate options, these programs vary widely in focus, scope, amount of time required, and cost.
Just a few examples of graduate cybersecurity certification programs available online by some of the country’s most highly-regarded colleges follow. There are many more available. See below for a more extensive list.
- George Washington University Master’s of Engineering in cybersecurity
- Boston University Certificate in Cybercrime Investigation Cybersecrity
- University of Maryland offers three graduate certificates in cybersecurity
- Purdue University graduate certificate in cybersecurity
A list of online academic cybersecurity certification programs
The following list of certification programs includes up-to-date information. It is not a ranking of any sort. It is instead offered to provide training and certification options to those interested, and to give a basis of comparison amongst the choices.