Computer science is a broad discipline that includes the study of computers and computing, and cybersecurity is a relatively new subfield of this discipline. Regardless of their degree, cybersecurity professionals require a deep understanding of computers and networks to investigate and mitigate attacks, monitor systems, and create protective solutions.
IN THIS GUIDE
- Computer science degree with an emphasis in cybersecurity
- Computer science versus cybersecurity
- A computer science approach to security
- How common are computer science degrees with a cybersecurity concentration?
- How to choose the right computer science degree program?
- Scholarships and financial aid
One way to craft an academic career in cybersecurity is to obtain a degree in computer science with a concentration in cybersecurity. A growing number of educational institutions offer both bachelor’s and master’s degrees with a concentration in cybersecurity. This prepares students to approach cybersecurity from a computer science perspective more than a traditional cybersecurity foundations viewpoint. Both approaches have an end goal of keeping cyberspace, networks, data, and end users safe, but the methods employed are distinctly different.
In addition to a concentration in cybersecurity, computer science degree programs can offer concentrations in app dev, product and program support, enterprise systems and cloud, and network and system administration. These programs emphasize the importance of a thorough understanding of computer science as a foundation for their specialized subfield.
The ideal candidate for a computer science major with a concentration in cybersecurity desires a broad understanding of computer science principles and to work in the cybersecurity field. Before a concentration or emphasis in cybersecurity became widely available, most cybersecurity professionals obtained a computer science degree with additional coursework designed to provide a better understanding of the principles of security. The newer cybersecurity degree programs have shifted that balance more toward a specialized degree rather than a concentration or emphasis within the traditional computer science program.
Computer science degree with an emphasis in cybersecurity
A degree concentration or emphasis refers to an area of study within a specific major. Unlike a degree minor, the concentration must be in the same field. For example, within computer science, cybersecurity is a complimentary concentration. Cybersecurity is a specific area of study within the field of computer science. On the other hand, a minor is a secondary academic specialization earned in any study area. A student could declare a major in computer science and a minor in history as an example.
There is typically no additional coursework that a student must take to obtain a concentration within a degree. If their academic institution of choice offers a concentration in cybersecurity as part of a computer science degree, concentration classes count toward the major requirements as well.
An undergraduate degree in computer science will include several kinds of courses. Many of these, especially in the first years of an undergraduate program, prepare students for the advanced coursework in the major’s advanced classes. Besides introductory computer science courses such as introduction to computer science, the coursework often includes basic computer applications, discrete mathematics, calculus, and algorithms.
Specific computer science classes might include programming languages, information technology, web and application development, and popular operating systems. For a concentration in cybersecurity, a student would be required to include a prescribed number of security-related courses.
Computer science degree vs. cybersecurity degree
The primary difference between a degree in cybersecurity and a degree in computer science, emphasizing cybersecurity, is the level of coursework focused on computer science principles compared to the number and complexity of security-related classes. While a cybersecurity degree will at least peripherally cover the computer science principles of programming, software engineering, and data mining, it will focus more intently on security-related topics. On the other hand, a computer science degree will provide more than a little security-related curriculum but will focus more on computer science principles.
More so than computer science, cybersecurity degrees often offer a variety of specializations. A university’s cybersecurity degree program may provide a classic cybersecurity degree, a forensic degree, and an operations degree. The classic version of the degree provides a general well-rounded cybersecurity education, the forensic degree focused on investigating computer crimes, and the operations degree for those wishing to work in a security operations center (SOC) or another operational role. Because cybersecurity degree programs have been developed more recently, there are fewer academic norms to which they adhere.
Of the 120–126 credit hours usually required for a Bachelor of Science in computer science, those seeking a cybersecurity specialization may be required to fill only 9 to 12 credits with cybersecurity classes. The remaining credits are filled by computer science and liberal studies classes or other electives.
The fields of computer science and cybersecurity generally have a similar earning potential. However, because of the nationwide shortage of cybersecurity talent, cybersecurity jobs often pay more than computer science positions.
These fields are closely aligned, and computer science degrees are more established, so many security-related jobs can be filled by either computer science or cybersecurity graduates. Generally speaking, the career aspirations for these two fields align as follows:
Computer science degree
- Computer and information research scientists
- Chief technology officer
- Computer programmer
- Web developers
- Database administrator
- Security engineer
- Security consultant
- Security administrator
- Information security analyst
- Penetration tester
A computer science approach to security
A Bachelor of Science in Computer Science degree program furnishes students with basic knowledge about information technology hardware and software, networks, programming, analysis, and security.
Security, from a computer science perspective, is less detailed and more fundamental. It is more theoretical and less operational. A computer scientist is concerned with the security ramifications of how programs, devices, applications, and networks are designed and implemented.
While both computer science and cybersecurity are highly technical computer-related degrees, the main difference between a degree in these two fields is the primary work roles they prepare students to fill. A cybersecurity professional’s day-to-day responsibilities may include auditing security systems, setting up firewalls, analyzing networks, and reporting data breaches. On the other hand, a professional in the computer science field may focus on building software features, network administration, or web development.
Security from a computer science perspective is about writing secure code, designing secure networks, and building web applications and mobile apps that protect a user’s data and infrastructure. It is less about implementing perimeter protection, enforcing access controls, mitigating vulnerabilities, and identifying exploits.
Many organizations look for programmers, system admins, and computer scientists with a broad understanding of the field and a mastery of security problems. These companies are interested in ensuring they follow up-to-date security requirements as they design, build, and deploy digital assets. They may, or may not, have a separate cybersecurity department — depending on their threat profile. These businesses are likely to recruit students holding a computer science degree with an emphasis on cybersecurity.
How common are computer science degrees with a cybersecurity concentration?
Security-related degree programs have grown in popularity over the past few decades. Computer science degree programs are, by far, more common than cybersecurity degree programs. The number of computer science degrees with a concentration in cybersecurity is quickly growing. Some attribute this to universities that have opted to expand their existing computer science program to teach cybersecurity topics rather than create new cybersecurity degrees from the ground up.
Largely this — expand the existing computer science program to include more security topics — tact is an excellent stop-gap method. Still, a growing number of cybersecurity careers require the more specialized security training that a cybersecurity degree provides. As the number of cybersecurity degree programs increases, there will be a natural pressure for other colleges to follow suit.
How to choose the right degree program
To choose the right degree program, students must evaluate their interests, educational background, and aptitude. If a student is primarily interested in programming languages, A.I., or robotics, they should consider a computer science degree. Additionally, in today’s threat-ladened world, a computer science degree with an emphasis in cybersecurity will make a graduate even more attractive to employers than a computer science degree without the cybersecurity emphasis. Conversely, if students are motivated by data privacy issues, digital forensics, and cyber compliance, a cybersecurity degree may be the best fit for them.
Many entry-level security-related jobs require only a bachelor’s degree. The choice between a bachelor’s or a master’s degree is often influenced by a student’s career goals and available resources. Still, a master’s degree in either cybersecurity or computer science will command a higher salary than a bachelor’s degree and might be a better fit for some students.
Master’s degree holders are often well suited for a leadership role such as I.T. manager or lead software designer. A master’s in cybersecurity management prepares graduates to recognize risks and threats, strengthen preventive measures, and devise security controls. Graduate-level training can open the door to careers as analysts, supervisors, and consultants.
In a recent interview with Cybersecurity Guide, Clifford Neuman, the Director of the USC Center for Computer Systems Security, talked about the degree options provided within USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering. Specifically, he outlined about the opportunities within the computer science department and the data science program. He said:
“The main [degree] for security practitioners is our Master of Science in Cybersecurity Engineering. That’s a two-year program that can be completed in about a year and a half if you’re motivated to do so. And it teaches both the fundamental theory of computer security for high assurance systems and the practical application of security techniques in today’s more common networked mobile and cloud environments.”
Additionally, Neuman described another masters degree option — USC’s master of science in computer science with an emphasis in cybersecurity, saying, “That program focuses on more of the fundamentals of computer science, including AI [It is] supplemented through several classes that students take specifically in the area of security. But if they take [the Computer Science] program, they take fewer classes specifically directed to security [compared to the MS in cybersecurity engineering degree]. They do gain an understanding of how security fits into other areas of computer science.”
Scholarships and financial aid
Financial assistance for security-related degrees is available from a number of sources, several of which are focused specifically on the cybersecurity industry. Examples of these include the following:
- Information Assurance Scholarship Program – This program is designed to increase the number of qualified personnel entering the information assurance (IA) and information technology fields within the Department of the Navy.
- Scholarship for Service – the National Science Foundation, in association with the National Security Agency, provides grants for cybersecurity students. Recipients must work after graduation for a federal, state, local or tribal government agency or approved SFS institution for a period equal to the length of the scholarship.
- Scholarships for Women Studying Information Security (SWSIS) – is a partnership of Applied Computer Security Associates (ACSA) and CRA-WP. Its long-term goal is to contribute to increasing the representation of women in the information security workforce
- Snort Scholarship – Cisco sponsored for information assurance majors
- Department of Homeland Security – The Department of Homeland Security offers a variety of prestigious scholarships, fellowships, internships, and training opportunities to expose talented students to the broad national security mission.
Scholarships and grants may also be available from individual schools. Check with the college’s financial assistance office to explore all options.
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A student interested in learning to protect data, networks, applications, devices, and infrastructure will do well with either a computer science degree with an emphasis in cybersecurity or a cybersecurity degree. Master of science and bachelor of science degree programs are available for both of these closely related fields.
Cybersecurity degree programs are newer and arguably more relevant to current security concerns. Computer science degree programs are mature and are arguably more comprehensive. They each approach security from distinctly different perspectives.
A computer science degree with an emphasis in cybersecurity will provide broader computer education, covering everything from statistics and boolean logic to programming and web development. Cybersecurity, on the other hand, will provide the most security-centric education available.
Both provide comparable incomes, with cybersecurity edging ahead due to the security skills gap. Tuition and scholarship constraints and opportunities will be very similar across the board.