Cybersecurity certification programs exist in many formats. Generally, they serve two main purposes. The first is to train entry-level workers to use specific tools and technologies. The second reason is that professional certifications provide a way for more seasoned IT and computer networking professions to verify and show mastery of skills.
Like other computer science and information technology fields, professional certifications play a large role in cybersecurity employment and career advancement.
What’s the difference between cybersecurity certification programs?
Today’s cybersecurity certification programs can be broken down into two main categories: Professional cybersecurity certification programs and academic cybersecurity certification programs.
Here’s how the two programs differ:
- Professional cybersecurity certification programs are designed for people already working in the cybersecurity field (or closely-related IT and networking fields) to get trained on some of the latest tools and software to detect, prevent, and combat against cybersecurity issues. These certifications are used to show proficiency with specific technologies. CompTIA Security Plus is one example of a professional certificate that is a common entry-level professional cybersecurity certificate.
- Academic cybersecurity certification programs are designed to provide students with a deep background into some of the current issues in the cybersecurity field. Examples of academic certification programs include Harvard’s online cybersecurity certification or the University of Maryland online undergraduate certification in cybersecurity. These courses generally pair with other coursework and certification programs to provide students with the necessary skills and experience to get started in the growing cybersecurity industry.
Cybersecurity certification programs for professionals
One defining characteristic of the cybersecurity field is that there are a number of certifications that qualify working professionals in specific skills. Many job postings and career positions in cybersecurity require some level of certification, so it’s a good idea to pay attention to what kinds of certifications are in demand depending on a career track or job type.
A professional certification can also be a great way to land that first job within the cybersecurity field.
“So they are hiring my students even before they finish their degree. As long as they have some of the classes and some background in it, they really don’t need any hands-on experience. They do have to get a CompTIA Security Plus certification. Now that’s a DOD [Department of Defense] requirement. But they are taking my students even before they finish,”
Some companies use certain data structures or network products and so they might require that their professional cybersecurity staff be certified. Examples of popular professional certifications include:
- Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)*
- GIAC Security Essentials*
- Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)
- Comp TIA Security +
- Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
* These courses are considered foundational and might provide a good starting point for people just getting started in the cybersecurity field.
It is important to note that many cybersecurity certifications, even the ones considered foundational, sometimes require a combination of verifiable university coursework or a number of years of work experience. Sometimes certifying bodies might require both. Additionally, some certifications will charge fees to determine eligibility.
Increasingly, associate’s and bachelor’s cybersecurity programs are offering professional certification preparation as part of the course load.
For example, Hossein Sarrafzadeh, a professor of cybersecurity and department chair of the cybersecurity department at Saint Bonaventure University said during a recent expert interview with Cybersecurity Guide,
“We’ve embedded a lot of industry certification materials into our curriculum…Students are encouraged to pursue industry certification, and get industry certified while doing their academic work.”
Professional cybersecurity certification organizations
Within the cybersecurity field there are a handful of widely-recognized and highly-respected certification organizations. Each organization has its own certifications, requirements, and study guide resources.
These are some of the organizations granting cybersecurity certificates:
- GIAC – Global Information Assurance Certification
- (ISC)2 – The International Information System Security Certification Consortium
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How to get a cybersecurity certification
Most certification programs require that a student pass a final exam to earn the certificate in a certain skill. The professional cybersecurity certification process can be broken into two parts: Training and test prep courses, and then taking the actual test.
The cost and preparation required to depend largely on the certification. An ethical hacker certification can cost $500 (with an extra $100 fee for challenge test participants). Other certifications can range from thousands of dollars in training costs and require hundreds of dollars for the actual exam.
Most of the professional cybersecurity certification exams are taken online at a scheduled time. There is also a time limit for taking the exam, and some are open book.
Here are a few pointers for preparing for a cybersecurity professional certification exam from the Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC) organization, which offers a number of certifications for cybersecurity professionals:
- Plan carefully and take several months to prepare and plan for the exam.
- Understand the certification objectives in advance and try to get “hands-on” time with the material in an effort to prepare analytical skills and the ability to apply knowledge.
- Use practice tests to find knowledge gaps and to become familiar with the testing process.
- Professional cybersecurity certification exams will require real-world problems and scenarios, so practice that style problem solving during test prep.
One important aspect is to understand that different certifications are required by different professional roles. So figuring out what is required or desired at your current employer and/or what would be attractive on a job application or CV is a good first step in planning.
Cybersecurity certification programs for students
Academic cybersecurity certification programs
Certifications take less time to complete — sometimes they might be courses that last several weeks to a year or more. They also don’t require as many prerequisites like traditional undergraduate courses (like SAT or ACT scores, for example).
Academic cybersecurity certification programs are great options for students that might have already completed a degree in a related field and are looking to make a career switch, or for students that want to explore what preparing for a cybersecurity career might be like before committing to a lengthier academic program.
Below are two examples of different kinds of cybersecurity programs:
Havard’s Cybersecurity: Managing Risk in the Information Age is a great example of an academic short course designed to help launch careers in the cybersecurity field.
The course is divided into eight modules over eight weeks (the course description says that students are expected to dedicate roughly 10 hours weekly to the course). The goal of Harvard’s online cybersecurity certification is to guide students through the process of understanding different kinds of cybersecurity threats, how those threats present risks to businesses, and what steps companies and organizations can take to prevent cybersecurity threats and attacks. Additionally, the certification teaches students to learn about cybersecurity compliance and walks through when and how cybercrimes need to be reported to law enforcement authorities.
The course outline, according to the eight modules looks like this:
- Cybersecurity as a business risk
- Identifying threats
- Identifying important systems and assets
- Leadership in managing cyber risk
- Understanding your technology
- Cyber risk and the law
- Incident response
- Designing and implementing a mitigation strategy
The course culminates in a certification from Harvard University’s Office of the Provost for Advances in Learning.
Another example is the University of Maryland’s Cybersecurity Certificate which offers comprehensive programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Both levels require between 15 and 18 credit hours and are designed to be completed in a year. The undergraduate program is designed to help prepare students that have an undergraduate degree in another discipline to gain experience in computer networking prepare to take the necessary cybersecurity professional certification exams and be prepared to launch a career.
The program does not require additional test scores such as the SAT or GRE, and transferring previous academic credit applicable to the program’s requirements is allowed.
The University of Maryland’s online cybersecurity certification has two tracks at the graduate level. Depending on background and career interest, students can choose between cybersecurity management and policy or cybersecurity technology and information assurance.
Both the undergraduate and graduate online cybersecurity certificate courses are eligible for scholarship and financial aid opportunities.
Academic cybersecurity certification program requirements
The coursework required to complete an academic cybersecurity undergraduate degree varies widely from school to school — and depending on the level of certification (post-baccalaureate vs postgraduate) for example. As a general rule, most academic certification programs require around 15 credit hours, which is equivalent to one semester of full-time study.
The key thing to keep in mind is that academic cybersecurity certification programs are intentionally designed to help students with a relevant background (computer science, mathematics, engineering, or relevant work experience) get specific training and expertise in cybersecurity topics. Essentially, the goal of these certification programs is to bridge the gap between previous experience and the requirements of the cybersecurity workforce.
Here’s one example of a cybersecurity certification program offered by Penn State and designed for prospective students with an undergraduate degree in a related field. Penn State’s program, which is called Information Systems Cybersecurity Certificate for Professionals is designed to help participants:
- Get up to speed on foundational cybersecurity technologies, processes, and systems.
- How to build and maintain information and data systems.
- How to take an interdisciplinary approach to analyze the security of modern information systems.
- Conduct penetration testing to understand vulnerabilities in cybersecurity infrastructure.
A couple of other factors and these are particular to Penn State’s program but offer an idea of some of the things to be on the lookout for when investigating related offerings: The credits earned during the post-baccalaureate cybersecurity certification can later be applied toward one of several master’s degrees in cybersecurity offered by Penn State. In addition, Penn State has been recognized by the Department of Homeland Security as a National Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense.
A listing of academic cybersecurity certification programs
This listing is compiled with the latest available information about academic programs that offer academic cybersecurity certification programs. This listing is not a ranking system by any means. Instead, it was created to help prospective cybersecurity certification students compare and contrast some basic information about the programs available.
Many prospective students report that cost, program availability, and online versus campus options as the main points of interest when making comparisons between programs.