5 top cybersecurity masters degrees: Which is right for you?

Some programs target mid-career security pros, others target career-changers new to cyber.

In the beginning there were certifications, and they were enough.

Put some word salad after your name — CISSP, CEH, GIAC, GPEN, CISM, ABC, 123, WTF, etc — and you were considered a security wizard, with a magical salary to boot.

Certifications are imperfect ways to measure security aptitude and skill, and more traditional academic institutions are now offering professional masters degrees in cybersecurity. Unlike a traditional research-oriented masters degree in computer science, however, these new professional degree programs are more akin to law school or medical school, advanced vocational training for specialists.

Some of these programs focus more on recruiting mid-career experienced security professionals and giving them the boost they need to leapfrog their way up the corporate ladder into a CSO or CISO role. Other programs focus more on helping career-changers with no experience working in IT move into an entry-level security role. All train students in the fundamentals of cryptography, network security, and application security to wildly varying degrees of difficulty. Every program is different, with some focusing more on policy and management, some exclusively on hands-on-keyboard skills, and every possible tweak of the dial in between.

Masters degree programs in cybersecurity are popping up all across the country. A quick web search turns up a couple dozen programs that may or may not be worth your time and money. Here's our unscientific — and biased — guide to the best of the best.

University of California Berkeley Masters in Information and Cybersecurity (MICS)

The MICS program at the UC Berkeley iSchool is one of the best professional cybersecurity masters degree around, but then again this reporter is currently enrolled in the MICS program and graduates as part of the first cohort this December. So full disclosure: I am biased.

MICS, at least so far, has focused on recruiting mid-career, experienced security professionals, and unlike many other competing degree programs, believes that cybersecurity is an interdisciplinary field encompassing technical skill as well as public policy, law and risk management.

A remote-only, part-time program, MICS is designed for working professionals, many of whom are unable or unwilling to take two years out of their life to go back to school for a masters degree.

New York University MS in Cybersecurity

A remote, part-time program similar to the Berkeley MICS degree, NYU's MS in Cybersecurity is designed to recruit college grads in their late 20s to early 30s with other degrees like psychology or sociology and to retrain them as entry-level cybersecurity professionals.

The NYU masters degree goes hand-in-hand with that university's Cyber Fellows program, a scholarship that pays for 75% of tuition costs, making it one of the best value — if not, perhaps, the most prestigious — cybersecurity masters degrees around. Their "bridge program" makes it easy for prospective students to learn basic computer science prerequisites at an affordable price ($1,500), and to see if they have the aptitude for cybersecurity work.

"The skills shortage people are talking about is in the hundreds of thousands, even millions," program director Nasir Memon told CSO earlier this year. "In order to scale and build this pipeline, affordability was needed. Once you digitize things, you can scale it to levels that allow you to start producing experts at a scale the country needs."

NYU's program is part of a larger initiative by the city of New York to increase the cybersecurity talent pool in that area, and the university works closely with local industry to help match graduates with jobs. Students don't have to live in New York to enroll, however. The Cyber Fellows program is open to all US residents.

Tufts' Masters in Cybersecurity and Public Policy

Tufts' new, full-time, on-campus cybersecurity masters program is a cross-disciplinary masters degree ideal for those interested in the thorny public policy and international law questions at the heart of the cybersecurity discipline. The masters is a joint degree between the School of Engineering, Department of Computer Science and the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy.

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