Question: What is the difference between a bachelor's degree in cybersecurity versus a master's degree in cybersecurity? How do the courses and career paths for graduates differ between undergraduate and graduate programs in cybersecurity?
Updated: October 10, 2022
Answer: Both bachelor’s in cybersecurity and master’s in cybersecurity degrees prepare students to step into diverse cybersecurity roles. However, while bachelor’s programs are comprised of general education requirements as well as courses that focus on foundational cybersecurity concepts and skills (i.e., major courses), master’s programs in cybersecurity are typically comprised exclusively of courses on cybersecurity and information technology. Furthermore, in general, students pursuing a master’s degree take more advanced courses, relative to undergraduate students, and many master’s programs allow students the option of specializing in a particular area of practice within the larger field of cybersecurity.
Cybersecurity is a broad field that is pertinent to myriad industries and organizations, as it involves the protection of sensitive company and consumer information through various information security strategies, best practices, and technologies. Both undergraduate and graduate students in cybersecurity learn how to design and implement protective measures to guard information systems from cyber attacks, identify and address existing threats, ensure company compliance with government cybersecurity standards and policies, oversee network systems security, and evaluate and improve IT infrastructure to enhance security.
While the bachelor’s in cybersecurity and the master’s in cybersecurity have overlapping course content and train students for the same field, they are fundamentally different degrees. Bachelor’s in cybersecurity programs are four-year undergraduate degrees typically designed for students who have not earned a college degree yet and are seeking to gain foundational skills and knowledge in cybersecurity in order to qualify for entry-level jobs in the field. Master’s in Cybersecurity programs, on the other hand, are designed for candidates who already hold at least a bachelor’s degree, and who either want to further advance in the field of cybersecurity through a graduate degree, or else pivot from a related or different industry to cybersecurity.
The Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Cybersecurity
The B.S. in Cybersecurity is generally a four-year, 120-160 credit (120 for schools that use the semester system, 160 credits for schools that use a quarter system) undergraduate degree program that prepares students for entry-level roles in cybersecurity and information security. This degree is typically comprised of general education requirements, major-specific coursework (consisting of foundational and advanced or specialized courses in cybersecurity), and electives. While most B.S. in Cybersecurity programs offer a generalist bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity, some programs may give students concentration options in areas such as Cloud Infrastructure, Digital Forensics and Investigations, Database Management, or Network Operations and Administration, to name just a few examples.
Traditionally, students who wish to earn a bachelor’s degree would apply to a university, take a year of general education classes, and then declare their major or apply to a department or school within the university for which they want to earn their major. For example, many colleges require undergraduate students to apply to their business schools by the end of their first or second year if they wish to earn a bachelor’s degree in business. As more universities create programs designed for non-traditional students (i.e., students who do not attend a four-year college directly after completing their high school diploma), it is becoming more common for students to apply directly to the programs for which they want to enroll. For these schools, students may be required to submit a general application and a program-specific application, or they may only have to submit a program-specific application.
To help illustrate the structure and content of a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity, a sample undergraduate degree plan is outlined below. Prospective students should keep in mind that colleges and universities differ in how they structure their undergraduate degree programs and what they include as part of their curricula; therefore, the following table should be used for example purposes only, and does not represent all cybersecurity undergraduate degree programs available to students. Furthermore, in addition to traditional bachelor’s programs in cybersecurity that range from 120 to 160 credits, there are bachelor’s completion programs for students who have completed their general education requirements and who can embark immediately upon their concentration coursework and electives. For these students, degree plans will vary depending on the number of credits they can transfer towards their bachelor’s degree.
Sample Degree Plan for a B.S. in Cybersecurity
(40 credits or 8 courses)
(65 credits or 13 courses)
As the table above illustrates, bachelor’s degrees in cybersecurity generally include humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences courses as part of students’ general education requirements, followed by major-specific coursework and electives. Some, but not all, undergraduate programs in cybersecurity require students to fulfill an internship or capstone project as their culminating experience in the program. A capstone project is a concrete deliverable that demonstrates students’ competencies in cybersecurity, and which can be used as part of their portfolio as they apply for jobs post-graduation.
In addition to bachelor’s degrees in cybersecurity, there are also bachelor’s degrees in computer science and engineering, information technology, and other related fields that may have courses or minors in cybersecurity. In order to get the most up-to-date and detailed information about cybersecurity courses and major/minor options at their schools of interest, prospective undergraduate students should contact the admissions offices of these schools with their questions.
The Master of Science (M.S.) in Cybersecurity Degree
The M.S. in Cybersecurity is generally comprised of 35-45 course credits of graduate-level coursework in cybersecurity. While the curricula for these programs vary from school to school, in general these programs are comprised of 15-25 credits of core courses, 15-20 credits of concentration-specific courses and/or electives, and 3-6 credits consisting of a culminating experience such as an advanced internship, capstone project, and/or a master’s thesis. In comparison to bachelor’s programs, most master’s programs do not have general education courses, although students may be required to complete prerequisite courses in computer science or information technology if they do not have a background in a field related to cyber security.
Students interested in pursuing a master’s in cybersecurity should review admissions requirements carefully to determine whether or not a program requires an undergraduate degree in computer science, information technology, or a related field. There are M.S. in Cybersecurity programs that are designed specifically for students who have a strong foundation in computer programming and who wish to gain advanced technical skills related to penetration testing, ethical hacking, vulnerability and threat analysis, database management, and more. There are also master’s programs in cybersecurity that are designed for students who wish to pursue leadership positions where they will need advanced skills in cyber governance, project management, operations, and compliance. These programs may or may not require an undergraduate degree in technology. There are also programs that will accept students regardless of their undergraduate degree, assuming they complete foundational courses before enrolling in the master’s curriculum.
In addition to varying admissions requirements, relative to undergraduate degrees in cybersecurity, master’s degrees in cybersecurity often have more concentration options, giving students the ability to further specialize in a particular area within the industry. For example, potential specializations may include, but are not limited to, cybersecurity policy, digital forensics, physical systems security (hardware), software security, and database management and security. For students researching programs, it is always best to reach out to a program administrator if they have any questions regarding a program’s focus, specializations, and/or specific admissions requirements.
Note: In addition to Master of Science in Cybersecurity programs, there are also M.S. programs in related fields (e.g., Computer Science, Software Engineering, Engineering, Information Technology, Business Administration, etc.) that offer specializations in cyber security that may be a good option for students. These programs may be offered through Schools/Departments of Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Public Policy, Business, and more.
In summary, one of the primary distinctions between master’s in cybersecurity programs vs. bachelor’s in cybersecurity programs is that M.S. in Cybersecurity degree programs generally include courses that help students step into a more advanced role in the field. In other words, master’s programs in cybersecurity tend to have courses that hone students’ leadership skills in cybersecurity and information management, or else give them more advanced and specialized technical skills in specific areas within cybersecurity.
To illustrate the typical structure of a Master of Science in Cybersecurity, a sample curriculum is provided below. Please note that this degree plan is meant for educational purposes only, and is not representative of all the M.S. in Cybersecurity degrees available through schools nationwide.
Sample Degree Plan for a M.S. in Cybersecurity
(18 credits or 6 courses)
(18 credits or 6 courses)
(3 to 6 credits)
As the table above illustrates, students of master’s programs in cybersecurity typically focus entirely on gaining more specialized knowledge in this field without having to complete general education courses. In addition, a capstone project or thesis is generally a cornerstone of a master’s degree program, regardless of a student’s field of study. It is very common for master’s programs in cybersecurity to require a capstone project that enables students to combine the knowledge and methodologies they have learned in the program to a concrete deliverable. Students often work on their capstone for an entire term under the guidance of a professor or committee of professors while they are enrolled in a capstone course.
A master’s capstone project typically requires students to identify a real-world cybersecurity problem and develop a comprehensive, data-backed cybersecurity plan. Depending on the program and the capstone project parameters, students work either individually or in groups to analyze the cybersecurity threat, apply principles and methods they have learned in their courses, write up a detailed cybersecurity report, and present findings and recommendations to their instructor, peers, and relevant stakeholders. While some master’s in cybersecurity programs have students work with real-world clients, others may give students the option of choosing an organization to work with, or to design a cybersecurity plan for a hypothetical organization.
Note: While many master’s programs require a capstone, there are programs that require students to complete a comprehensive exam in lieu of a capstone project. There are also master’s programs that do not have a capstone requirement, where students only complete courses to earn their master’s degree. In such cases, students may be asked to select from the projects they have completed during their master’s program, and to design a cybersecurity professional portfolio that showcases the skills they have gained to potential employers.
Finally, some master’s in cybersecurity programs also include courses that are specifically designed to prepare students for professional certifications in cybersecurity with various organizations, including but not limited to ISACA, the International Information System Security Certification Consortium ((ISC)²), CompTIA, and the SANS Institute. While preparation for these credentials may be integrated into a master’s program’s curriculum, they are not usually the focus of a master’s degree.
Bachelor’s vs Master’s Degree Programs in Cybersecurity
As mentioned above, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cybersecurity serve different student populations. The Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity serves individuals who are seeking more entry-level positions in the field, and the student population for these programs tends to be younger, with many students enrolling soon after completing high school or community college. In addition, these programs may be ideal for older “non-traditional” students who are working in the field of information technology who have not yet earned their bachelor’s degree.
In contrast, the Master of Science in Cybersecurity generally serves older student populations—that is, individuals who have earned their baccalaureate degree already and who either want to further advance in the field of cybersecurity or else pivot into the field after having earned their degree in a different area. Due to these differences in student populations, it is more common to find master’s programs in cybersecurity with online coursework, relative to bachelor’s degrees in cybersecurity (that said, there are Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity programs that also offer their curricula either fully or partially online.
Below is a table that summarizes several of the key differences between bachelor’s and master’s in cybersecurity degree programs. Prospective students of these programs should note that this table is intended for informational purposes only, and due to the diversity of curriculum structures and courses for cybersecurity degree programs at the baccalaureate and graduate levels, this table may not be representative of all the degree options in the field.
|Example Degree Names||
|Example Emphases/Concentration Options||
|Credits||120-160 credit hours||35-45 credit hours|
|Time to Completion||Typically four years of full-time study, or five or more years of part-time study (less for bachelor's completion programs)||One year to 18 months of full-time study, or two or more years of part-time study|
|Careers Post-Graduation||Entry-level positions in cybersecurity, cybercrime detection, information assurance, penetration testing, etc.||Mid-level to managerial roles in cybersecurity, information systems security administration, intrusion detection, network operations security, etc.|
|Delivery Methods||On-Campus, Hybrid, and Online||On-Campus, Hybrid, and Online|
|Capstone Options||Professional Project or Internship (varies depending on school)||Professional Project that demonstrates advanced skill and/or leadership in cybersecurity|
|Preparation for Third Party Certifications||Not common, though some programs may offer preparation for certifications with the following organizations: ||Fairly common, with courses that prepare students for certifications through organizations such as:
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