Interview with Alfredo Tan, Ph.D. about the Online Master of Science in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance at Fairleigh Dickinson University

About Alfredo Tan, Ph.D.: Alfredo Tan is the Director of the Gildart Haase School of Computer Sciences and Engineering (GHSCSE) at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU), where he also teaches courses as a Professor of Electrical Engineering (EE). Dr. Tan oversees 11 undergraduate and 6 graduate programs in various fields of computer science, cybersecurity, electronic commerce, engineering, engineering technology, information technology, management information systems, and mathematics. Many of the undergraduate programs are accredited by CAC, EAC, and ETAC of ABET. Under his stewardship, GHSCSE has become a premier provider of STEM education to students, particularly the underserved, and a world-class producer of highly-skilled professionals to work locally, nationally, and globally in the high-tech industry. Dr. Tan was bestowed with the Gregory Olsen Endowed Chair in 2016.

Dr. Tan has been a faculty member at FDU for 33 years, and has served as Director for 25 years. The courses he teaches span topics in EE, Computer Engineering, and Computer Science, including circuits, electronics, systems; digital system design; microprocessors/computer architecture; communication systems, digital and wireless communications; digital/adaptive signal/image processing; computer programming; data communications; and computer networks. In 2003, Dr. Tan received the Distinguished Faculty Award for Teaching.

Along with his colleagues, Dr. Tan has created several outreach programs that promote STEM disciplines to underserved high school students. These programs have been well supported by state agencies, corporate donors, and private foundations, including a $1.3 million endowment from Dr. Gregory Olsen, an FDU alumnus and trustee, and more than $700,000 from other donors. About 1,500 students from 13 school districts have benefited from these programs. Dr. Tan received an FDU Presidential Citation for his outreach work in 2014.

Working with his colleagues, Dr. Tan has established 9 new state-of-the-art labs, enhanced 8 existing labs, created 6 academic degree programs, obtained grants of more than $3.5 million, and helped secure other large external gifts. The new labs established include the Green Energy Lab, Industrial Automation and Robotics Lab, Advanced Mechatronics Lab, Electromechanical Systems Lab, CNC Manufacturing Lab, Additive Manufacturing (3-D printing) Lab, Mechanical Training Lab, iLab, and the Cyber Defense and Digital Forensics Lab, whose development is ongoing. The development of the labs was supported through a generous grant from the State of New Jersey (NJ). The overarching goals of the grant project are to increase the number of graduates and workers, especially those from underserved groups, in the STEM fields, particularly in high-demand and emerging fields, in NJ, and to help enhance NJ’s academic and economic competitiveness.

Dr. Tan’s research interests are in communications, digital/adaptive signal/image processing and more recently in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, data science, machine learning, and robotics. Since 2012, he has held the position of Chair of IEEE Signal Processing Society Chapter, North Jersey Section, and was Vice Chair from 2001 to 2012. In 2003, he received an IEEE Outstanding Services and Contributions to Section Activities Award.

Dr. Tan earned his master’s and Ph.D. in EE from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He is a senior member of IEEE and a member of Upsilon Pi Epsilon and Eta Kappa Nu, the honor societies for CS and EE, respectively. In the Online MS in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance program, GHSCSE’s dedicated faculty/staff and Dr. Tan provide students with individualized attention and strong support on instruction, academic advisement, and professional, employment and internship guidance.

Interview Questions

[] Could you please provide an overview of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Online Master of Science in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance, and how it is structured? May we have more information about how this program prepares students to work at the intersection of cybersecurity and information technology management?

[Dr. Alfredo Tan] The Online Master of Science in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance (CSIA) program requires successful completion of 30 credits of courses, which consist of 15 credits of core courses, 3 credits of a capstone project course, and 12 credits of selective technical electives, beyond any needed prerequisites. Through the core courses, students will learn the fundamentals of operating systems, computer networks, cybersecurity, applied cryptography, penetration testing, and vulnerability analysis. The core courses provide students with the needed foundation while selected electives provide them with the breadth and depth needed for professional practice and success in the field of CSIA.

By properly selecting courses from a list of approved electives, students can focus in one of two specific areas of CSIA: Network Security Administration or Secure Software Development. These two focus areas are selectively offered, as they are highly in-demand. Moreover, these two focus areas satisfy the knowledge units of those focus areas as specified by the National Security Agency (DHS) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for their National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education (CAE-CDE) program. More focus areas will also be developed in future as needed.

The program is a rigorous one, yet it offers great flexibility. In lieu of the two focus areas, students can choose four courses (12 credits) from the list of approved electives based on their interests and career goals in consultation with an academic adviser. Students can also undertake co-operative educational experience to obtain practical work experience under the supervision of a faculty advisor and earn 3 academic credits that count as an elective. Since the program is highly technical, it goes far beyond the management and setting up of policies and frameworks of information technology (IT) infrastructure. Students learn to establish and implement security measures and systems to protect the IT infrastructure of an organization, a business, or a state or a federal agency from cyberattacks. Students are encouraged to obtain professional certificates on cybersecurity, including Security+ and Cybersecurity (e.g., CySA+, PenTest+) from CompTIA and the Certified Information System Security Professional (CISSP) from the International Information System Security Certification Consortium (ISC)².

[] How is cybersecurity as a field evolving to meet the needs of contemporary information systems? How does Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Online Master of Science in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance equip students with the knowledge and skills to meet these needs? On a related note, how do cybersecurity and information assurance intersect with fields such as computer science, business, information systems, public policy, engineering, and public health?

[Dr. Alfredo Tan] Cybersecurity is a rapidly evolving and expanding field, and it will continue to do so because of its highly dynamic nature, which is driven from the never-ending war between the bad actors (threat actors, malicious hackers, and attackers), and the good actors (cybersecurity professionals and ethical hackers). FDU’s MSCSIA program enables students to acquire and apply in-depth knowledge and skills to establish and implement protocols for information security, protect against security intrusions through the use of firewalls and other defensive measures, safeguard and encrypt sensitive information, enact data access regulations, design and establish virus protection systems, implement and oversee disaster recovery plans for business continuity, conduct penetration tests to identify and analyze system vulnerabilities, and design secure software. Students also learn to develop and use modern computer and engineering tools to mitigate or resolve cybersecurity issues. Equally important, the program helps students develop analytical, problem-solving, critical thinking, and lifelong learning skills.

The courses and the curriculum of the MSCSIA are regularly reviewed and updated following the guidelines on cybersecurity curricula from professional organizations and government agencies to ensure that they are current and relevant. These guidelines include the Cybersecurity Curricula 2017 jointly developed by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), IEEE Computer Society (IEEE-CS), and other professional associations; the Cybersecurity Framework by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); and Knowledge Units on Cybersecurity by NSA/DHS.

The MSCSIA program offers students far more in-depth, advanced and specialized cybersecurity knowledge and skills to best fit and work successfully as cybersecurity professionals compared to other IT-related programs, including computer science, computer engineering, IT, information systems, and software engineering. Non-technical programs on cybersecurity, including those from business, public policy, and public health, offer students only basic cybersecurity concepts and focus on security policy management and administration; thus, graduates of those programs do not possess knowledge and skills to actually implement any cybersecurity measures and controls to deploy the security systems and policies effectively.

[] The National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security designated Fairleigh Dickinson University a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education. May we have more information about this accolade, and what it means for students who graduate from FDU’s M.S. in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance?

[Dr. Alfredo Tan] Yes, Fairleigh Dickinson University is officially designated as a CAE-CDE institution by NSA and DHS after going through a rigorous application and review process. The designated program courses were topic-by-topic as well as outcome-by-outcome mapped into NSA/DHS specified 8 core and 14 optional knowledge units (KUs) in 2015. The mapping was 100% complete for the chosen 22 KUs, and it was reviewed by NSA/DHS appointed reviewers. This guarantees the quality and conformance of the program contents.

Government agencies, including NSA, DHS, and Department of Defense (DoD), look favorably upon CAE-CDE designated institutions in the awarding of grants on course, curriculum, and program development, and as well as on students from such institutions in terms of awarding of scholarships and offering of internship or employment. Employers from industry and private organizations also value these institutions and students. As mentioned previously, the two focus areas of MSCSIA, Network Security Administration and Secure Software Development, satisfy the knowledge units of those focus areas as specified by NSA and DHS for their CAE-CDE programs.

[] What online technologies does this program use to facilitate interactions between course faculty and students? Are classes primarily asynchronous, synchronous, or a combination of both?

[Dr. Alfredo Tan] The classes are conducted asynchronously to support working professionals and students who have time, travel, and geographical constraints. Students and course instructors interact and communicate through the discussion board of Blackboard Collaborate (WebCampus) and email. All the course materials are uploaded to Blackboard. Quizzes and exams are conducted online through WebCampus and proctored by instructors, proctors, and/or Respondus as needed. Students and faculty can arrange to communicate through Zoom meetings and phone calls whenever needed.

[] What role does faculty mentorship play in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Online Master of Science in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance? Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students of this program? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program?

[Dr. Alfredo Tan] Students are required to successfully complete a major project under the supervision of a faculty member through the CSIA Graduate Capstone Project course (3 credits). In addition to this course, students can also conduct research with faculty through the Research and Thesis courses (6 credits), submit a Master’s thesis, and present their research results at professional conferences. Faculty also provide internship and employment guidance.

FDU has a Center of Career Development that any student can utilize. In addition, GHSCSE has a professional staff member, Coordinator of Student Outreach and Career Development, who can help students in their job and internship searches. GHSCSE also hosts a meeting twice a year with its CS, IT, and Cyber Industrial Advisory Board (IAB). The IAB consists of professionals from nearby industries and FDU faculty members. In those meetings, curricular topics, internship, and job opportunities are discussed and acted upon.

[] For students who are interested in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Online Master of Science in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Alfredo Tan] Students who have an undergraduate degree in computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, information technology, information science, software engineering, or other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs will make the best candidates for the Online MSCSIA program. Nevertheless, it is still possible for students who hold an undergraduate degree from non-technical programs, particularly those who have worked in IT industry in some capacity or those who simply want to change their career to the CSIA profession, to be admitted to the program and succeed in it, provided they take the needed prerequisite courses as determined by the program faculty. The prerequisite course requirements are evaluated on an individual basis.

The program is looking for candidates who are highly motivated, disciplined, and proactive–problem solvers who can work independently and think critically. Letters of recommendation that show these attributes of the candidates will help. Clearly stated professional goals geared towards cyber defense and/or information security in personal statements will also help.

[] What makes Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Online Master of Science in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? From faculty expertise and mentorship opportunities to the quality of the curriculum, what are some standout aspects of the program that you would like prospective students to know about?

[Dr. Alfredo Tan] The Online MSCSIA program is a very rigorous program that not only provides students with a very strong, broad foundation in theoretical concepts and understanding of cybersecurity, but also gives them hands-on, in-depth, practical experience in developing cybersecurity solutions that meet the needs of industry and government agencies. Students are prepared to serve in various roles and sectors of cybersecurity and IT industries. Moreover, the curriculum offers great flexibility and convenience in terms of meeting individual needs and career goals of students. As a culmination of their studies, students are required to successfully complete a major and meaningful project under the supervision of a faculty adviser. Students are also encouraged to undertake an internship to obtain practical work experience and obtain 3 credits counted toward an elective.

Students focusing on Secure Software Development can step into Software Developer, Secure Software Assessor, Systems Developer, or Information Systems Security Specialist Work roles under the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) Cybersecurity Workforce Framework Securely Provision (SP) category. Specialization in Network Security Administration can lead to the work roles of Network Operations Specialist under Operate and Maintain (OM) category, as well as the Cyber Defense Analyst and Vulnerability Assessment Analyst under the Protect and Defend (PM) category. Several other NICE Framework Work Roles can be pursued by the MSCSIA degree holders with optional professional certification(s).

The Online MSCSIA program is supported by dedicated faculty members who are experts in cybersecurity and have obtained about $1.3 million in grants from the NSA and other organizations for awarding of student scholarships, developing lab exercises, and conducting research on cybersecurity issues. The program is supported by several state-of-the-art labs, including the Cyber Defense and Digital Forensics Lab, whose development is ongoing, and the Computer Networking lab, as well as being a member of Cisco Networking Academy. Students can remotely access the computer resources in the labs through iLab, a virtual lab.

Thank you, Dr. Alfredo Tan, for your excellent insight into Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Online Master of Science in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance program!