This article is about the differences between degrees in computer science and cybersecurity. To see our article on associate’s degrees in cybersecurity, go here. You can also see our articles “Is a Cybersecurity Degree Difficult” and “Do I Need A Bachelor’s Degree for Cybersecurity.”
So you’re ready to take the plunge into a tech degree? That’s great!
There’s never been a better time than now to be involved in IT. Whatever path you take, whether programming, networking, Cloud infrastructure support, or pen testing, there are thousands of employers looking for professional techs in almost every field in IT. Your job prospects are great and you have a variety of careers to choose from.
Ready to Start Your Cybersecurity Career?
If you're serious about starting your cybersecurity career, enroll in my FREE 5-part series "Strategies for New Cyber Careers". These strategies can help you determine your best path forward. I'll also send you my weekly cyber career newsletter with resources that every cyber professional needs to know.
Ultimately, the choice to invest in a degree is a wise one. Although you can find good jobs with only a few years’ experience and a few certificates like the CompTIA A+, Security+, or Network+ padding your resume, the additional plus of having at least a Bachelor’s degree raises your value on the job market and frequently qualifies as work experience.
Frequently, a degree qualifies you for high-level positions and better pay, and some employers do require a degree. The United States federal government won’t employ anyone for IT-related positions without at least a Bachelor’s degree in a relevant field.
But of course, there’s always the big question: which degree should I choose, Computer Science or Cybersecurity?
There are pros to both and cons to both, depending on your point of view. Let’s take a look at some of the most obvious differences between a degree in Computer Science and a degree in Cybersecurity.
1) Computer Science requires advanced math classes.
That sounds more like a con than a pro. For many students, the scariest thing about Computer Science degrees is not that the theory, but the math. You’ll find dozens of IT professionals complaining about how they were forced to take calculus as an undergraduate and have never had to use calculus once in their entire professional career.
On the other hand, you’ll find CS graduates who swear calculus helped them solve a critical problem in their programming. Since programming relies heavily on computation and logic, it makes sense that an understanding of calculus would be invaluable in certain situations, particularly for software engineers.
Besides calculus, you may also be required to take related math classes like an introduction to discrete structures. You should be warned that a lot of schools consider precalculus and calculus classes to be “weeding out” opportunities—in essence, the classes are super hard and require a lot of work. Hey, only the best belong in computer science. Right?
In contrast, if you’re a Cybersecurity major then you won’t have to worry about high-level math at all. That one general education math class is all you’re ever going to need and you’ll probably never have to look at another logarithm in your life. Don’t worry, you have some fun requirements ahead of you as well!
2) Cybersecurity frequently requires a solid understanding of network systems.
After all that calculus talk, you’re probably thinking you want to stay as far away from computer science as possible. Think again.
Calculus is hard, but I’d say it’s every bit as hard as understanding how computers talk to each over a network, knowing how to analyze those conversations (data packets), and being able to recognize when there’s an abnormality in network traffic.
That’s exactly what you’ll be doing in many cybersecurity fields. Whether you’re a pentester, a network analyst, or if your position is strictly managerial, you still need to understand how networks function because exposure to the internet is a huge security vulnerability.
Many cybersecurity degrees require some experience with computer networking. Like calculus, a networking class requires a significant amount of time. It won’t be one of those classes you can pass with only a few hours’ extra study (you know the classes I’m talking about, and if you don’t, you will).
Like the cybersecurity field itself, networking takes a lot of time and concentration. You need to be prepared to not only memorize but implement what you learn, possibly setting up your own connection between a workstation, switch, and router. You’ll probably be asked to analyze packets on PuTTY or another client program.
Networking can be every bit as complex as calculus, and as a cybersecurity student, you will need at least a basic understanding of the subject.
3) In computer science, get ready for a lot of theory.
If you’re interested in how computers work and why computer science is the field for you. While cybersecurity tends to concentrate only on computer vulnerabilities and how to defend those vulnerabilities, computer science introduces you to the basic building blocks of computers.
As a computer science student, you’ll be learning about compiler theory, current trends in computer science, object-oriented programming, and how to design computer algorithms (compilers translate between a programming language and machine code).
You’re going to be that person who knows how stacks work in memory and can convert from decimal to binary and hex. With a computer science degree, you’re also going to be the person who has a keen understanding of how to communicate with computers—one of the most powerful roles in IT.
A cybersecurity program differs from computer science in that, while understanding how a computer works is fundamental, you don’t spend so much time on theory and development. In cybersecurity, your role is strictly to protect a system, not create it or understand how it was created.
4) In cybersecurity, you learn how to be a hacker.
It’s true, but don’t get too excited. You’re an ethical hacker—that is, someone who can only hack if their target is aware and gives you the green light on your hacking attempt. Otherwise, you could end up in serious trouble.
It may seem counterintuitive, but if you’re going to be an effective cybersecurity professional you need to know how to think like a hacker. That can mean a lot of things. Firstly, it means you need to understand the vulnerabilities hackers most commonly exploit. This can mean:
- Commonly used network ports
- Software code vulnerabilities
- Web scripting vulnerabilities
- Common types of cyber attacks (Man in the Middle exploits, Denial of Service attacks, Zero Day attacks, etc.)
That’s a pretty involved list, and believe me, it doesn’t even begin to cover everything. Cybersecurity threats are constantly evolving, and it’s practically impossible for a cyber professional to keep up with them. The only recourse you have is to understand how hackers use the tools they have to exploit systems.
Although you won’t need the in-depth level of knowledge that computer science encourages, you will need to be able to recognize vulnerabilities at least on a basic level.
5) Cybersecurity students need to know Linux.
If you don’t know it already, you’re going to. As a cybersecurity professional, Linux’s programs and features (check out Kali, a Linux distribution made exclusively for cybersecurity work) are invaluable. Whatever area of cybersecurity you decide to specialize in, understanding Linux is a must.
Almost all cybersecurity undergraduate programs require a class in Linux. You may or may not practice using actual security features, but as a beginner, you will familiarize yourself with using a CLI (Command Line Interface). Understanding how to use a system’s CLI means you can control specific operations on a computer just with a few key commands.
Linux is a powerful tool for interacting with a computer, but its value in the cybersecurity field is also more basic. Most of the computer systems used today run Windows, and consequently, most of the circulating viruses and malware are designed for Windows systems. This means that Linux systems, while not invulnerable, are less open to common attacks (the same general rule applies to Mac computers as well).
While familiarity with Linux is encouraged for computer science students, the need to know it isn’t quite so intense. Cybersecurity students will spend more than one semester becoming proficient Linux users.
6) Computer science students are basically prepping for software engineering.
A software engineer is basically a computer programmer, someone who designs software or computer systems. Computer science students do a lot of programming, frequently exploring several different languages.
Object-oriented programming is described by Code Project as a “design philosophy.” Basically, object-oriented programming “uses a different set of programming languages than old procedural programming languages,” which means you’ll be learning either Java, C++, C#, Python, or another high-level language.
OOP languages are frequently used in the gaming industry. Look up leading video game publishers like Bethesda Softworks or Rockstar, and you’ll recognize several of the desired languages in their engineer job descriptions as object-oriented programming languages. Want to be a UI engineer for ZeniMax Online Studios? C++ is the language for you.
Computer science students are proficient in one or more object-oriented programming languages, a valued skill in today’s job market. Cybersecurity students on the other hand, while proficiency in a programming language is definitely an advantage, are not required to have the level of skill that computer science students achieve.
7) Cybersecurity students need to be ethically aware.
The skills that you learn as a cybersecurity student place in you in an ideal position for defending an organization’s assets, but that awareness isn’t risk-free. Some students are tempted to hack people’s systems just to prove that they can, and while they may not harm or steal anyone’s data, if they’re caught the consequences can be very severe.
Many cybersecurity degree programs require that their students understand their limits within the bounds of the law. Without this understanding, it’s too easy for a professional pentester to overstep the line without even meaning to. The last thing you want is to be jailed for a crime you didn’t even mean to commit.
Respecting others’ boundaries and making sure that you understand what you are allowed to do as a cybersecurity professional is fundamental to cyber education. It’s critical that students remember what defines them, cyber defenders, from cyber attackers not just for the sake of an organization but for their own. It’s too easy for a harmless bit of fun to become a hack with serious consequences for the offender.
Which is better—a cyber or computer science degree?
Finally, that decision lies entirely with you. You’ve probably noticed that except for a few differences, computer science and cybersecurity curriculums have a lot of intersection. They both require familiarity with computers, memorization, analysis, and a lot of hard work. With dedication and practice, both degrees are valued by employers worldwide.
One thing you should keep in mind, however, is that computer science and cybersecurity are huge fields. While both degrees lay the groundwork for understanding, true proficiency in either field truly rests with you.
Cybersecurity, for instance, is a field in which you are constantly learning. Just because you have a degree doesn’t mean you know all there is to know. You will constantly be researching new cyber threats and the best ways to protect your organization against them. You’ll always be studying new software that makes cyber defense more in-depth.
The choice really is yours. Do you want to be a cyber professional or a software engineer? Either choice is a good one and if you are willing to put in the time and work, you’ll do great in either field. You may even get a computer science degree and end up working in a cyber profession based on your particular experience or certificates. As a cyber professional, you could easily end up designing security features for software.