Do I Need a Computer Science Degree for Cyber Security?

Sometimes I’ll have someone ask me a question about computer science degrees, and how they apply to the field of cyber security.  People often want to know if they need a computer science degree to get into the field of cyber security.

So, do you need a computer science degree for cyber security?  A computer science degree is not needed for cyber security because there are many dedicated cyber security degree programs that are more appropriate and applicable to the security field.  Many colleges and universities have recognized the difference between computer science and cyber security, and now offer a separate program dedicated to just the cyber security field.

Let’s take a look at what computer science and cyber-security degrees are as well as their differences.

What is the differences between a computer science and cyber security degree?

Computer science degrees have been around for a long time. The majority of computer science degrees focus on programming, databases, and software and web development.  Because of this focus, computer science programs notoriously require a good bit of math, including courses in multiple level of calculus. This math requirement has been a challenge for many people for a long time, and because of this, some colleges have even developed a second technology-related program, which they often call computer information systems, computer information science, or management information systems.  These programs often have a lower math and programming requirement and in turn have more of a business focus, including possibly having a business minor built in.

Cyber security programs have been developed more recently and have much more of a security focus.  They may or may not include programming, calculus or business courses. Since cyber security programs are relatively new to colleges and universities, with most having been developed in the last decade, there is often a wide variety of content in the programs and they differ greatly from one college to the next.

When choosing between a computer science and a cyber security program, consider the type of work that you think you may be interested in doing.  Are you interested in how to secure a computer system, or how to perform penetration testing or forensics, or would you enjoy creating applications and websites or working on databases?

What computer science and cyber security degrees have in common

With the differences between computer science and cyber security programs laid out, it’s important to point out that even though they are different, both programs can be extremely beneficial.  The demand for people with any of the skills covered in either of these types of programs is so strong that graduates with either degree should have excellent career prospects ahead of them. In other words, you’re really just trying to pick the better fit between the two.

Computer science and cyber security degrees, while different, do have other similarities.  Both of these degree types provide some form of useful and marketable technical knowledge, and help you develop the ability to write, document and communicate at a higher level, which is a critical skill set for anyone pursuing a professional career such as these.  Enrolling in either type of program will show an employer your desire to pursue your education and increase your knowledge.

What careers are computer science degrees best for?

There can be a lot of overlap between concentrations, however the following jobs probably align with these degrees listed below.

Computer science degrees are probably most beneficial if you are pursuing a career in the following areas:

Computer and Information Research Scientists – Develop new technologies and improve existing technologies through research.

Chief Technology Officers –  Evaluate technology for an organization.  Requires a high level of expertise in one or more specific areas of technology.

Computer Programmers – Develop and test computer code that creates applications or other software solutions.

Web Developers – Develop and test code that creates web-based applications for the internet or internal intranet networks.

Database Administrators – Develop and maintain database systems for an organization.

What careers are computer information systems degrees best for?

Computer information systems degrees are probably most beneficial if you are pursuing a career in the following areas:

Information Systems Managers – Plan and oversee information technology projects for a business or organization or a department.  May require knowledge of budgeting, management or leadership and supervision of people.

Chief Information Officers –  Plan for the technology goals of an organization.  Requires a strong business background, and perhaps a Master’s degree in business administration as well.

Computer Support Specialists – Provide tier one or tier two technology solutions for users, including software and hardware installation.  

Help Desk Technicians – Provide remote phone or online tier one or tier two technology help for users.  Requires ability to document and escalate technology issues where appropriate.

What careers are cyber security degrees best for?

Cyber security degrees are probably most beneficial if you are pursuing a career in the following areas:

Network Administrators/Systems Administrators – Provide administration of an organization’s systems and networks.

Information Security Analysts – Provide security solutions for an organization’s technology assets, which may include networks, databases and other devices.

Penetration Testers – Test the security of a system by attempting to simulate an approved attack or hack of an organization’s technology systems or assets.  Often requires a background check, security clearance and ability to document and communicate findings.

Chief Information Security Officers –  Plan for the security of an organization’s technology resources.  Requires a strong background in one or more security domains.

Computer Network Architects – Plan and develop an organization’s network systems.

Should you get a computer science degree with a concentration in cyber security?

Another alternative to the above examples is to combine approaches and pursue one area while adding a concentration in another, such as achieving a computer science degree with a minor in network security or a concentration is cyber security.  This approach can be convenient because many college programs are arranged as computer science programs that have specific concentrations such as these, but also because you can get the best of both worlds and leverage both skill sets.

Switching between majors is common

Another common trend I’ve seen lately is people switching between majors, in other words choosing one and than moving into another at a later time.  This seems to occur for two reasons. First, some people just don’t enjoy their chosen major or find it to be too boring or difficult. A common example of this is computer science students that stop out once they get to calculus and can’t handle, or don’t want to handle the math.

The second reason is because someone finds that in the end they like the other area more.  This often occurs when someone is pursuing a cyber security degree and than take a programming class and enjoy it, and then choose to pivot and switch majors.  

The disadvantage is of course that this always ends up taking more time, costing more money, and pushing off graduation.  The eventual advantage is that in many ways the worlds of computer science and cyber security are colliding, with programmers needing to consider security and security professionals needing to know how to code to get tasks done.  Having had a foot in both areas may just give you the combination of skills you need to move your career forward in a big way.

Related Questions

What things should I look for in a college cyber security program?  Any college cyber security program that offers a feasible schedule at a reasonable price and provide hands on lab practice opportunities where you can learn the skills is worth looking into.  Overly expensive exam cram programs or boot camps, or those programs that only accept full-time enrollment may not be the best option for most people.

Can I get into a college program if I haven’t been in school for a long time?  Going back to school when you haven’t been in a classroom in a long time can be intimidating and challenging.  Always keep in mind that you are not the only person in that situation. Colleges, and community colleges in particular, have transitional coursework options that can get you back up to speed on the academic skills that you haven’t used in a while.  These programs often have substantial transitional options in place to assist people returning to the classroom after a hiatus.

Matt Day

Matt Day

Matt Day is a college cyber security instructor with over twenty years of experience in the IT, cyber security and technology training fields. He holds certifications from CompTIA and Cisco, and is the author of the book CCENT Troubleshooting Guide.

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