Is a Cyber Security Degree Difficult?

A lot of people ask if a cyber security degree is a difficult degree to obtain.  Obviously, it is true that some degrees tend to be more difficult than others. Since cyber security is a newer degree option available at most colleges, I decided to take a look and see how difficult a cyber security degree is compared to other degree majors.

So, is a cyber security degree difficult?  A cyber security degree typically has average to above average difficulty compared to other degree programs.  Cyber security degrees tend to be more challenging than non-research type majors, such as programs in the humanities or business, but are usually not as difficult as degrees in research or lab intensive areas, such as science and engineering.

Let’s take a look at the specific parts of a cyber security degree that make it easier or more challenging than other options, and whether a degree in cyber security may be for you.

Why a cyber security degree is easier than some other options

When comparing college programs at the associate or bachelor’s degree level, an objective review indicates that most cyber security programs are not as difficult as many programs in science and engineering related areas.  Specifically, degrees in fields such as biochemistry, physics, mechanical engineering and even computer science appear to be more challenging than common degree programs in cyber security. Here are a few reasons why.

Math and science requirements are easier

The first factor that indicates a cyber security program may be less difficult than the other majors listed above is that most cyber security programs that were reviewed did not require higher level math or science general education classes.  In many cases, cyber security programs were limited to one lab-based science requirement and a math course requirement that was lower level, such as college math or statistics. Most programs did not require higher level or multiple science classes or a higher level math, such as calculus.  

In comparison, all of the science and engineering programs reviewed, including those in computer science, either recommended or require at least one level of calculus and multiple lab-based science courses.  These courses are often the most challenging for students enrolling for the first time in college or returning to college after an extended period of time. If you pursue a degree in cyber security, you can often find a path to graduation without being required to take calculus, chemistry or other subjects known to be challenging.

Cyber security programs assume minimal technical background

From our review, nearly all of the cyber security programs we analyzed assumed that incoming students had low or no technical background.  While some of the programs were considered accelerated, most had an introductory technical course at the start, such as introduction to cyber security, introduction to computers, or computer repair.

This is in contrast to some of the science or engineering related programs that often required higher placement or knowledge before starting the program.  These programs often preferred or expected to see higher level math and science coursework already completed in high school.

In comparison, some of the cyber security programs required a placement test to verify technical knowledge, but this was often a review of computer basics, such as Microsoft Windows and Office.  It appears that in nearly all cases, students without a technical background will be able to enter into a cyber security program with an introductory level of technical knowledge.

Writing and research requirements are not excessive

Another factor that indicated cyber security programs are easier than some other options are that they often do not require extensive research projects.  Other programs, such as those in the sciences, are research based programs that can be challenging and take up a lot of time. Many of the courses contained in the cyber programs we reviewed required minimal intensive research.  While these programs obviously required substantial study, that level of study appeared to be less intensive than the research included in other programs.

Laboratory requirements are not research-based

Cyber security programs do have courses that require labs to be completed, but the labs are usually tied directly into the course material.  Most importantly, these labs are not research based as they are in sciences, which tends to make them more manageable to complete.

Why a cyber security degree is harder than some other options

Now that we’ve reviewed the factors that may make a cyber security program easier than other degrees, especially in the science and engineering areas, let’s take a look at the factors that make a cyber security degree challenging.

Cyber security content changes quickly

One of the most challenging aspects of a cyber security degree, or any cyber security course, is that the technology changes at such a rapid pace.  In fact, cyber security changes at a rate that may be faster than any other major, especially at higher level courses. This rate of change is challenging for students for a few reasons:

First, the information available for a cyber security student to study from is quickly outdated, and therefore often difficult to find or verify.  Consider for example that a history major has access to more data and study material on the Civil War than a cyber security major would have access to in order to study embedded device exploitation.

Second, since cyber security material changes so quickly, sometimes students will get caught in a situation where if they take off from coursework for a semester or two, they find it challenging to return down the line with prior knowledge that is now outdated.  Some college programs will not count credit from prior courses in this situation, if the student was unenrolled for some time.

Cyber security programs often includes labs

While we’ve established above that cyber security classes often have labs that are typically less demanding than research-based courses, they still do have a lab.  Labs or other demonstration type assignments are often more difficult than standardized exams or quizzes where you can select an answer even if you’re not sure. Labs, on the other hand, require you to produce results, thereby verifying your knowledge.  Many cyber security students state that labs are the most challenging assignments they face.

Cyber security technical skills are progressively challenging

In addition to a rapid rate of change, cyber security is a discipline that is progressively challenging, meaning that the classes become technically more complex as you move through the program.  This is somewhat different than other majors, such as history or literature, where the material does not increase quickly in difficulty.

Cyber security skills are very stackable, meaning that one course builds on the next, and so forth.  If a student has difficulty with a topic at a lower level, it can make it challenging for them for many courses that follow.

Cyber security content can be difficult to read or memorize

Another aspect of cyber security degrees that can make them difficult is that the material can sometimes be very dry or difficult to read.  It can be difficult to make a technical textbook interesting, so many people find it challenging to read a good bit of cyber security content in a single sitting.  Compare that to a history textbook, for example, that would be written to describe actual events. The direct, dry and technical nature of cyber security material is often very challenging to read for many people.

Cyber Security Compared to Other Degrees

Now that we’ve laid out the factors that may make a cyber security degree more or less challenging than other degrees for you, here is our ranking of common college majors by difficulty.  This list is only based on typical degrees that are available and the specific programs that we reviewed. Keep in mind that even with this ranking, all college programs and majors are worthwhile, challenging and require a great deal of study and dedication.  This list is just designed to give you an idea of what may be more or less difficult for you.

 

Related Questions

How can I determine which cyber security program is for me?  The best way to determine which program is for you is to review several options online and then go visit the college to see the classrooms, lab areas and equipment.  This will also get you a change to meet with instructors if you would like. By visiting the college, you can get a good feel for if a program is for you and fits your needs and learning style.

Should I get an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in cyber security?  Both degrees have value in the market, but cyber security is a field that is built heavily on knowledge, which means that cyber security professionals need to make learning a career-long pursuit.  Because of this, many people choose to start with an associate’s degree and than continue on to a bachelor’s degree at some point.

 

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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