Online technologies power the global economy, enabling organizations to conduct business internationally and individuals to access their financial information and connect with friends and family. Network security professionals help protect personal and organizational online data from intrusion, theft, and erasure. They also develop, test, and maintain the systems that store, secure, and process digital information.
Network security represents one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States. According to a report by Indeed, the number of U.S. cybersecurity job postings on its website grew by over 7% in 2017, a substantial increase from the modest .28% expansion the year before. At the same time, the level of interest (as measured in clicked links) for these job postings decreased by 1.3%, suggesting a lack of qualified job seekers.
You can prepare for lucrative and diverse computer security careers by earning a college degree in network security or a related discipline. This guide provides in-depth information on degree options including program timelines, relevant skills, and concentration options. You'll also gain insight into job opportunities, potential salaries, and professional development resources.
Skills Gained in a Network Security Program
Network security programs are available at every degree level and can provide you with comprehensive training needed for career entry and advancement. Undergraduate students develop core information technology competencies through learning to analyze problems and discover appropriate computing solutions. They also delve into the national and global impact of cyberterrorism.
Graduate students develop advanced skills and can earn degree concentrations in areas like software development, criminal justice, and computer engineering. The list below details the core competencies needed for network security careers.
- Data Analysis
- This skill set entails the evaluation of digital information for errors, patterns, and meanings. Students learn to aggregate and validate information into large groupings or sets, which they then present using data visualization techniques. Data analysis skills are also relevant to business intelligence, healthcare administration, and supply chain management.
- Computer Programming
- Another pillar of the network security field, computer programming encompasses systems design, troubleshooting, computer languages, and software development. At the introductory level, students gain skills in object-oriented programming and control structures. At higher levels, they learn to implement and monitor entire operating systems using hands-on techniques and artificial intelligence adaptive-learning methods.
- Information Systems
- Here, degree candidates learn to apply data analysis and computer programming knowledge to real-world settings. They build networks and systems that assess, store, and protect financial data, consumer records, and private correspondence. A thorough understanding of these systems helps network security engineers evaluate data for decision-making purposes.
- Risk Management
- Risk management involves the ability to anticipate and respond to cyberattacks. Learners discover how to identify risk types and enact proper countermeasures, which may include training teams, clients, and employees on best IT practices.
- Interpersonal Communication
- Interpersonal communication is a core skill for professionals in any industry. Within the network security field, students must develop the ability to communicate highly technical information to nontechnical audiences, closing gaps in an organization's information network and thereby protecting digital assets.
Why Pursue a Career in Network Security?
Job opportunities in network security continue to grow across multiple industry sectors as the severity of cyberterrorism climbs. These attacks affect companies of all sizes as well as individual consumers. Cyber Defense Magazine reports that nearly 43% of cyberattacks target small businesses with fewer than 1,000 employees. While most attacks are relatively isolated, over 31% of companies surveyed acknowledged incidents that affected their entire operational infrastructure.
According to the International Information System Security Certification Consortium, employers are expected to need 1.8 million new cybersecurity specialists in private, nonprofit, and government settings by 2022. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that computer systems administrator and network architect positions will increase by 6% from 2016 to 2026. In this same time frame, the need for computer systems analysts will grow by 9%, meaning 54,400 new jobs. Information security analysts will enjoy an astounding 28% increase with 28,500 new positions created between 2016 and 2026.
With specialized training, you can pursue network security career paths in finance, government intelligence, criminal justice, and healthcare. Master's and doctoral programs provide management skills needed for director and executive positions. In this field, you must keep abreast of emerging trends and practices through continuing education, on-the-job training, and certification/licensure programs.
How Much Do Network Security Graduates Make?
The table below details median salary rates based on experience level for employees with a bachelor's degree in network security. While these numbers provide a framework for pay potential in this field, they do not account for factors like location or industry.
Pharmaceutical companies, legal services firms, and electronic manufacturers are the highest-paying employers in this field. Additionally, your degree level affects how much you can earn. Master's degree holders enjoy over $12,000 more in annual salary than individuals with baccalaureate credentials.
Dennis Chow is the director of network penetration testing at a Fortune 100 company and has 11 years of cybersecurity practitioner experience, with specialities in digital forensics and incident response. Dennis acted as a technical architecture lead for a Department of Health and Human Services grant in cyberthreat intelligence for the nation's overall healthcare system. Dennis also served in the U.S. Air Force and has advised agencies such as NATO.
- Why did you decide to pursue a career in network security? Was it something you were always interested in?
My thoughts on moving into the cybersecurity space began in middle school. I believe i always had an interest in security as a whole; however, network security seemed to be the most enjoyable. As I’ve moved up in my existing skill sets and career within IT, I realized that I could reap the benefits of a long-lasting and high-paying career by exercising existing network analyst knowledge with security applications.
- What is so valuable about earning a degree in this field right now?
At the time that I was in school, degrees specific to cybersecurity were rare and almost nonexistent. Colleges and trade schools are finally catching on and making programs related to the demand in this field. Initially, the first generation of degrees or certificates were based on theory and not enough hands-on tactical skill sets.
Many institutions learned from this and are now revamping to include practical skills in this field. Getting a degree with this as the concentration goes a long way to making it easier to obtain certifications and core skills. Many public sector institutions look for these degrees, sometimes in lieu of a certification.
- Can graduates of computer science programs find network security positions all over the country?
The one thing to remember about network security positions is that employers are looking for hands-on practical skills and experience. Many computer science graduates make the mistake of focusing only on programming as their core skill set. While this may land them some entry-level positions in information security as a whole, this probably wouldn’t result in a successful transition to network security immediately.
Computer science students should take every opportunity they can to learn network engineering practices including building their own switches, routers, firewalls, and intrusion-detection systems from common open-source and community projects. This will greatly improve your chances of getting employed straight out of school.
- What did your career trajectory look like after you graduated? How did you end up in your current position?
My career trajectory initially seemed like it was going to be in IT systems engineering and management for a long time, based on what were then my current skills. I ended up trying to promote and do my own exploration in security by writing practical, entry-level white papers and showcasing my work to peers. Only after I was able to properly communicate my aptitude in security did a company give me a chance at a security operations center analyst role, working the night shift.
After a decade of work and progression, I’m now a director of network penetration testing at a Fortune 100 company. Most of this was attributed to self-studying for cybersecurity certifications and practicing my craft on my off time after work. Another component of this was socializing some of my craft by making articles and tutorials about network forensics and incident response.
- What are the pros and cons of working in the network security industry?
Some of the great things about working in the security-industry space as a whole is that there are always new challenges and -- at least right now -- the salary and demand is high. I’ve met interesting and highly skilled individuals at all age and education levels. The security community is quite small compared to other industries. We all know of each other in some way.
Working in security does have its downsides. For starters, it does take a while to ramp up to getting an entry-level role in security without adequate opportunities and an IT background. The pace of our craft is constantly increasing the need for new and different skills. It gets difficult to keep up with them, and at some point you’ll need to decide for yourself if you’re going to stay a technical contributor or move into management.
- What advice would you give to computer science graduates seeking a job in network security after graduation?
Plan ahead by obtaining certifications and hands-on practical skills before graduation, as soon as possible. If you can’t afford certifications, do yourself a favor and take on network security-related projects by building your own IPS, firewall, network switch, and router at your house using virtual machines and open-source projects. Truly take the time to master the skills you learn in your courses, books, and other reading.
Another piece of advice is to network early. Go after internships, even in nonsecurity-related roles and figure out how to align yourself with network security-related tasks, projects, and work. Showcase your skills on professional social media and public code repositories. Join and attend security-related conferences and prepare to work a room to build your network of contacts.
Lastly, keep up with the news and current events on a global, national, and local level. Hiring managers love to hear how you can apply recent events to security applications when you interview.
How to Become an Information Security Analyst
Earn Your Degree
Although you can qualify for some network security careers by holding an associate degree, most opportunities -- including the in-demand information security analyst position -- require at least a bachelor's degree. These specialists work for tech companies, software developers, and diverse businesses including financial institutions.
Information security analysts oversee the entire scope of an organization's cyberdefense program. They assess security needs, install necessary hardware and software, and develop standards for employee conduct and organizational best practices. On a day-to-day basis, analysts monitor an organization's network for breaches and investigate attacks as they occur. They also evaluate the strength of information security systems by conducting penetration tests using ethical hacking methodologies.
Due to the multifaceted and complex nature of their work, information security analysts need comprehensive academic training. A bachelor's program in network security, cybersecurity, and/or information assurance covers core topics like network administration, systems design, and cyberlaw. Students in these programs also learn to construct protected databases using cryptographic mechanisms. They can further develop their skill set by delving into specialized topics like cloud computing, e-commerce, and project management.
How Many Years of College Does It Take to Become an Information Security Analyst?
To satisfy the minimum requirements for career entry in this field, you'll need to earn a bachelor's degree in network security or a similar discipline. Most degree programs comprise approximately 120 credits and require four years to complete. Online, accelerated programs enable learners to obtain their credentials in as little as two years. Learners may also focus their studies and enhance their job prospects through a concentration.
Concentrations Available for Network Security Majors
- Digital Forensics
This multidisciplinary concentration combines criminal justice, forensic science, and information technology. Students learn to recover digital information from computer systems and mobile devices. They also develop the analytical skills necessary to evaluate compromised information networks. Course topics include digital evidence recognition, cybercrime, and computer architecture. The digital forensics concentration greatly benefits learners who want to work for government agencies and within the judicial system.
- Software Development
Students who want to cultivate a broad IT skill set can pursue a software development concentration with coursework in advanced database systems, software engineering, and product quality assurance. They can focus their studies on developing, implementing, and protecting mobile applications and cloud software. This concentration opens the door to employment in a wide range of industries.
- Health Information Management
By completing a health information management concentration, learners can access some of the fastest-growing careers in the U.S. Healthcare security specialists organize, code, and protect organizational records and patient information. They also help managers and stakeholders make data-supported decisions. Classes in this concentration include healthcare data management, research methodologies, and network infrastructure.
- Computer Engineering
This concentration combines electrical engineering and computer science, preparing students for careers as information systems managers and network architects. Computer engineering provides a well-rounded curriculum that includes classes in broadband architecture and communications network design. Students also explore machine learning, artificial intelligence, and bioinformatics for embedded systems and software.
- Data Analytics
A branch of data science, analytics entails the collection, analysis, and application of digital information. Students learn to use statistical tools and software to evaluate large datasets to extract patterns and meaning. Within the network security field, data analytics supports cybercrime investigations and penetration testing. This concentration also allows students to pursue careers as business intelligence officers, digital marketers, and computer scientists.
What Can You Do With a Network Security Degree?
Your career options in computer security depend greatly on the degree you hold. The most lucrative positions require a bachelor's in information technology, cybersecurity, or a related area.
In addition, certifications and licenses help you meet specific cybersecurity industry requirements. Options include the cybersecurity forensic analyst certification and the computer crime investigator designation. Additionally, you can become a certified information security manager through the Information Systems Audit and Control Association.
Associate Degree in Network Security
Associate programs in network security typically require a minimum of 60 credits, which takes most students two years to complete. Accelerated online programs can shorten the time needed to earn an associate degree to 18 months. This credential provides knowledge and training needed for support positions. However, for most students, it's a starting point for further academic training at the bachelor's and master's levels.
- Technical Support Engineer
Technical support engineers possess expert knowledge of their company's products and services. They engage with customers and respond to questions and requests. Support engineers file reports and help customers troubleshoot technical issues. They also manage the daily maintenance of computer systems and networks. Note that some employers require technical support engineers to hold a bachelor's degree.
Average Annual Salary: $62,261
- Software Developer
Software developers create computer programs for a variety of industries. They can also specialize in mobile development, creating applications for online banking, gaming, and social media access. In the tech sector, companies hire nondegree candidates with demonstrable skills in computer languages (like Java and C++) and databases (like Oracle and MySQL).
Average Annual Salary: $70,276
Bachelor's Degree in Network Security
For careers in network security, a bachelor's degree in network security, cybersecurity, information technology, or information assurance is a standard requirement. Most programs span 2-5 years depending on a student's choice between traditional and accelerated tracks.
Bachelor's programs train students in core computer programming, data analytics, and database administration skills. Guided electives and concentration areas allow you to delve into adjacent fields such as engineering, healthcare, and law. A bachelor's degree also enables you to pursue professional certification and licensure.
- Computer Programmer
Average Annual Salary: $61,833
- Software Engineer
Software engineers lead development teams, working with programmers and developers to ensure project goals are achievable and cost-effective. On the technical side, engineers unify disparate program functions into a cohesive application. They use flowcharts and design documentation to consolidate program codes and tasks. They also assist with marketing and distribution.
Average Annual Salary: $83,389
Master's Degree in Network Security
Master's programs in information systems security and cybersecurity build on foundational skills through advanced coursework that prepares learners for management positions. Most programs consist of 30 or more credits in subjects like quantum computation, protocol design and simulation, and Java security. Students can typically pursue concentrations in cyberoperations and information assurance.
While a typical graduate program can be completed in two years, the best online master's programs offer accelerated options that allow distance learners to graduate in 12 months.
- Information Security Manager
These organizational leaders oversee the entire cybersecurity operation of their company. They establish IT standards and train employees in proper technological usage. They conduct audits to identify security risks and establish defense strategies. Information managers also lead forensic investigations and penetration tests to ensure an organization's systems are compliant and secure.
Average Annual Salary: $111,385
- Security Engineer
Security engineers assist information systems managers in developing standards and strategies that keep an organization's digital information safe. They possess expertise in prevention protocols and intrusion tests, locating security gaps and tracking down intruders. Security engineers also implement and test new technologies to create a multilayered defense plan for their company's systems and networks.
Average Annual Salary: $89,085
Doctoral Degree in Network Security
Network security professionals enroll in Ph.D. programs to maximize their earning potential. Doctoral degrees allow you to pursue executive positions with private companies and government agencies or dedicated research positions as computer and data scientists. Furthermore, doctoral graduates are eligible for tenured teaching positions with colleges and universities.
Programs range from 50-70 credits over 3-7 years of study depending on requirements for dissertation research and final projects. In lieu of a network security or cybersecurity track, doctoral candidates can pursue specialized training in areas like business management, healthcare services, and higher education administration.
- Chief Technology Officer
Chief technology officers lead development efforts, choosing what computer systems and software an organization uses to conduct business operations. They oversee security plans, defining standards and ensuring employees follow protocols. They also guide strategic decision-making and resource allocation on the corporate level.
Average Annual Salary: $156,870
- Computer Scientist
Computer scientists who work for private companies maintain computer information systems to bolster organizational functions. They also develop new code and software. When working in an academic capacity, computer scientists formulate complex questions and test hypotheses. They publish findings in scholarly journals and present at conferences.
Average Annual Salary: $78,230
Where Can I Work as a Network Security Graduate?
You can pursue network security careers in the private sector or with nonprofit organizations and government entities. Many lucrative positions exist in telecommunications, electronics manufacturing, and business finance. Public health and medicine represent additional avenues for cybersecurity specialists with skills in healthcare quality, data security, and program administration. Professionals with a Ph.D. may work as college professors and dedicated researchers. The following sections examine salary potential for the five top network security industries and how factors like location impact employment opportunities.
You generally find the best-paying positions in metropolitan areas, especially cities with an established tech presence and IT infrastructure. Virginia, due to its proximity to Washington, D.C., boasts the highest employment level for information security analysts, followed by Texas, California, New York, and Florida. New York and New Jersey offer the best pay potential, with analysts earning approximate $122,000 annually.
You also should consider quality of life when deciding where to reside and work. While Washington, D.C. and New York provide exceptional salary potential, they also feature some of the highest cost of living in the United States.
- Computer Systems Design and Related Services
Systems design professionals work in teams to test, refine, and update computer applications and security systems. They also help clients select and install systems to meet business requirements.
Average Salary: $106,430
- Management of Companies and Enterprises
Network security and information systems managers work in diverse industries that include finance, marketing, health services, and communications. They not only oversee the everyday operations of the organization's computer systems and security protocols, but they also manage long-term goals and projects.
Average Salary: $97,750
- Credit Intermediation and Related Activities
A subset of banking and financial investment, credit intermediation entails the lending of funds through banks and brokerages. Network security professionals who work in this industry hold analyst positions, managing user access and protecting sensitive financial information.
Average Salary: $105,130
- Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services
Organizations hire consulting firms to help them strengthen general operations, improve employee efficiency, and solve challenges. As consultants, network security professionals provide a wide array of services, including risk assessment, penetration testing, and software installation and updates. They can also act as corporate educators who train staff on proper IT security measures.
Average Salary: $111,090
- Insurance Carriers
Like credit intermediation companies, insurance carriers must handle sensitive financial information. They employ cybersecurity specialists who implement multilayered systems to prevent business interruption and protect consumer data and organizational records.
Average Salary: $99,530
How Do You Find a Job in Network Security?
In addition to accessing online job listings and inquiring through your professional networks, you can bolster your network security career prospects by engaging with industry organizations. The Information Systems Audit and Control Association and the Information Systems Security Association provide skill development opportunities and job databases. For general IT career guidance and networking, you can join the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Professional Resources for Network Security Majors
AITP was established in 1949 to connect technology practitioners, students, and educators. The association helps members build their professional network through online forums, regional working groups, and national conventions. AITP operates multiple award programs, including research funding for students. By joining, you can pursue certification programs in areas like IT fundamentals, penetration testing, and cloud essentials.
Founded in 2008, the CSA maintains industry standards for cloud computing and information security. The organization boasts 90,000 members who connect through online special interest groups and more than 80 global chapters. The alliance offers research funding, skill-building webinars, and in-person training opportunities. You also can obtain certification in areas like cloud security; global consultancy; and security, trust, and assurance registry.
(ISC)² supports over 140,000 members who work in all facets of information technology and security. The consortium connects professionals through local meetings, online communities, and international conventions. (ISC)² delivers self-paced and instructor-based online classes. By joining, you can study for certification in areas like software security, security administration, healthcare, and leadership and operations.
OWASP is a worldwide, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving software security in all sectors. The organization provides impartial and practical knowledge through free guides, best-practice standards, and technological strategies. As a member, you can connect and collaborate with peers through local chapter meetings, international gatherings, and online forums. You can also participate in projects like the OWASP web testing environment, a collection of application security tools available in multiple formats.
Founded in 1989, the SANS Institute supports 165,000 information security professionals worldwide. By joining, you can access more than 400 multiday training courses offered in 90 cities. The institute also operates a comprehensive suite of webinars on topics like law of data security and investigations, open-source intelligence, and in-depth intrusion detection. You also can obtain certification in over 40 specialized areas, including Python coding.