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How to Get into Cyber Security: Tips, Strategy and Skills

A woman in cyber security working at a computer terminal.

When Italy native Angelica Marotta '17G graduated from the University of Pisa with a bachelor's degree in computer science, she wasn't sure where she wanted her career to take her. She received multiple job offers, but still felt she hadn't found her true professional identity. That is, until she discovered cyber security.

Angelica Marotta.To break into the field, Marotta knew she needed to learn more. She searched for a program to meet those needs and found Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) fit the bill. The online programs allowed her as an international student to continue working in Italy and earn a cyber security-focused graduate certificate and master’s degree. Today, she's a researcher in the field both in Italy and with MIT's Sloan School of Management,  exploring how businesses around the world are implementing IT security practices.

"In cyber security, you may face issues that didn't even exist when you started studying this particular subject," said Marotta. "It's likely that you’ll find yourself working on something you’d never expect."

Marotta is just one of a fast-growing group of new cyber security workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), cyber security jobs are projected to grow about 28% by 2026 - a rate that far outpaces other careers. Median pay for these roles was $95,510 in 2017.

SNHU graduates, instructors and career advisors shared tips and strategies that can help you get started on a cyber security career path.

What Is Cyber Security All About?

As a cyber security worker, you could help create and enforce IT security policies to protect against cybercrime.

A cyber security job description may also include working with an organization to ensure compliance with government regulations. You could even be hired to hack into companies' software and IT infrastructure to help identify and strengthen areas of vulnerability.

Cyber security is a fast-growing field with diverse opportunities available. No matter what cyber security career path you take, you'll need specific skills and training to succeed.

Is Cyber Security a Good Career?

As more individuals and organizations around the world become dependent on technology for their day-to-day operations, cybercrime has also become more common, from identity theft and phishing schemes to computer viruses and data breaches.

Two-thirds of people online - more than 2 billion individuals - have had their personal information stolen or compromised, according to a 2018 report from IT security company McAfee. Approximately 300,000 new viruses are introduced by cyber criminals every day, with cybercrime costing the world $600 billion annually, the report found.

It’s no surprise, then, that cyber security jobs are also on the rise. The need for skilled workers in the field is so high, the nonprofit ISACA predicts there will be a global shortage of 2 million cyber security professionals by 2019, according to a 2017 Forbes article.

"An employer told me, ’It is not a matter of if you will be hacked – it is WHEN will you be hacked,’” said career advisor Caitlin Glennen. “Because of this, companies cannot hire enough people with cyber skills."

Consider Your Cyber Security Career Interests

When getting started in cyber security, consider your interests and ideal work environment to determine an area of specialization.

"Today, computers and digital media are everywhere," said adjunct instructor Rodney Royster, a senior cyber security manager. "Almost every business or industry you can think of operates within this space. So, in short, a cyber security degree holder can work everywhere. The question here should be, where can they not work?"

Cyber security analysts are in high demand across many industries, Royster said, including healthcare, manufacturing, financial services, law enforcement, transportation and power and utilities.

Job descriptions vary within the field of cyber security itself, Royster said. You could work as a forensics analyst, helping investigate cybercrimes and trace the activity of cyber criminals. You could also work as a security architect, building and testing digital protections for IT infrastructure. Those roles could lead to chief information security officer, leading a team of analysts to set company IT security policy.

Ready to take a deeper dive? Cyberseek.org provides detailed information about supply and demand in the cyber security market. It offers an interactive map showing where the jobs are and an interactive career pathway, with common jobs by title, how to get there and what average salaries are. 

Is Cyber Security Hard to Learn? Explore Degree Options

Getting started in cyber security requires foundational knowledge of IT practices, computer technology and math. Luckily, there are a growing number of options for cyber security education.

Up to 88% of job postings seek at least a bachelor's degree in cyber security or IT, according to a 2018 analysis by Burning Glass, while a cyber security master's degree could help you specialize in a specific area of the field. 

No matter what your educational career path, it's important to have a strong understanding of basic IT principles, practices and tools, said adjunct instructor Gary Asp, a senior security and compliance analyst.

"In order to really be effective as a security professional, you have to have a firm understand of the technology you’re talking about," Asp said.

Cyndie Ramirez.For Cyndie Ramirez '18, a cyber security degree program not only helped her land a security analyst job before graduating, it also inspired her ultimate career goals.

Ramirez was working on an associate degree in computer networking when she first discovered a love of cyber security. While she was initially nervous to enter what she saw as a mostly male field, a professor encouraged her to explore her interests further - an exploration that eventually led to a cyber security bachelor's degree from SNHU and a full-time job in the field.

"I found myself fascinated with trying to build networks secured in every way possible, so intruders could not gain access," Ramirez said. "I then knew right away I wanted to gain my bachelor's degree to be the front-line team that investigates intrusions and helps mitigate them."

Seek Hands-On Cyber Security Experience

A cyber security degree is an important step toward your IT security career, but gaining hands-on experience can be just as powerful when it comes to finding a job in the field.

"Breaking into the industry is going to require you to dedicate yourself to gaining experience alongside your education," Glennen said.

Finding an internship or getting involved in a student organization is a great way to get real-world experience, build your professional skills and make key connections in the field.

Kristina Greenshields.Kristina Greenshields '18 said her participation with the National Cyber League (NCL) - a nonprofit that provides a virtual training ground to develop cyber security knowledge - was instrumental in preparing her to find work as a cyber security specialist. 

"Without my advisor pushing me to join (the NCL) I wouldn’t have had the confidence I had to talk to people about cyber security in interviews," Greenshields said. "It gave me the hands-on experience that I needed in conjunction to my degree classes."

Earn Cyber Security Certifications to Enhance Skills

Another way to enhance your cyber security resume and stand out among qualified applicants is to earn IT security certifications.

There are many cyber security certifications available from a variety of organizations and institutions, Royster said, as well as free online certification courses and tools. Certifications improve and test your knowledge in specific areas of the cyber security field, and ensure prospective employers of your skills and expertise.

Be sure to do some research into your certification options. While some cyber security certifications are designed for entry-level workers just getting started in the field, others require years of professional experience and may even be paid for by your employer. 

Don’t Overlook Soft Skills

When it comes to finding work in IT security, soft skills may be just as valuable as technical skills like coding and math.

Cyber security often involves working within a team of IT analysts, company leaders and other employees to ensure security protocols are followed, requiring strong communication, project management and problem-solving skills, said Asp.

"A lot of what you do in IT is building relationships," said Asp. "Good communication is 80% listening and 20% talking. That helps build those good relationships because the people that you're communicating with feel heard, which opens the pathways for good collaboration. And you absolutely need collaboration for good IT security."

Never Stop Learning

Hackers and other cyber criminals don't stop trying new ways to infiltrate IT infrastructure. As a cyber security worker, you can't stop either. A commitment to continuing education is key to ensuring your success in the IT security field.

"In general, one can expect that there will be new threats each day," said adjunct instructor Dr. Trebor Evans, a chief information security officer. "In cyber security-related positions, what you guard against in the morning could be different from what you have to learn about and guard against later that same day."

Success in cyber security also requires creativity and a willingness to stay up to date with industry news and trends.

Nalisha Varnado."Working in cyber security means that you have to continuously educate yourself," said Nalisha Varnado '18, a senior cyber security analyst. "Hackers are always going to try to find ways to avoid being discovered by security professionals and software developers. Hackers find new vulnerabilities often and it is important to stay up to date with the current exploits that are being discovered in the community."

The Future of Cyber Security

Cyber security job growth shows no signs of slowing down as businesses, organizations and individuals continue to gain access to more advanced technology and technology also becomes more pervasive in our everyday lives.

As our reliance on technology grows - from the phones we carry and the cars we drive to the way we shop, get entertainment and even access medical care - so will our need to protect personal data and IT infrastructure.

A career in cyber security means you can be on the front lines of protecting technology, and the people that use it.

"Cyber security is not just about technology and systems, it's mostly about people," Marotta said. "This work stems from people and affects people, and it's a great way to figure out why people do things and how they can be protected... It allows you to impact society."

Dale Stokdyk is a marketer passionate about STEM higher education. Follow him on Twitter @dalestokdyk or connect on LinkedIn.

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