How to Get Into Cyber Security: Tips, Strategy and Skills
When Italy native Dr. 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.
Marotta knew she needed to learn more to break into the field. She searched for a program to meet her needs and found Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) fit the bill. As an international student, the online programs allowed her to continue working in Italy and earn a cyber security-focused graduate certificate and master’s degree.
Today, Marotta is 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. Galvanized by her educational and professional experience, Marotta earned a doctorate in cyber security in 2022.
The field introduced her to a new world of possibility. "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 in 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 33% by 2030–a rate that far outpaces other careers. In 2021, the median salary for these roles was $102,600 per year.
SNHU graduates, instructors and career advisors shared tips and strategies that can help you get started on your own 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 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 in the growing field.
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.
The National Council on Identity Theft and Protection reported that as of 2021, 33% of Americans had their identity compromised, with an identity theft occurring every 22 seconds. The frequency of such attacks is only expected to increase.
An annual report by the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) noted that data breaches in 2021 far surpassed numbers in previous years. According to the FBI's Internet Crime Report, Americans lost over $6.9 billion from cybercrime in 2021 (FBI PDF Source). It is not only adults who are at risk of being victimized by cybercrime—a recent AARP-sponsored report stated that children are increasingly at risk for identity theft as well.
It’s no surprise, then, that cyber security jobs are also on the rise to protect against these threats. The need for skilled workers in the field is so high that the nonprofit Information System Audit and Control Association's (ISACA) March 2022 press release noted a sharp increase in hiring and retention difficulties within cyber security due to demand.
"There is a shortage of cyber talent, and employers know it. This was the trend before the pandemic hit and is even more pronounced," said Dr. Trebor Evans, a chief information security officer and SNHU adjunct instructor. "Now more than ever, opportunities are abundant for entering the cyber field."
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 SNHU 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, 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 steer you toward becoming a 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, according to a 2019 analysis by Burning Glass (PDF Source). A cyber security master's degree could help you specialize in a specific area of the field.
"Your technical skill set should include knowledge of networking and firewalls. You should also have the ability to protect networks, operations, client systems and data," said Faryal Humkar, a career advisor at SNHU.
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. This exploration 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."
What is the Best Way To Start in Cyber Security?
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.
"I encourage my students to start applying to cyber security internships once they start taking their core classes. One to two internships before you graduate will set you up for success and give you the experience you need after you graduate," said Humkar. "It can also lead to a job opportunity at the company you are interning at."
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. Your academic experiences can also aid your career search.
"I also recommend adding one to two academic projects on your resume that you completed in class that relate to cyber security. This can show employers relevant skills you learned in the classroom," said Humkar. "A career advisor can assist you with developing a strong resume to highlight this."
The National Cyber League (NCL) is a non-profit that provides a virtual training ground to develop cyber security knowledge. Kristina Greenshields '18, who earned a bachelor's in information technology with a concentration in cyber security, said her participation with the NCL 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."
Recently, SNHU placed ninth out of more than 500 colleges participating in the NCL competition wherein students from across the United States practice real-world cyber-security tasks and skills.
What Certifications Are Recommended for a Career in Cyber Security?
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 assure prospective employers of your skills and expertise.
Humkar recommended CompTIA Security+, noting that SNHU provides a discount for students to pursue this certification.
Be sure to research 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.
Humkar also recommended joining a professional association, like IEEE Cybersecurity Initiative (CYBSI). "This is an excellent way to network with cyber security professionals, attend technical conferences, learn from webinars and more," she said.
Why Are Soft Skills Important in Cyber Security?
When it comes to finding work in IT security, soft skills may be just as valuable as technical skills like coding and math.
"Soft skills are essential for cyber security professionals. You will be working as a team on projects and meeting deadlines," said Humkar. "It’s important to have strong active listening skills and effective verbal and written communication skills."
As part of a team, it's vital that cyber professionals work well with others. Hiring managers prefer working with cyber security experts who have solid communication skills.
"Successful cyber professionals will avoid the perception of always having to say 'no'," said Evans. "A better approach is, 'let's work together to ensure your application or service functions securely.'"
Never Stop Learning
Hackers and other cyber criminals are always trying to infiltrate IT infrastructure in new ways. As a cyber security worker, you must continually learn new ways to prevent threats. A commitment to continuing education is key to ensuring your success in the ever-evolving field of IT security.
"In general, one can expect that there will be new threats each day," Evans said. "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."
Hackers and malicious actors are always searching for new targets to attack. "In the pandemic, they sought to take advantage of distracted workers who suddenly found themselves working remotely, or by testing those remote capabilities that may not have been fully secured," Evans said.
Success in cyber security also requires staying up to date with industry news and trends. "Working in cyber security means that you have to continuously educate yourself," said Nalisha Varnado '18, a senior cyber security analyst who has a bachelor's in information with a concentration in cyber security. She is currently earning a master's in cyber security from SNHU.
"Hackers are always going to try to find ways to avoid being discovered by security professionals and software developers," Varnado said. "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. Businesses, organizations and individuals continue to gain access to more advanced technology, while technology itself is increasingly entwined with daily life.
As reliance on technology grows–from the phone you carry and the car you drive to the way you shop, get entertainment and even access medical care–so will your need to protect personal data and IT infrastructure.
Cyber threats can be sourced back to individuals, groups, or even governmental agencies. Per a 2021 Forbes article, nation-state cyber attacks are performed by governments to wage cyber war on other countries. This means world events can greatly affect the realm of cyber security.
"Nation-state cyber threats are not new, but the recent invasion of Ukraine has cyber professionals on high alert against organized cyber adversaries," said Evans. "Something as simple as falling for a phishing email may end up exposing login credentials that an actor can use to do further harm."
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."
Discover more about SNHU's online cyber security degree: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you'll learn and how to request information about the program.
Danielle Gagnon is a freelance writer focused on higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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