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The National Initiative for Cybersecurity Careers and Studies (NICCS) defines cybersecurity as “the activity or process, ability or capability, or state whereby information and communications systems and the information contained therein are protected from and/or defended against damage, unauthorized use or modification, or exploitation.” More simply, cybersecurity is protecting and securing data and systems.
Digital data is constantly being generated and shared at high speed, and there is a critical need to secure it. To protect data, organizations require skilled and highly-knowledgeable professionals who can secure computer networks and company information.
Cybersecurity professionals maintain an enterprise’s most critical IT assets while supporting the platform’s superior performance for end users by identifying and closing vulnerabilities in the IT systems of businesses and governments.
How to become a cybersecurity professional
Decide on the right education path for you
Depending on your goals, and whether you eventually want to enter a management-level career in cybersecurity, you could choose to earn a traditional college degree, complete a bootcamp program, or earn a certificate.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each choice. For instance, you can complete a bootcamp or earn a certificate in a relatively short time frame, typically anywhere from a few weeks to six months, but bootcamps do not necessarily open doors to management positions. While earning a degree, at the associate, bachelor’s or graduate level, typically takes years.
It is important to weigh what you’re actually hoping to achieve before you set yourself down a particular path. If you hope to enter management, you’ll likely need at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science, engineering or math. If you wish to work at a lower level, the completion of a certificate program or bootcamp could suffice.
Earn your degree or certificate
Once you’ve decided on the shape your education will take, you then need to complete your studies.
Typical curriculum for college degrees include general studies—such as math, English and science—as well as classes specific to your major. If you decide to major in computer science, for instance, you’ll typically study programming, data architecture, algorithms, machine organization, quality assurance techniques, and more. Earning a bachelor’s degree typically takes four years of study, while an associate typically takes two.
Bootcamps, on the other hand, can vary widely in their curriculum and tend to focus more narrowly on particular engineering and development concepts. For instance, you could take a bootcamp specific to network security, or another specific to system security. These programs range from several weeks to several months in length.
Complete an internship
While careers in technology generally, and cybersecurity in particular, are abundant, they are also highly competitive. The U.S. produces about 65,000 computer science graduates per year, China about 185,000, and India 215,000. That means that simply possessing a degree or certificate may not be enough to land the job you’re aiming for.
Landing and completing an internship can help you gain the real-world experience needed to give your application an edge. Internships are offered by the vast majority of large tech companies including Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook. Internships are also available through US government agencies such as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).
It can be difficult to land a job when you have no contacts within the industry in which you hope to work. This means networking could be an invaluable practice for those looking to enter the field of cybersecurity.
Prospective cybersecurity professionals should aim to make contacts during their internships that might later be used as references when applying for jobs. You can also join cybersecurity trade groups, such as International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium (ISSCC), Information Systems Security Association, or the Center for Internet Security which could help expand your network.
Get hired in the field
Once you’ve completed your education and an internship, you’re ready to apply for positions. Since cybersecurity roles are available at myriad types of organizations, you should first decide on the kind of firm you’d like to work for. For instance, some people do better at small organizations where their responsibilities are often broader in nature, while others prefer large firms where roles tend to be very specific.
Once you’ve nailed down the kind of company or organization you want to work for, you should tailor your resume, cover letter, and other application materials to closely fit with the needs of those organizations.
Consider additional education and certification
In a field as competitive as cybersecurity, it’s important to keep in mind that you can always expand your field of expertise. Additional training can include any combination of online courses, virtual and in-person conferences, formal training, or higher degree programs. For example, if you earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science, you can always then attend a bootcamp later to hone your skills in a particular area.
Earning industry certifications, like those offered by ISSCC, can help demonstrate and document the skills you’ve gained through your education and working life. These can then open doors to advanced positions which typically come with an increase in salary.
The rise of cybersecurity careers
Several high-profile data breaches, like those at Target, Equifax, Facebook, and several other large companies, cemented the issue of cybersecurity in the minds of the public who make use of these companies’ services.
According to the University of Maryland, cybercriminals attack every 39 seconds, an average of 2,244 times a day. As society continues to grow more reliant on digital infrastructure, that number is likely to increase.
As such, careers in cybersecurity are in high demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) forecast that the employment of Information Security Analysts would grow 35% between 2021 and 2031.
Education lays the necessary groundwork for students to enter the field. Cybersecurity programs include various formats to accommodate diverse student needs, including on-campus, online, and hybrid learning platforms. Students can choose from multiple programs, including certificate programs, associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.
You should consider the advantages and disadvantages to each educational path, and remember that choosing to earn a particular degree or credential does not prevent you from returning to further your education later. For instance, you could decide to complete a bootcamp then get hired to an entry-level position in cybersecurity before then returning to school to earn a more formal degree that could open the door to management positions.
Cybersecurity career paths
There are several career paths for those with the right credentials. These include:
Cybersecurity engineer: In charge of the security of the company network. It’s a role available in large companies, governments, and the military.
Cloud security engineer: Protects cloud-based platforms.
Penetration tester: In charge of legally hacking into a company’s system to identify holes and vulnerabilities.
Security auditor: A professional who checks the effectiveness of a network’s security systems and suggests adjustment steps.
There are numerous career paths and titles in the cybersecurity field. Cybersecurity professionals should always know what’s trending by looking at industry news and updates.