Getting the best information security education - where should you start?
A career in cyber security is an increasingly attractive option for many people. As well as the promise of stimulating, varied work, strong demand for these professionals means there are great opportunities to earn lucrative salaries and progress to senior roles, while levels of job security and satisfaction are also high.
Whether you're just leaving education and looking to enter the workforce for the first time, or you're after a change of scenery by switching to a new career path, the world of cyber security can be a little confusing at first. With so many options and certifications available, the first challenge to overcome in your career is simply knowing where to start.
Do you need an IT background to start a cyber security career?
The idea that you need a strong technical background in IT or coding to land a cyber security job is one of the industry's biggest myths. In fact, the sector has been making a major push to diversify in recent years, with those from different personal and professional backgrounds in high demand.
Indeed, according to industry body (ISC)2, around one in five new cyber security pros aged under 30 transition from non-IT fields - roughly the same number who pursue a formal education in the sector.
If you are looking to transition into the cyber security sector from another industry, you'll find there are a lot of options and help available. But when it comes to proving your capabilities and getting your foot on the ladder through qualifications, there are two main options to select from - an industry-run professional qualification or an academic degree in cyber security.
Both of these have their own pros and cons that you should look at carefully before making your decision. Either can be a big commitment, both in terms of time and, if you're funding your career move yourself without the sponsorship of an employer - finances.
Therefore, it's essential you're making the right decision for your circumstances and way of learning.
The options for professional qualifications
For many people, professional certifications will be the first and most obvious option. These have a number of advantages for those looking to start their journey in the cyber security sector.
Firstly, as they're industry-led, they're in touch with exactly what employers need. This means, from a student's perspective, you can be sure the skills you're learning will have direct, practical applications you can start using straight away in the real world.
These are also highly valuable certifications to have on your CV from an employer's point of view. Recruiters can be confident that candidates with these qualifications will already have the essential knowledge required to be successful.
Other advantages of many industry-qualifications include clear opportunities for career progression, as well as access to a wide network of peers to further your career or turn to for advice.
On the downside, some courses can be a fairly pricey option if you're self-funding, while newcomers to the industry may find it tricky to navigate the huge amount of options available. Therefore, if you are looking to get started in cyber security, it's a good idea to focus on some of the most widely-recognised courses, as they will give you the largest possible set of options when it comes to finding a job.
Some of these you should consider include:
Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)
Cisco Certified Network Associate
(ISC)2 Systems Security Certified Practitioner (SSCP)
There are a wide range of other in-demand cyber security professional qualifications, such as CISSP, but these often require students to have several years' of experience under their belt already. As such, these are credentials you should be working toward over the longer term.
Taking an academic approach
Another increasingly popular option for many people is a degree in cyber security. In the past, there were usually only a few such specialised courses available in the UK, with most entrants to the sector pursuing a more general computer science or similar course.
However, this has changed as more universities recognise the value of educating students more specifically in this topic. As a result, a large number of institutions have set up courses. Many of these are at the postgraduate level, with one-year Master's degrees the most common, but there are a few undergraduate-level courses as well.
Key advantages of these courses are a wide-ranging, in-depth study of all the key concepts you'll need to know to be successful in cyber. These courses don't just focus on the technical aspects, but will help provide you with a well-rounded education, including building your leadership and teamwork skills.
Unlike many professional qualifications, which will have to be renewed every few years, a cyber security degree will never expire. While it may be a costly upfront investment and take at least a year to get qualified - more if you're taking the course part-time - the benefits can last a lifetime.
With so many courses to choose from, many of which may have only been offered for a few years, it can also be difficult to understand the quality of the education you'll be getting. However, one way to make certain you're receiving the best possible tuition will be to select a course that has been approved by the National Cyber Security Centre.
More than a third of UK universities offering Master's courses in cyber security are now certified by this body, which recognises those institutions that provide the highest-quality courses.
Whichever route you're thinking of going down in order to gain the skills you need for a successful career in cyber security, the qualifications you receive at the end of your education are likely to be hugely in demand from employers. This means you'll improve your chances of finding an entry-level job that can give you the perfect start and offer prospects for years to come.