Starting a cybersecurity career with a degree versus certifications
Do you need a degree to get a job in cybersecurity? To say this is a hotly debated issue would be an understatement. A quick Google search shows 822,000,000 results for that question. And after witnessing the meteoric success of college dropouts like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, there’s no wonder it’s such a contentious topic.
It’s a debate that’s raging among tech’s hiring managers and executives, too. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty announced in 2017 that she wants to hire more workers who don’t have four-year degrees but do have the right skills for the job. A shift towards skills-based hiring may be the key to filling the massive (and growing) amount of unfilled tech jobs in the U.S.
- 26% of cybersecurity workers in the U.S. do not have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics
- 69% of CompTIA certification candidates don’t have a four-year college degree (CompTIA Post Exam Survey).
- For each cybersecurity job opening, there are only 2.3 cybersecurity workers available for employers to recruit
What does all that mean for you and your career? Can you get a cybersecurity job with certifications and no degree? Let’s take a look!
Entry-level versus advanced jobs
So, what are entry-level job openings in cybersecurity asking for? To answer that question, we’ll take a look at data published by CyberSeek and Burning Glass. According to the latter, roughly eight out of every ten cybersecurity job postings asks for a bachelor’s degree or higher. In other words, while it’s possible to work your way into cybersecurity without a degree, it may be challenging to do so successfully.
That doesn’t mean that certifications aren’t a hot commodity, though. More than one-third of cybersecurity job postings want to see certifications as well. Given how quickly things change in the information security world, it’s no surprise that companies want workers who can stay on top of the game.
Numbers like these are helpful, but they’re also pretty broad and apply to the cybersecurity field on a whole. Let’s break them down in terms of specific jobs in cybersecurity:
- Cybersecurity specialist/technician — Sub-BS: 15%, BS: 58%; MS: 27%
- Cybercrime analyst/investigator — Sub-BS 7%; BS: 70%; MS: 23%.
- Incident analyst/responder — Sub-BS 6%; BS: 70%; MS: 23%.
- IT auditor — Sub-BS: 2%; BS: 76%; MS: 22%.
As you can see, there are a handful of job postings that don’t require a college education, but it’s safe to say that the majority of them do.
A common way to break into the cybersecurity field without a degree is by starting off in an entry-level IT job and earning the right certs as you gain valuable hands-on experience.
For those of you who opt to get certifications in lieu of a degree, what are some entry-level jobs you can get?
- Help desk technician
- PC technician
- Computer operator
- System administrator
The bottom line? You don’t need a degree to get an entry-level IT job, so you can use it as a valuable jumping-off point for a future cybersecurity job. If you want to play it safe and pad your odds, it looks like a college degree is still the way to go.
Keep in mind that degree preferences change as you move up the ranks. “College degrees are necessary for any position in management or director-level tech positions. The higher up you get, the more important they become. If your goal is to reach a management level, business knowledge that can be backed by a college degree such as an MBA is vital,” explains employment agency Robert Half. Be sure to factor this into your long-term career plan.
Type of job matters
Hiring practices can vary widely between permanent roles and contractor positions. If you’re unfamiliar with what a contractor does, no worries — here’s a quick recap.
A contractor is a skilled worker hired on a temporary basis to complete one or more projects for a given client. Sometimes you’ll see contractors called “consultants,” but the terms are essentially interchangeable.
Contractor jobs are hugely popular in the cybersecurity field. In fact, Google parent company Alphabet reported in 2018 that, for the first time ever, the number of contractors they employ surpassed their permanent employees. Pair that with data from TEKsystems that 26% of hiring managers increased their contractor headcount between 2017 and 2018, and you can see a pattern taking shape.
Despite their popularity with employers, contractor roles come with their own set of pros and cons and aren’t the right fit for everyone. However, they do tend to be more flexible about accepting non-degree holders. According to tech recruiting agency Robert Half, “when we’re placing a cybersecurity pro in a full-time position, a college degree is far more important.” If you’re struggling to find a cybersecurity job without a degree, then consulting work may be a good jumping-off point.
Employers and their hiring practices aren’t all made alike. When it comes to a job candidate’s education requirements, some companies have a reputation for being more flexible than others.
Fortunately, there does seem to be a trend towards companies relaxing the hard stipulation for a college degree. Glassdoor recently published a list of fifteen companies that did away with their degree requirements. Tech giants Google, Apple and IBM are all on the list, alongside financial titan Bank of America.
On the other end of the spectrum are employers who aren’t nearly as flexible. Colleges and universities, for example, have a reputation for prioritizing college education over experience and certifications.
So, what’s the final verdict: do you need a degree to get a job in cybersecurity? It depends. In fact, the answer can change from person to person, depending on what’s best for you. To figure out the answer, first think about your personal situation and your goals.
How far do you want to climb up the corporate ladder? You don’t need a degree to break into the field, but working your way up might be more challenging (although not impossible with the right experience at the right company). What company do you want to work for, and do they have a reputation for hiring non-grads? These are all key questions to keep in mind when making your decision.
Whether or not you choose to get a degree, one thing is certain: certifications will get you some of the momentum you need for a successful cybersecurity career. To figure out which ones you need for your career niche, check out the CyberSeek career pathways tool. And when you’re ready to tackle a new certification, Infosec offers boot camps for some of the industry’s most well-respected ones, including Security+, CEH, CISSP and more.
- Educational attainment for workers 25 years and older by detailed occupation, Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Get into IT Without a Degree: It’s a Lot Easier Than You Might Think, CompTIA
- Is a College Degree Necessary for an IT Career?, Robert Half
- How to Get a Cybersecurity Job in Three Charts: a Degree, a Certification, and a Clearance, Burning Glass Technologies
- Help Me Out Here: Does a Help Desk Job Require a College Degree?, Burning Glass Technologies
- Alphabet reportedly had more contractors than direct employees this year, CNBC
- 15 More Companies That No Longer Require a Degree—Apply Now, Glassdoor
- Life as an IT contractor, Network World
- A Guide to Landing 8 of the Best Entry-Level IT Jobs, Robert Half
- Cybersecurity Career Pathway, CyberSeek