Study Information Assurance: Masters Degree, PhD & Online Training Info

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What will you learn in an information assurance graduate program? Read about program requirements, the pros and cons of a master's and PhD and potential careers.
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Information Assurance Master's and PhDs: Degrees at a Glance

Information assurance graduate programs are designed to teach students how to defend and protect information systems from intrusions. Students who complete an information assurance graduate program could be prepared to work on networks, software programs, information systems or e-commerce programs.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) noted that information security analysts would see a 22% increase in employment between 2010 and 2020. People who have skills in information security should have solid job prospects, as many organizations are focusing on keeping networks secure and information confidential. The government and healthcare industry are expected to see some of the highest demand for information security workers, according to the BLS.

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in a mid- or high-level information security job People interested in researching or teaching information security at the university level
Common Career Paths (with approximate median salary) - Information security director ($142,000 - with eight years of experience)*
- IS security manager ($103,000 - with six years of experience)*
- Chief information security officer ($168,000 - with 12 years of experience)*
- Information services consultant ($93,000 - with seven years of experience)*
- Computer science postsecondary teacher ($73,000)**
- Information security policy advisor (salary unavailable)
Time to Completion About two years, full-time Roughly 3-5 years, full-time
Common Requirements - About 3-5 core graduate courses
- Approximately 4-8 elective or concentration courses
- Capstone/thesis/research project
- Roughly 3-6 core/foundation courses
- About 8-10 advanced elective or concentration courses
- Qualifying exams
- Dissertation
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree in computer science, engineering or related field
- GRE scores
- Background in math or computer science (varies between programs)
- Bachelor's degree in computer science or computer engineering (some schools may require a master's degree)
- GRE scores
Online Availability Yes A few programs may be available

Sources: *Salary.com (figures as of October 2012), **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's Degree in Information Assurance

Some master's programs offer various concentration options, such as network security, cyber security or network engineering. You don't always have to choose a concentration option; most programs allow you to choose any set of electives that fit your career goals. Most master's programs provide a mix of technical and theoretical learning opportunities, which can be useful for academic or hands-on careers. Programs may also offer flexible scheduling options so working students don't have to leave their job to pursue a master's degree.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Can lead to positions in a fast-growing career field (information security analysts were expected to see a 22% increase in jobs during the decade of 2010-2020)*
  • Degree plan can be customized to fit your needs, usually through concentration or elective choices
  • May give you an advantage over bachelor's degree holders for advanced information security positions

Cons

  • Most careers you're qualified for don't have a master's degree as a hard requirement
  • This type of program doesn't typically include internship opportunities
  • Most schools require you to have a bachelor's degree or a background in a computer- or math-related field, so you need to prepare for this degree program early on just to get admitted

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

Information assurance master's degree programs usually begin with some core or foundation courses in computer networking, information security, software security and security risk management. After your first or second semester, you'll dive into your concentration or elective courses, which may consist of options like:

  • E-commerce law
  • Information assurance analysis
  • Secure software engineering
  • Java security
  • Detection of intrusions
  • Security audits
  • Programming language security

Towards the end of the program, most students are required to complete a capstone course or a thesis project. Some schools may offer thesis and non-thesis options, while others may only have a capstone course and no option for a thesis.

Online Programs

Online and hybrid information assurance master's programs are available. Master's programs may include thesis and non-thesis options, and your coursework requirements are practically identical to on-campus programs. The information assurance program is well-suited for online learning, and you may still be able to complete hands-on learning or internship opportunities.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Information security is constantly changing, which makes it very important for these professionals to keep up with the latest developments in the field. Various organizations, such as the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium (ISC), offer education tools and learning opportunities to keep professionals up-to-date on information security. ISC has review seminars, textbooks and journals that can be useful for continuing education or preparing for the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) exam.

The CISSP certification may be useful if you're looking to gain an edge over other job candidates. Obtaining at least five years of work experience and passing the required exam meets the requirement for this credential, and you'll need to continue your education in order to maintain the designation. For those who want a basic certification that doesn't require as much experience, CompTIA offers the Security+ designation to those who pass the required exam. The Security+ certification can show employers competency in handling security threats, cryptography and access control.

PhD in Information Assurance

Although you may find a couple standalone programs, information assurance studies at the doctoral level are often found as a concentration within a technology or computer science program. Not all doctoral programs award PhDs, and you may find that some schools award Doctor of Science degrees. Keep in mind that some programs may require you to have professional experience prior to admission, but this is not a universal prerequisite across all programs.

Doctorates covering information assurance are designed for students who wish to pursue academic or research careers. Some programs may allow you to focus on a specific part of information security through a concentration or specialized track option. Your course options are rather flexible with this degree program, which gives you a chance to gain in-depth knowledge in areas that interest you.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Could lead to tenured teaching opportunities
  • Allows you to gain in-depth knowledge of information assurance that few people have
  • Most schools offer flexible study plans so you can focus on topics that meet your professional goals

Cons

  • Even if you have a PhD, you're not guaranteed to earn tenure
  • Most careers you're qualified for only require a bachelor's or master's degree
  • You could end up spending 8-10 years in school

Common Courses and Requirements

Doctoral programs usually begin with a set of core or foundational courses to ensure that students have a firm grasp of advanced technology concepts. After the core courses are complete, you'll have the chance to take a series of electives, which might include wireless network security, private security management, security experimentation and software assurance development. Before students can begin on their dissertations, they must pass the necessary qualifying exams. The last part of your program focuses on the dissertation, which requires you to choose a topic and defend your work in front of a committee after you've completed the necessary researching and writing.

Online Course Options

Fully online doctoral programs in information assurance are rare, although you may find a few options from for-profit schools. Some non-profit schools offer the majority of the required coursework online, so you may be able to complete most of the program away from the campus. Even schools that offer all of the courses over the Internet require you to travel to the campus a couple times during the course of the program. The online programs contain similar courses as on-campus ones, and you'll still complete a dissertation. However, you won't have the option to become a teaching or research assistant in the online programs.

Standing Out with This Degree

Keeping up with the changes in the field of information assurance can be challenging, so you may want to join an organization like the Information Systems Security Association (ISSA). Members have access to conferences, workshops, seminars, journals and e-newsletters that can give you information and educate you about everything that is going on in the information security field. ISSA also features job boards and networking opportunities that can increase your chances of getting the job you want.

Other organizations, such as the National Security Agency (NSA), offer internship opportunities for graduate students. The NSA also provides articles and journals that discuss topics in information assurance.

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