National Security Degrees: PhD, Master's & Online Course Info

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National security master's and PhD degrees can lead to a variety of careers opportunities in public administration, public safety and academia. Get the truth about the requirements, courses and career options and find out what you can do with your degree.
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Studying National Security: Master's and PhD Degrees at a Glance

Due to the wide array of job options available to students with degrees in national security, salary and education requirements can vary. Graduates typically work in law enforcement, investigation, intelligence, public safety and administration positions.

With evolving changes in national security policy, professionals will likely need to maintain career training and career development opportunities. Some employers, particularly those in government and law enforcement, may offer tuition assistance or reimbursement benefits for qualified employees.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in May 2011, average salaries range from approximately $56,000 for law enforcement officers to about $63,000 for emergency management directors. Careers that require technical or medical knowledge may have higher salaries and require additional education. (Note: These figures are reference points, and may not reflect the salaries of all national security personnel). Job applicants with a strong educational background and relevant work experience are the most poised for success.

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? - Experienced homeland security professionals who want management positions
- Students with bachelor degrees who want to enhance or specialize their skills
- Students who want to work in national security management, policy or research
- Master's or bachelor's degree holders, particularly those with a background or interest in social justice, public safety, emergency management or law
- People who want to teach at the post-secondary level
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Police officer ($56,000 )*
- Criminal investigator ($76,000)*
- Information security analyst ($82,000)*
- Post-secondary criminal justice/law enforcement teacher ($66,000)*
- Emergency management director ($63,000)*
Time to Completion Typically 2 years (full-time) Typically 3-4 years (full-time) after master's degree
Common Graduation Requirements - Complete coursework (approximately 36 credits)
- Maintain GPA standards
- Satisfy practicum/internship requirements
- Satisfy thesis requirements
- Complete coursework (approximately 50 credits after the master's, 80 credits without a master's)
- Complete practicum/internship requirements
- Research, write and present dissertation
- Attend workshops/seminars (as applicable)
- Pass qualifying exams
Admission Requirements - Undergraduate transcripts
- Meet GPA requirements
- Resume
- Letters of recommendation
- Personal statement
- Undergraduate or graduate transcripts
- Recent GRE scores
- Meet GPA requirements
- Personal statement and/or letters of recommendation
- Courses in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, if applicable
Online Availability Yes Yes

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's Degrees in National Security

The objective of a national security master's degree program is to teach students the practical and theoretical facets of policy and organization of homeland security, including geospatial intelligence, information security and forensics, agricultural biosecurity and public health preparedness. Degree programs are usually structured as a Master of Science in National Security (or homeland security); however, some programs may be structured as a master's program in security/safety leadership with a concentration in national security.

Regardless of the program's structure, students will generally acquire skills in homeland security strategy and policy development, emergency response, inter-agency cooperation, cyber-security, intelligence analysis and regional security issues.

Pros and Cons


  • Many national security programs are taught by respected faculty who bring their real-world professional experiences into the classroom
  • You can acquire management and leadership skills that are valued in virtually any industry
  • Although it will likely be helpful to have an understanding of national security topics, you do not need an undergraduate degree in national security to attend most master's degree programs
  • Law enforcement and governmental agencies may provide tuition assistance benefits for employees who want to advance their careers


  • Some careers, including those in law enforcement, may not require a graduate degree
  • Experience is an important qualification in national security positions. If you attend a master's program immediately after undergraduate studies, you may be delaying valuable on-the-job experiences
  • Jobs in the public sector are tied to government funding, so when state and federal budgets experience cuts, layoffs and hiring freezes may occur

Common Courses and Requirements

National security master's degree programs assist students in developing techniques for strategic planning and management in business administration, fiscal management and leadership in situations involving terrorism and information security.

A typical master's degree in national security requires approximately 36 credits, including a mixture of general education courses and core courses. Sample courses may include:

  • Homeland security and constitutional issues
  • Research and policy analysis
  • Strategic planning
  • Weapons of mass destruction

Students will also need to complete a thesis (a research proposal) and demonstrate solid skills in communication and leadership. Some programs may require students to complete a relevant internship.

Online Course Options

Online and distance learning courses are widely available. Some schools may offer a fully online option and a hybrid option (a combination of online and on-campus classes). Online programs generally feature curriculum and coursework requirements that are similar to traditional on-campus programs, but are more reading- and writing-intensive, with a focus on independent work and online lectures.

Stand Out with This Degree

Some programs offer concentrations, such as public health preparedness or information security. Consider specializing in a concentration that interests you and seek related professional associations, such as the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA), that can round-out your academic and professional experience. Some professional associations may offer discounted membership rates to encourage student applicants.

Also consider learning new and relevant technical skills, including project management programs, which can set you apart from other job applicants.

PhD Degrees in National Security

Students in national security PhD program will study and critically evaluate cyber security, homeland security and emergency management. National security studies are based on a multidisciplinary approach to history, political science, international affairs and economics, among others. Students will have the ability to work independently and make original contributions to the field through their dissertation work.

Graduates of a national security PhD program will have the skills to work in the highest professional ranks, including director-level positions within a public agency or private business or as a postsecondary professor.

Pros and Cons


  • The PhD is widely recognized as the best option for those interested in a postsecondary teaching career
  • Small class sizes tend to focus on individual learning
  • You will likely have the opportunity to specialize in a topic of particular interest to you


  • Professional experience is very important to employers and it may be difficult to land your first relevant job, even with an advanced degree
  • In academia, job security is typically only available through tenured positions, which are highly coveted and very competitive
  • Some PhD programs may require students to have an undergraduate or graduate degree in one of the branches of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, homeland security or another related field

Common Courses and Requirements

In a national security PhD program, students will complete coursework; research, write and present a dissertation; pass qualifying examination; and satisfy internship requirements (if applicable). Students will likely have the opportunity to choose a specialization in topics such as public policy or intelligence analysis.

Students can expect courses on the following topics in a typical national security PhD program:

  • American foreign policy
  • International relations
  • Comparative politics
  • Critical incident planning and leadership
  • Finance and budgeting for the public sector

Online Course Options

Most online programs are available in blended distance-learning and classroom-based format. While most of the coursework, lectures and required readings can be completed online, certain portions of the program (such as internships or seminars) may require offline work. The coursework in an online program is generally very similar to that of a traditional academic institution.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Consider that some national security positions may require foreign language fluency. Learning another language, particularly one of the 70 desired languages in the National Security Education Program (NESP) can give you a leg up on other applicants.

Additionally, stay abreast of developments in technology, even if you don't plan to specialize in information security. Numerous national security websites and professional associations regularly post articles on the state of information security, risks, and breakthroughs in the field. Staying up to date on current industry trends will show a potential employer that you understand the challenges their organization faces.

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