2021 Guide to Online Cybersecurity Certificates and Courses

Cybersecurity professionals protect an organization’s hardware, networks and other information technology. Tactics to protect businesses include analyzing structural risks, testing weaknesses with ethical hacking and researching cyberattacks at a high level to identify patterns and develop solutions.

There are a variety of online cybersecurity certificate programs and courses to help you develop your IT career. Read on to learn why cybersecurity is a fast-growing industry and how online cybersecurity courses can help you learn new skills.

Can You Study Cybersecurity Online?

Studying cybersecurity is not limited to traditional on-campus programs. Many different schools offer courses, certificates and even full degrees online. If you’re not enrolling in a master’s program, it may be valuable to take an online cybersecurity certificate program. When evaluating these courses, you should consider:

  • Course focus and specialization: Some courses are more career-focused than others. There are different courses for management, telecommunications, law, forensics and criminal justice, among others. When evaluating a cybersecurity program, make sure it has tools for a field and profession in which you are interested.
  • Quality of instruction: Not all online courses are the same. While watching a free video may seem enticing, a program that involves hands-on training, instructor-led activities and peer feedback is likely more valuable than a static program. 
  • Professional certifications: Some online programs deliver degrees or certificates, which can be more valuable than a simple certificate of completion. If you aim to get certified after the program, check to see that it prepares you to take the exam. You do not need to have a degree to qualify to take the CISSP exam. Other certifications to consider when evaluating a program are CNSS and NICE Cybersecurity Workforce Framework programs. All these certifications may make you more attractive to prospective employers.
  • Credit transfer: If you are enrolled in a short course or other non-degree programs, check if you will be able to transfer your credits to an accredited university’s cybersecurity program in the future. This can be easy if you are taking a course at the university where you later hope to enroll. While you may not necessarily need to transfer credits, it’s important to note when evaluating a program.

Topics in Online Cybersecurity Courses

Common job titles for cybersecurity experts include security engineer, security administrator, security architect, security specialist, security consultant and information security analyst.  

By taking single courses instead of a full program, you can study a variety of topics that interest you, at your own pace. Some courses work with different vendors or specialties, such as Cisco, (ISC)2 and Microsoft, whereas other courses cover topics more generally. Topics can include:

  • Data science: Courses may teach how to store and analyze data through technology and how that can inform cybersecurity efforts in an organization.
  • Cybersecurity law: Cybersecurity is quickly gathering its own set of laws, just like other industries. Cybersecurity law covers issues such as compliance and prosecution of threats.
  • Penetration testing: Penetration testing is a specific tool cybersecurity experts use to find weaknesses in digital infrastructure. Courses on this top may teach how to properly conduct a penetration test and what to look for.
  • SQL injection: SQL injection is a web security vulnerability that allows an outside attacker to interfere with the queries that an application makes to its database. A course on this would teach how to protect and prevent an SQL injection attack.

Is a Cybersecurity Certificate Worth It?

Cybersecurity and related information technology professions often focus on practical skills as opposed to degrees and certificates. Still, a certificate can indicate that you are learning and practicing skills outside of work. There are a wide range of certificate types available ranging from full-blown multi-semester programs to 10-12 week courses.

And there is a lot of work. Experts estimate there will be 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs by 2021 (PDF, 406 KB), according to a Hervajec Group report. Cybersecurity experts may need advanced training to move up in an organization. According to the BLS, in addition to a bachelor’s degree, many employers prefer cybersecurity job candidates to have certification.

While many in cybersecurity go into the role of information security analysts, other common cybersecurity roles in organizations include:

  • Chief information security (“infosec”) officer
  • Cryptographer
  • Computer and information systems manager
  • Forensics experts
  • Incident responder
  • Penetration tester
  • Security administrator
  • Security analyst
  • Security architect
  • Security auditor
  • Security consultant
  • Security engineer
  • Security director
  • Security manager
  • Security software developer
  • Security code auditor
  • Vulnerability assessor

When determining if a cybersecurity certificate is worth it, keep in mind that these roles can pay well. The 2019 average national salary for computer and information systems managers was $146,360 per year, according to the BLS. Meanwhile, top executives, like chief infosec officers, averaged $104,690 per year. All of these roles require some degree of cybersecurity knowledge, which an online cybersecurity certificate can help you learn.

Cybersecurity Graduate Certificate vs Master's in Cybersecurity

Deciding between a cybersecurity graduate certificate and a master’s degree in cybersecurity can be a challenge. The right cybersecurity program can be helpful for attaining some positions, but isn’t necessarily needed to enter the field. Some job listings might only require specific tools or technology-related certifications like CompTIA's Security+, Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP), and Certified Encryption Specialist (EC-Council ECES).

There may be some financial benefit to completing a master’s in cybersecurity. According to the BLS, those with master’s degrees earn $1,434 weekly, compared to $1,198 for those with only a bachelor’s degree.

Ultimately, deciding between a graduate certificate in cybersecurity and a master’s degree is a personal choice, dependent on where you want to work, which skills you possess, and how you plan to advance your career.

Demand for Cybersecurity Specialists and Career Growth

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, cyber or information security analyst positions are expected to grow 32% between 2018 and 2028, which is faster than average. Additionally, if you plan to work in cybersecurity, it is important to point out that the 2019 median annual pay for information security analysts was $99,730. Do your research to determine if cybersecurity certification is right for you.

Benefits of an Online Cybersecurity Short Course Program

Online short courses are one way you can advance your skills in a given career field. They are an opportunity to explore a field that interests you without committing to a degree program. A short course is a condensed learning program that allows you to gain new knowledge or enhance existing knowledge in any field, including cybersecurity. Short courses are different from certificate programs or e-courses, though they follow a similar structure. They often offer an abridged learning program for a wide range of topics.

Short courses can range from simple introductions to topics all the way to technical training and advanced education. A short course may be something you take to explore if that area of study is right for you.

Learn cybersecurity skills on your own time

Online short courses offer greater flexibility than other online schooling options. Short courses can be adapted to fit your schedule and commitment level. Because they are condensed versions of larger courses, they require a smaller time commitment.

Find out if cybersecurity topics interest you without long-term commitment

If you’re new to cybersecurity or just exploring if cybersecurity may be the right field for you, a short course, particularly an introductory course, is a great way to gauge your interest in the topic. Longer programs or more advanced courses require a greater commitment, be it a full semester or even years. Short courses, on the other hand, are only a matter of weeks.

A full online cybersecurity certificate program or degree would also be a larger investment. Short courses are designed to be taken by people who are not degree-seekers and therefore should only need to be purchased course-by-course. If you decide you want to commit to cybersecurity, you may change your mind and enroll in a full program, but short courses make it easy to start and learn when you want.

Advance a specific skill without the cost of a full degree

If you’re already working in an entry- or mid-level cybersecurity field, you may find you only need specific skills to advance your career. Not every cybersecurity career requires knowledge of every tactic in the field. Taking a short course in cybersecurity may get you where you need to be.

Online Cybersecurity Courses to Consider

There are many different ways to evaluate a cybersecurity course online. Some things to consider include:

  • Area of study
  • Accreditation status
  • Institutional reputation
  • Faculty

As you look over various programs, determine which ones seem like the best fit. Like all educational decisions, deciding what online cybersecurity courses to take is a personal one.

Last Upated May 2020