A PhD in cybersecurity can prepare you for a wide variety of exciting, rewarding, and lucrative careers in today’s competitive job market. Whether you wish to teach at the college level, conduct research for public or private organizations, or help a business maintain a secure computer database, an online PhD in cybersecurity could be an excellent fit for you.
The guide below will help you identify the best online cybersecurity PhD programs to fit your personal and academic needs. We take a look at some of the most important questions prospective students need to ask themselves and highlight the essential details regarding online learning, required coursework, prospective careers in the field, and the challenges of pursuing an advanced research degree.
About the Ranking
Each ranking on STEPS utilizes data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which colleges and universities across the country self-report via surveys from the U.S. Department of Education. From there, data scientists analyzed the data and created a proprietary algorithm to rank each U.S. post-secondary institution and its online programs using 8 primary factors:
Number of online programs in a given subject and/or degree level
Number of online students at the college or university
Availability of Academic Counseling
Availability of Career Placement Services
Tuition & fees
% of students who receive institutional aid
Median earnings of students ten years post-entry (from the College Scorecard)
Institutional accreditation by an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education
Also, to make sure each ranking honors the STEPS commitment to public service education, the following secondary factors were used:
AmeriCorps Match participation
Recognition as top Peace Corps school
At STEPS, we've done the best we can to generate the most useful rankings, program descriptions, and degree information possible. You can also use our filtering and sorting tools to visualize and narrow down the data however you see fit. And if you have any questions about this ranking, please don't hesitate to contact us directly.
Many of the topics covered in cybersecurity PhD programs are conducive to online learning formats. As such, most of your work as a distance learner will be completed remotely. Online cybersecurity PhD programs vary between schools in several subtle, but important ways. As a result, you need to conduct research on prospective departments to determine which programs best serve your needs.
A college or university builds its degree programs around the strengths of its faculty members and access to resources. In this way, all cybersecurity PhD programs are a little different. This guide will help you understand the variations between programs, what to expect in terms of coursework, and the notable skills you will obtain.
Types of Cybersecurity PhDs
The standard format for online PhD programs in cybersecurity is typically two years of graduate coursework and qualifying exams followed by 3-5 years of research. Your research will help you form an original academic argument or thesis that will become the foundation of your dissertation.
Depending on a school’s strengths, faculty, and available concentration areas, a PhD in cybersecurity may go by a different name. The title of the degree, however, is not the only difference. The foci and essential skills you learn in each program may vary, too. In the sections that follow, we highlight the unique characteristics of a few popular cybersecurity degrees, including a traditional online cybersecurity program, computer science degree with a focus in security, and graduate program in information assurance.
PhD in Cybersecurity
The standard online cybersecurity PhD program prepares you for a variety of jobs and offers some flexibility for you to develop an area of specialization. With courses such as security management, system and application security systems, data management, and network security techniques, you will develop a body of knowledge and professional skills that allow you to develop theories to improve cybersecurity practices, evaluate technology management issues, conduct in-depth scholarly research, and apply the best modern practices.
Simply because this is the standard cybersecurity program does not mean that this track provides fewer opportunities to develop an area of expertise. On the contrary, you will be able to develop all of the essential skills for a cybersecurity career while focusing on an area of the field that interests you the most, particularly during your research and dissertation stages.
PhD in Computer Science – Security Focus
Computer science degrees with a security focus offers a multidisciplinary approach to cybersecurity. Most PhD programs in this area use a curriculum that combines coursework from cybersecurity, homeland security, and security management. Additionally, computer science doctorates typically adhere to the training standards of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Security Service (CSS). In this way, computer science departments can keep up with cutting-edge technology, the latest innovations and research findings, and most recent NSA-endorsed practices.
Courses such as applied cryptography, system design and security, web security and privacy, computer architecture, and secure software ensure that you understand the essential management, engineering, and policy standards in this area of the field today. After completing required courses for the degree, you will possess the theoretical knowledge and technical skills in database management, algorithms, engineering, artificial intelligence, and more to tackle an original research project for the dissertation.
PhD in Information Assurance
Information Assurance is an often-misrepresented area of the field. Professionals who work in information assurance roles focus on organizational management areas to ensure that computer systems protect private information. Norwich University refers to information assurance as “the field that safeguards the integrity used by individuals or organizations . . . [and involves] managing risks associated with using, processing, storing, and transferring data.” In other words, in this area of the field, you will focus on big picture risk management tactics and conduct risk assessments. Unlike professionals in computer science-security and cybersecurity, information assurance specialists are more concerned with organizational management than systems design. Furthermore, information assurance specialists are also prepared to handle non-digital information assets such as hard copy documents and records.
PhD degree programs in information assurance prepare learners for work in both organizations and businesses. These roles tend to be less research-focused than those obtained by professionals in computer science and cybersecurity. An information assurance PhD may be a good fit if you wish to work in a business-minded atmosphere where you can incorporate information management techniques and information security.
The Online Cybersecurity PhD Curriculum
Students pursuing an online cybersecurity PhD should expect to spend two years in graduate classes followed by 3-5 years of independent research resulting in a detailed account of their work referred to as the dissertation. Your curriculum will be unique to your specific area of concentration, but there are some standard courses most programs will include.
In this class you will explore advanced topics in computer security such as authorization techniques, security models, architecture and security, cryptography, and network security protocols. This course typically requires a prerequisite class in basic computer security that covers common security risks that computer systems and databases experience on a daily basis.
Students in this course learn about the essential computer forensics investigation methods that professionals employ to deal with cybersecurity incidents. Most schools structure this course around the knowledge needed for the International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS) certification or the International Society of Forensic Computer Examiner Certified Computer Examiner (CCE) certification exam. You will need a strong understanding of operating systems and hardware to take full advantage of this course.
Healthcare informatics is a growing field in which cybersecurity plays an important role. This class prepares you for work with public and private organizations that handle sensitive information that demands the utmost privacy and confidentiality. You will explore data storage and protection techniques that healthcare informatics professionals in cybersecurity use to secure, collect, and disseminate electronic documents.
Computer science and cybersecurity professionals often develop, examine, and test practices for stopping online attacks. This course may be especially helpful for students interested in cybersecurity management at organizations and large companies where they will handle an astounding number of daily online attacks. Additionally, if you are interested in researching cyber threats and developing programs or techniques to stop them, this course provides an excellent foundation.
As a cybersecurity professional, you will need to abide by established compliance issues, ethics, policies, and laws. This class help students explore domestic and international laws that affect the ways that many workers in the field carry out their work each day. Faculty help students examine policy documents, ethical issues, and legal principles. Students typically take on an extensive research project for this course in order to become more familiar with how these topics affect their areas of interest.
Often referred to as NLP or computer linguistics, natural language processing is an essential topic for students in cybersecurity. The course focuses on statistical learning algorithms and the ways in which computer systems read and communicate in human and computer-based languages. The class also delves into the Python programming language, interfaces and databases, conversational agents, and real-world text data.
In this course, students learn the processes and standards required by federally mandated cybersecurity laws and international standards. Faculty help students examine the Federal Information Security Management Act and readies them for scenarios in which cybersecurity professionals prepare compliance reports. In most cases, students need to complete a prerequisite course that covers an overview of computer databases, networks, security concepts, and hardware before enrolling in this class.
Most online cybersecurity PhD programs include courses that prepare students to conduct original research. Since the dissertation is an extensive document based on your original theories and ideas, advanced research skills are essential to successfully finishing the doctoral degree. Additionally, many careers in the field require professionals to generate and publish credible research findings that contribute to the advancement of knowledge in their specialty areas.
Online Cybersecurity PhD Programs: FAQs
Completing a PhD program presents a number of challenges and demands that many bachelor’s and master’s degree holders have not had to face in their academic career. While online learning can provide you with flexible scheduling options compared to traditional on-campus scenarios, you need to assess whether or not distance education fits with your learning style.
Since cybersecurity is such a computer- and technology-driven field, many schools deliver fully online PhD programs. This means that the majority of your assignments, research, and interaction with classmates and professors will be conducted entirely remotely, resulting in a vastly different learning environment than what you might be accustomed to. The section below highlights some of these essential topics to consider before applying, including finances, online learning challenges, PhD acceptance requirements, and school accreditation.
How Long Does It Take to Earn a PhD in Cybersecurity Online?
The duration of a PhD program varies between schools. You should plan on spending approximately 2-3 years completing coursework and an additional 3-5 years conducting research and writing your dissertation. This timeline can be greatly affected by the availability of courses in your department, whether you are enrolled as a part- or full-time student, and how long it takes for you to conduct sufficient research for your dissertation.
Additionally, in order to advance to candidacy, most cybersecurity programs require you to pass qualifying exams. Since the doctoral process beyond coursework is highly personalized and dependent upon your areas of interest, the general timeline for adequately preparing for and passing exams can vary greatly between PhD students.
Furthermore, there are a number of factors that are out of your control, namely the sequence, duration, and scheduling of steps between qualifying exams and the final dissertation defense meeting. The timeline during your final year is also greatly affected by the schedules and preferences of the three or four faculty members serving on your dissertation committee.
What Jobs Can I Get with an Online PhD in Cybersecurity?
After you earn your PhD in cybersecurity, you will be prepared for careers in a wide variety of fields. With this research-focused advanced degree, many cybersecurity PhD holders pursue employment with colleges and universities as adjunct, part-time, or full-time faculty members. Alternatively, both public and private organizations employ cybersecurity specialists as information security managers, security consultants, information security executives, and more.
When considering the types of jobs you would like to pursue upon graduation, be sure to consider fields that rely on computer-driven networks and computer specialists to carry out their daily operations. Additional areas to explore for potential careers include banking and finance, insurance, information technology, healthcare, corporate positions, and global technology firms.
Cybersecurity Consultant: These professionals can work in a variety of areas in the field. They often help companies and organizations identify weaknesses in their computer systems and networks to prevent intruders from gaining access to private information. Consultants must possess strong leadership, communication, and negotiation skills with a strong understanding of cybersecurity ethics, laws, and policies.
Information Security Manager: In this role, cybersecurity specialists are in charge of maintaining a high standard of protection and security protocols throughout an organization. They often work in teams to identify and prevent issues in both software and hardware that can affect the organization’s daily processes. They need strong communication and leadership skills as they often assume personnel management roles and delegate responsibilities to other employees.
Professor of Computer Science or Cybersecurity: Professors typically work at universities and colleges and teach a wide variety of classes. Depending on the program, professors often teach introductory courses for new computer science and cybersecurity students. Alternatively, more established or tenured professors will teach highly specialized courses to advanced learners seeking a master’s and doctoral degree. In these roles, you will need strong written and verbal communication skills and will benefit from prior experience in public speaking.
Is an Online PhD in Cybersecurity Right for Me?
A PhD is traditionally a research- and academically-focused degree, and programs in cybersecurity are no exception. Is a research-driven career a good fit for you? This is one of several questions prospective online students should ask themselves before applying for distance learning programs in cybersecurity. Here are five important questions to consider about your desired career path and learning style before applying to online programs.
Am I ready for distance learning? Earning an online PhD in cybersecurity is a rigorous, long, and notably solitary process. In addition to possessing the self-discipline to continue your studies for several years, you will also need self-motivation as a distance learner. Without attending classes in person regularly, online learners need to hold themselves accountable to stay on track and progress toward graduation.
Am I prepared for graduate student life? The workload and amount of stress you face as a PhD student may be drastically greater than what you experienced in an undergraduate program. This should not necessarily deter you from pursuing an advanced degree. Rather, it is important to prepare in advance some concrete ways in which you can deal with the stressors graduate student life. Many schools offer online or on-campus counselors who serve as excellent support systems and can direct you to effective resources.
Do I want a research-focused degree? Earning a PhD does necessarily mean your future career will be spent poring over data or scrounging through digital archives, but you will likely find yourself in a role with heavy research components. If you wish to work with computers and envision a more hands-on or creatively-focused career, you may wish to consider alternative degrees in areas such as computer programming or software development.
Can I afford to go to graduate school? Unfortunately, not all graduate students receive funding to pursue their education. Many U.S. undergraduate degree holders today who are considering further education in graduate school already possess some level of student loan debt. Be sure to consider all of your funding options, whether through your prospective department or an external source, to make your PhD more affordable. Alternatively, if you wish to do so, you have the option of using student loans for tuition, supplies, or living expenses.
Do I need to take the GRE? Some online PhD programs in cybersecurity require applicants to submit their GRE scores. While not all programs require the exam for admission, the GRE can be a significant factor in your competitiveness as a graduate school applicant. Students typically need three months or more to study for the GRE. You may even wish to hire a tutor to help you brush up on your knowledge for the quantitative, verbal, or writing sections of the test.
Do Fully-Online Cybersecurity PhD Programs Exist?
Many schools offer online cybersecurity PhD programs with minimal or no on-campus obligations. Some schools require students to appear for a meeting or event on campus as few as one time per year. With a computer-driven field such as cybersecurity, PhD degree seekers can likely find a fully online graduate program that fits their needs. Most colleges and universities require cybersecurity PhD students to complete a doctoral dissertation for graduation. Depending on the school, you may need to attend meetings in-person on campus such as your dissertation defense. Alternatively, your program may offer video meetings in lieu of a campus visit.
Will I Get Accepted into an Online Cybersecurity PhD Program?
Application requirements can vary greatly between schools. Most online cybersecurity PhD programs expect applicants to possess a master’s degree in a STEM area. Some programs take students through a master’s degree while working toward the doctoral degree. These programs will accept students who possess only a bachelor’s degree. Standard requirements for admission to a PhD in cybersecurity typically include a at least a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution with a 3.0 or higher GPA. Additionally, applications usually need to include GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and a personal essay or statement of research. Some schools may ask you to submit documentation of previous research projects such as a research portfolio or list of publications.
Can I Cover the Cost of an Online PhD Program in Cybersecurity?
Earning your PhD in cybersecurity online is a financial commitment and time investment. In some cases, you may be able to obtain substantial financial support from your department in the form of scholarships or grants. On the other hand, your department may not offer the same types of financial support for online students as it does on-campus students. In these scenarios, you may wish to seek outside sources of funding such as private organizations or memorial foundations. While researching potential schools, be sure to take a close look at the cost of a program and weigh it against the benefits it can offer you. The table below offers a quick look at the cost and required number of credits for online PhD cybersecurity degrees.
No. of Credits
Colorado Technical University
Are There Accredited Online Cybersecurity PhD Programs?
Accreditation ensures that a school meets certain educational standards. By attending an accredited school, you will receive a quality education and the credentials you earn will help you to advance your career. Most doctoral programs in cybersecurity will hold regional or national accreditation.
In many cases, schools that offer career-focused programs such as vocational or trade schools usually possess national accreditation. Schools with regional accreditation tend to offer a wide range of academically-focused programs, from associate degrees to doctoral programs. Regionally accredited schools tend to be more expensive but are widely considered to be the more prestigious of the two.