September 7, 2017 By Christophe Veltsos 5 min read

“In the shifting landscape of higher education today, critical questions continue to be raised about the value of a liberal arts education. There is a constant drumbeat claiming that STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — are far more valuable in today’s digital economy and culture than a traditional liberal arts major such as philosophy or history.” — Sergei Klebnikov, Forbes

The debate over which fields students should major in has only gotten louder in the past decade. While there is a drumbeat — a loud one — in favor of STEM fields, a more well-rounded education can be just as valuable to an aspiring security professional. With that in mind, what should students and parents consider before choosing a particular discipline or degree? Can students still get good, lifelong value out of an arts degree?

Caution: Students Under Pressure

When it comes to choosing a field of study, there are two main camps: One is in favor of an all-inclusive, well-rounded education that includes many of the same traditional disciplines your parents and grandparents might also have studied. The other favors STEM-related studies and boasts of the immediate value of such a degree.

Most faculty from STEM disciplines get along with their non-STEM colleagues and vice versa, so why the partisanship on the part of the general public? It may be because it makes for good politics, or perhaps it’s a ploy to draw students to more expensive programs. However, all that rhetoric does little to help students and their parents make informed decisions about education.

Price-conscious parents and students want good value for their dollars. Who can blame them when the cost of tuition is sky high? Yes, tuition is more expensive than it was in the past, but the increase might not be as large as it initially looks: Data from College Board comparing tuition and fees from 1971–72 to 2016–17 revealed that tuition for an in-state student at a public four-year institution in 1971 was equivalent to $2,531 in 2016 dollars, compared to an actual price of $9,648 in 2016.

There is no denying the significant pressure on students to choose the right major to set up a successful, rewarding career and a stable, comfortable level of income. But the voices on either side of the argument are not exactly on equal footing. Many employers in STEM areas loudly broadcast the hundreds of open positions that are just waiting to be filled and boast of the stellar salaries that elite workers in the field are commanding. Cybersecurity is one of those areas, and there is a strong push to draw more graduates to the field, even as new technologies such as cognitive computing promise to change the labor landscape within the next decade.

A Lesson Hides Behind Every Choice We Make

So should students and parents rush toward STEM fields? While many STEM academics would likely rejoice at such an idea, students should consider pursuing subjects they’re passionate about. As an educator, I’ve seen scores of students who were pushed — or, dare I say, bullied — into particular fields by their parents. These students, usually high performers, even top of the class, often dedicate themselves to fields for which they have little to no passion. Although they may achieve academic success, they have no personal connection to their fields of study.

Additionally, cybersecurity is not solely an IT issue. As Dr. Willie E. May, acting director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), said during a speech in Washington, D.C., “cybersecurity is too important to be left to your IT department and operations groups.” In other words, cybersecurity is both a business issue and a people issue. That’s where majors such as communication, philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology come in. These fields deal with the human side of the equation, helping security teams understand why users choose bad passwords, click on malicious links and fail to recognize cyber risks.

Six Key Considerations for Aspiring Cybersecurity Students

When it comes to choosing the right academic path, budding security professionals should assess their goals from multiple angles. I’ve organized the following key points as lessons for students and parents to consider when charting their educational course.

1. Do Your Homework

A list of all the values of liberal arts and STEM degrees could fill multiple articles, but this would not be as beneficial as independent research. Don’t limit yourself to quantitative data such as the number of jobs posted and average starting salary. Instead, seek out qualitative advice from people in those careers. Find out what they studied and how they got where they are in their careers, and weigh the pros and cons of the field you’re considering. Then compare the many paths that can get you where you want to go. Don’t forget to consider the soft skills that can help you grow further into the security profession, which requires a breadth of abilities.

2. Invest in Yourself

Yes, higher education is an investment, and it’s one that should be done in full consideration of its impact on your finances. However, your choice of major shouldn’t just focus on employment rates and average salary. Instead, it should reflect your skills, abilities and lifelong passions. After all, would you really be happy in a field that pays well if you hate every minute?


3. Consider Taking the Scenic Route

When I advise students, I am careful to not push my views and opinions on them. I provide information and sometimes correct their erroneous assumptions, but the choice is still theirs. This does little to reduce the stress of making the wrong decision, however.

I firmly believe that there are no wrong choices when it comes to planning your academic path. Much like driving, you can make choices to reach your destination faster, or you can opt for the scenic route. Sometimes you want or need to choose the fastest route. In other cases, you’ll arrive much more relaxed and in better shape by taking the scenic route.

As George Anders, author of “You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a Useless Liberal Arts Education,” wrote in Forbes, “We’ve known for some time that humanities and social science majors often thrive in career fields connected only indirectly to their college focus.” Anders’ research also revealed a trend of “career roaming” among vocation-minded majors in STEM fields.

4. Consider All Your Options

In this age of connected mobile devices, we want answers and we want them now. Students and parents want instant access to data about choices, prices and delivery times. They want to know how decisions they make today will translate into benefits in the future.

Unfortunately, there’s no definite answer for how your choice of major today will serve you — or not — in the future. Instead, you should make the best decision for yourself now and trust that these choices will lead, directly or indirectly, to your goals.

5. Get the Most Out of Your Degree

Slowly but surely, institution by institution, higher education is trying to adapt to the changing demands of the modern global workforce. In some institutions, students in liberal arts majors are encouraged to integrate some STEM courses as part of their degrees. Similarly, the STEM fields are reviewing their core curricula with an eye toward ensuring that general education brings relevant skills to supplement more technical domains.

But because the pace of change in higher ed is so slow, your best bet is to take it upon yourself to get the most out of your degree. Make sure you complete an internship, seek career advice and consider supplementing your liberal arts degree with some courses that offer more immediate benefits to you and potential employers. Take advantage of opportunities that present themselves to you, or push yourself out of your comfort zone to seek out these opportunities. Your college experience is as much what you make of it as the transcript of courses and grades you have completed.

6. Be In It for the Long Haul

Unlike your parents, you are unlikely to stay in the same field of work for more than a decade or two, let alone a lifetime. As you consider your choice of school and degree, ask yourself which type of degree might be best for you to live the life that you want, the way you want. However, realize that most career paths will require that you continue to invest in yourself and your professional development to ensure that you’re always ready to move forward and provide value.

The Fast Track Is Not the Only Track

For students considering a career in cybersecurity, the ideal academic path is no longer as clear as it once was. While a STEM track might get you there faster, a liberal arts degree can help students take the scenic route to a cybersecurity career, gaining key skills and insights that they might not encounter in a traditional STEM program.

More from CISO

Empowering cybersecurity leadership: Strategies for effective Board engagement

4 min read - With the increased regulation surrounding cyberattacks, more and more executives are seeing these attacks for what they are - serious threats to business operations, profitability and business survivability. But what about the Board of Directors? Are they getting all the information they need? Are they aware of your organization’s cybersecurity initiatives? Do they understand why those initiatives matter? Maybe not. According to Harvard Business Review, only 47% of board members regularly engage with their CISO. There appears to be a…

The evolution of 20 years of cybersecurity awareness

3 min read - Since 2004, the White House and Congress have designated October National Cybersecurity Awareness Month. This year marks the 20th anniversary of this effort to raise awareness about the importance of cybersecurity and online safety. How have cybersecurity and malware evolved over the last two decades? What types of threat management tools surfaced and when? The Cybersecurity Awareness Month themes over the years give us a clue. 2004 - 2009: Inaugural year and beyond This early period emphasized general cybersecurity hygiene,…

C-suite weighs in on generative AI and security

3 min read - Generative AI (GenAI) is poised to deliver significant benefits to enterprises and their ability to readily respond to and effectively defend against cyber threats. But AI that is not itself secured may introduce a whole new set of threats to businesses. Today IBM’s Institute for Business Value published “The CEO's guide to generative AI: Cybersecurity," part of a larger series providing guidance for senior leaders planning to adopt generative AI models and tools. The materials highlight key considerations for CEOs…

Bringing threat intelligence and adversary insights to the forefront: X-Force Research Hub

3 min read - Today defenders are dealing with both a threat landscape that’s constantly changing and attacks that have stood the test of time. Innovation and best practices co-exist in the criminal world, and one mustn’t distract us from the other. IBM X-Force is continuously observing new attack vectors and novel malware in the wild, as adversaries seek to evade detection innovations. But we also know that tried and true tactics — from phishing and exploiting known vulnerabilities to using compromised credentials and…

Topic updates

Get email updates and stay ahead of the latest threats to the security landscape, thought leadership and research.
Subscribe today