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How do I choose the right Master's degree program for information security?

I am interested in applying to Master's degree programs in information security. I noticed that you listed a few schools in one of your answers that are not recognized on the NSA centers for academic excellence in this area. I have found other programs that offer information security emphasis, but are not listed on the NSA Web site. (For example, I was looking at Columbia University and UC San Diego.) Is it better to go with the NSA centers, or should I just apply to any schools that offer the program? Are the schools listed on the NSA Web site held in higher regard when it comes to security positions, as compared to the schools that hold a high prestige in general?

Also, I looked at some of the schools on the NSA Web site (specifically University of Maryland and a few others), but could not find much information on the universities' Web sites detailing their information security focus. I have found many schools offer coursework in the area, but do not offer a specialized program.

Finally, I found CMU (Carnegie Mellon University) has a West Coast campus that offers a specific Master's on Information Security. I was wondering if you knew how this compared to the CMU campus in Pittsburgh.

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The real answer to your question boils down to whether or not you want to work for the military/DoD contractor community, or whether your interests lie outside that relatively narrow fold. If the former, then sticking to the NSA list makes sense; otherwise, your intuition that sticking to top 20 computer science schools is right on the money. As for schools on the list that don't have well-articulated infosec curricula or degree plans, that's apparently an artifact of being recognized for faculty strengths in research that may not show up on the training side of things. Yes, you'd think all these schools would want to capitalize on that recognition by enabling (and boosting) enrollment in such programs, but my survey of the 30-odd schools involved shows that less than half of them have clearly articulated undergraduate and/or graduate infosec curricula.

As for CMU West coast, my information is that the materials are the same, but that neither the student body nor the faculty is on par with that in Pittsburgh. Talk to somebody who's been in or is in that program and get a good solid reading from them before investing that kind of money in an off-campus venue.

For more info on this topic, visit these resources:
  • Ask the Expert: How can I prepare for the CISSP exam?
  • Ask the Expert: Choosing the right advanced degree for security management
  • Tip: Information security in academia -- Training options abound

    This was first published in June 2004

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