Three Cybersecurity Pathways for High School Students
There are multiple paths to a career in cybersecurity. If you ask ten people in the cybersecurity industry about their path, you will receive ten routes to the same place. Some would be circuitous, and some would be more direct. Some of those routes would take years to complete. For others, it would take months. The pathways to cybersecurity careers are as unique as the people that use those routes.
However, students have to learn certain fundamentals to build a solid foundation for every opportunity that comes after it. The perfect pathway will have to consist of education, certifications, and practical work experience through apprenticeships, internships, and shadowing. If you only had two of these elements, you will still have a great chance to enter the cybersecurity industry. If you only had one of these elements, it is not enough for you to earn that position.
It starts in high school.
In high school, take math, technology, and computer science courses. A career in cybersecurity requires less math than a career in computer science. However, it is good to take as much advanced math as possible while in high school. Some schools do not always have the resources for STEM courses such as cybersecurity but take as many STEM courses as possible.
Participating in extracurricular activities such as CyberPatriot, which hosts the largest middle and high school cyber competitions globally, is essential. CyberPatriot is the best place to start a cybersecurity career, and it would be hard to find a cybersecurity professional under thirty years old that did not begin with CyberPatriot. Participating in CyberPatriot is a must.
Also, Career and Technical Student Organizations (CTSO) such as Distributed Education Clubs of America (DECA) and Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) are good places to hone the cyber skills you are learning in your classroom. These organizations offer awards and recognition programs based on professional business categories that include events related to cybersecurity, such as Network Design, Cybersecurity, Coding, and Programming. Join these clubs, and you will have the upper hand over those that did not have this experience. These clubs give a high school student a firm foundation to build on.
After High School — Now What?
The argument between certifications or a degree is a considerable debate. Community College is an excellent choice if a high school graduate looks for the best path to a cybersecurity career. Do your homework! Ensure the four-year college of your choice will accept community college courses you take. The two-year degree should be in cybersecurity (or some other type of computer science). While in community college, a student must do two things: look for internship possibilities and take certification courses such as Security+ and Network+.
The reason to take Security+ and Network+ before you transfer to a four-year college is that with the two-year degree, plus certifications and internships, you will be able to enter the job market before starting your four-year degree. Another reason to enter the job market before you finish your four-year degree is that many companies offer educational benefits and pay for the remaining two years. You can still complete your four-year degree while you are making a living and gaining experience. Other benefits include lower costs for college, and local students can also save money by living and working in your hometown, with plenty of friends and family to support them. Support from friends and family is not always possible when enrolled in an out-of-state four-year college. A combination of a two-year degree, certifications, and practical experience through internships, job shadowing, and apprenticeships equal job opportunities! You can earn your four-year degree on your own time while making a living in the industry. The community college option is a good choice because it can take you where you want to go in the quickest time.
After graduating from high school, taking the suggested courses, and joining the various CTSOs indicated above, the military is also a great option. First, ask your recruiter to assess your chances of obtaining an information technology assignment. Study and take the ASVAB aptitude exam. Study is the keyword; the higher you score, the more options you have. The military has excellent IT training in all branches. The army offers enlisted training for jobs such as Cyber Network Defender, Cybersecurity Specialist, Cybersecurity Analyst, and others. The community college option will still be an excellent choice for those of you who will only spend one term in the military. The Air Force also has excellent career training and positions in intelligence, computer science, and space.
The advantages of joining the military are apparent; free training, practical experience, certifications, and earning an income simultaneously. If being in the military full-time is not something you want, many people choose to go into the reserves. Many military reserve members work in the cybersecurity field in the private sector while maintaining their military benefits and training. Additionally, education benefits enable members to receive four-year college degrees after they leave military service. If students use these options, it is a winning combination to find jobs in the private sector.
If a four-year university degree is the way you want to go, hopefully, you have laid the groundwork while in high school, as listed above. From there, meet with your advisors at the college and universities and apply for those colleges that suit your interest. After developing a program for yourself, find internships that would help you get practical experience beyond the academic training. A degree is never a bad thing, and a four-year degree will undoubtedly put you in good standing for entering the job market. But along the way, find time to complete your certifications before your graduate. Some universities and community colleges have built-in certification prep as part of their curriculum, and this should be an option to use if available. A four-year university degree also needs to be supplemented by certifications in the area you chose to make your career.
None of these paths will be effortless. Even if you find it academically easy — it will still take time and commitment. You will need to do a lot of work on your own beyond the classroom. Many people have degrees or certifications and are still having difficulty breaking into the cyber/IT workforce.
Even though there is a massive shortage of trained cybersecurity professionals, companies are not opening their doors and letting in everyone. Some people get the false idea that a job will automatically wait for them after completing their training and education. That is not the case. There are other factors and hoops you have to jump through. The only guarantee is that the certifications, degrees, and practical experience will put you in a much better position to break into the workforce. If you take one of these paths and are persistent, there is a good chance you will be successful.
For people with little resources, there is another option you can use. The National Cybersecurity Center offers free certification classes that can help you enter the world of cybersecurity and earn a living doing something challenging, viable and sustainable well into the future.