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Information is a powerful force in today's economy--a source of both competitive advantage and vulnerability. To protect the value of this asset and minimize the risk of intrusion, organizations rely on information assurance specialists. Information assurance takes a broad and proactive approach to the optimization of digital data, aiming for confidentiality, integrity, and availability.

A master's degree in in technology in information assurance takes you into expert and leadership roles in IT security. Programs offer an interdisciplinary array of technical and business courses and the opportunity to expand your experience through research and internship. The degree is available via digital learning for those who want to earn a master's degree online while they work.

WorldWideLearn.com sets you up for success in the graduate program. Turn your master's degree into a career catalyst by planning your educational journey in advance. This step-by-step guide helps you find the resources you need to realize your potential in information assurance.

Guide to Master's Degrees in Information Assurance

Information assurance takes a comprehensive approach to the project of ensuring the confidentiality and accessibility of an organization's data. The discipline goes a step beyond traditional information security, which protects data from intrusion. In addition to securing information, the IA discipline aims for broad organizational accountability. The goal is not to lock down information but to create a safe environment for accessing it. In some contexts (accounting, health information, etc.), IA also encompasses regulatory compliance.

Achieving reliable information access is both a technical and business problem, making information assurance an interdisciplinary field. Tactics include certification and accreditation (C&A), business continuity planning (BCP), compliance and disaster recovery planning (DRP), IT audit, authentication, and accountability reporting. This global approach brings in elements of accounting, computer forensics, and systems engineering in addition to computer science.

Professional and Academic Master's Degrees

A master's degree in information assurance helps you build the advanced skills and experience to support the effective management of information in an organization. There are several graduate degree types to support different career goals.

Master of Science

The Master of Science degree is modeled on the traditional science master's. A combined curriculum of advanced coursework and self-directed research prepares you to head into industry as a security specialist, or continue on to a PhD in the field. As an academic, you can push the frontiers of innovation in information management systems and best practices. MS degrees include the Master of Science in Information Assurance (MSIA), Master of Science in Information Security and Assurance (MSISA), and Master of Science in Information Security Policy and Management (MSISPM).

Master of Business Administration

The MBA in information assurance emphasizes the administrative element of information assurance. Programs typically build on the student's existing technical expertise in information security, adding advanced training in business information management competencies such as risk assessment, computer forensics, incident response, IT audit, and accountability reporting. This professional master's degree focuses on coursework and applied internship experience. You can earn a master's degree online, completing the hands-on component of the degree in the context of your IT job.

Specializations

Information assurance specializations allow you to develop deeper expertise in either a technical or business feature of IA practice. These focus areas represent the full spectrum of the field, from applied technical tactics to broad administrative approaches.

Information Technology specializations:

  • Cryptography
  • Data analysis
  • Information systems management
  • Information systems security engineering
  • Security product development
  • Intelligence analysis

Administrative specializations:

  • Risk assessment
  • Security policy: specification writing and standards definition
  • Threat analysis
  • Vulnerability discovery
  • Project management
  • Computer forensics
  • Incident response

Applied Industry specializations:

  • Health information assurance
  • Military and national defense security
  • Business information security and risk analysis

Depending on the master's degree program you choose, you may develop your specialized expertise in the context of an elective course, a research project, or a professional internship.

Career Track

A master's degree in information assurance leads to a high-level post as an IT manager or expert consultant. With additional education--a PhD in information assurance--you can pursue a career in teaching and scholarly research as a university professor.

Common job titles in information assurance include:

  • Chief security officer
  • IT manager
  • IT security consultant
  • Systems analyst
  • MIS (management information systems) director
  • Computer forensics specialist

Information assurance experts are in high demand among businesses of all sizes as well as government agencies such as the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security. The U.S. Department of Labor forecasts excellent job prospects for information security specialists. The Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies information security and assurance specialists among network systems and data communications analysts, one of the fastest growing occupations in the nation. Job growth in this field should top 50 percent through 2008 to 2018.

Plan for a Master's Degree in Information Assurance

A master's degree in information assurance has the potential to set your IT career on an exciting track with limitless advancement opportunity. To get the most value from the degree, plan your approach to the graduate classroom. The following steps take you through the process of securing admission to the right program and establishing yourself as an academic.

Step One: Find the Right Graduate Information Assurance Program

A growing field of graduate information assurance degrees increases your odds of finding a program that matches your unique academic interests and career goals.

1. List Accredited Programs

Begin your search by listing available master's programs in information assurance. It's important to consider only accredited degree programs. Accreditation is a mark of educational quality and adherence to national academic standards for information assurance education. This seal of approval impacts the value of your degree as a professional credential and your eligibility for financial aid. The U.S. Department of Education Web site posts a searchable database of approved national and regional accreditation agencies.

Resources

WorldWideLearn.com vets its education partners for accreditation, among other quality factors. Search Degrees by Subject for accredited campus and online master's degrees in information assurance.

ABET's Computer Science Accreditation Board (CSAB) features a searchable list of ABET-accredited programs in information technology and information systems programs, some of which offer a specialized information assurance program.

AACSB International (The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) is the preeminent accreditor of business schools. Search AACSB-accredited institutions for MBA degrees with an information assurance concentration.

The National Security Agency recognizes National Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education (CAE/IAE). These graduate programs in information assurance meet stringent quality criteria in regular program reviews. Students gain access to special scholarships and research grant programs, such as the Department of Defense Information Assurance Scholarship Program.

2. Choose Program Format: Campus or Online Master's Degree?

Program format choices can shape your school search from the outset. Many students have a strong preference for online or face-to-face learning, depending on their circumstances and learning style.

  • Online master's degrees in information assurance offer convenient access to higher education for returning students. The digital learning format allows you to earn a master's degree online without taking time out from your career or family life. Online degrees also attract a diverse and experienced group of professionals, expanding the scope of your professional network.
  • Campus degrees still offer the advantage of hands-on learning under the mentorship of faculty. Access to campus research and computer lab facilities is an advantage, especially for continuing undergraduates who lack access to information technology through an employer. Aspiring academics also benefit from participation in the scholarly community, as well as from research and teaching assistant positions.

For the best of both formats, look for hybrid programs that combine online coursework with temporary campus residencies and/or applied internships.

Resources

WorldWideLearn.com features both campus and online master's degrees. Online Degree Programs and Campus Education sections help you identify programs with your chosen delivery format. To find campus IA degrees near you, search Degrees by Location.

3. Explore Academic Programs

Next, focus your search by comparing the resources available at individual programs. The features important to you will depend on your academic and career objectives. Some key factors to consider include:

  • Curriculum
  • Specialization Areas
  • Degree Format
  • Technology Labs and Research Facilities
  • Faculty in Your Field
  • Industry Relationships
  • Career Support Services
  • Learning Environment

Look for programs with the resources to support your goals, including specialized courses, faculty-directed research, industry internships, networking with peers, and career placement.

Resources

WorldWideLearn.com gives you a head start by matching you with schools that meet your academic program criteria. Fill out an online form indicating your preferences, and school representatives contact you directly to answer your questions about the program.

School Web sites offer a central source of information about degree requirements, courses, industry-sponsored programs, campus facilities, and faculty research. You'll also find links to faculty bios and publications. Look for links to graduate student handbooks, faculty publications, and course web pages.

Informational interviews with faculty, alumni, and current graduate students give you vicarious insight into the graduate student experience and the value of the degree on the job market. If possible, visit the school's campus and tour facilities--even if you plan to earn a master's degree online.

4. Evaluate Program Quality

Finally, rank the programs on your list according to these quality considerations:

  • Reputation
  • Selectivity
  • CAE-IAE designation from the National Security Administration
  • Job placement

The challenge is to balance quality and selectivity, identifying schools that offer students with your academic background the most value for your investment. The most prestigious programs also hold the highest admissions standards, admitting students based on undergraduate GPA and test scores.

Resources

Admissions Departments supply useful information about:

  • Selectivity: admissions rates and average admitted students' GPA and test scores.
  • Placement: job placement rate and employers, starting salaries, etc.
  • Student Demographics: average years of work experience, country of origin, etc.

Ask a school representative or admissions counselor for admissions data sheets.

Rankings give you a general sense of the program's reputation. Influential publications include U.S. News & World Report, which ranks graduate information systems programs as both a library and information studies specialty and a business specialty.

Step Two: Apply to Graduate Information Assurance Programs

Most information assurance master's degrees observe standard requirements for applications. You can expect to encounter the following steps as you prepare for admission to IT or business graduate programs.

1. Complete Prerequisites

First, check the school's prerequisites for graduate study in information assurance

  • A bachelor's degree from an accredited institution in information assurance, security, IT, management information systems, or a related field.
  • Basic courses in computer science and other areas, if your degree is in another field.
  • Standardized tests such as the GRE and TOEFL (for international students)
  • Work experience is required by come professional master's degrees (a two-year minimum is common)

2. Prepare Application Materials

Access the graduate application online or through the admissions department. In addition to a student information sheet, you will need to supply the following materials:

  • Academic transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Test scores
  • Statement of purpose
  • Resume

In addition, some schools may ask you to submit a financial aid application and an application fee. Finalists may be asked to interview with faculty.

3. Research Financial Aid for Your Master's Degree in IA

Even if you earn a master's degree online, your graduate education will require a financial investment. Fortunately, there are many sources of graduate student funding to help manage the cost of your degree.

  • Federal scholarships and grants. The Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and NSA all offer funding specifically targeted to information assurance students. You may also qualify for a need-based Pell grant.
  • University endowment scholarships and grants
  • Professional association fellowships and scholarships
  • Employer continuing education incentives, including tuition grants
  • Federal and private student loans

Explore your financial aid options by meeting with financial aid advisors at your top schools and consulting WorldWideLearn.com's resource page on graduate education funding.

Step Three: Build Your Academic Network

The months before you begin the program offer a perfect opportunity to establish yourself within academic circles. Meet your peers and future mentors, and learn about research trends and innovations in your specialization area. Steps to take now include:

  • Joining Professional Associations. There are numerous private and public agency-sponsored organizations dedicated to information assurance. Some of the major organizations include the Center for Information Assurance Research and Education (CIARE), ISACA, Information Systems Security Association (ISSA), IASE (the DoD's Information Assurance Support Environment), and the NSA's Information Assurance Mission.
  • Reading Journals. Journal of Information Assurance and Security (JIAS) is the primary publication in the field, but you'll also find journals representing specialized IA research as well as more general information security periodicals.
  • Attending Networking Events and Conferences. Universities, professional associations, public agencies, and private-sector IT security firms sponsor events to foster community and communication among information assurance professionals. Meet thought leaders and share ideas with your peers at conferences, lectures, and social events.

Building relationships now ensures that you enter the master's degree program with the support and inside perspective to achieve your goals.

Conclusion

A master's degree in information assurance equips you with the skills and contacts to make a difference in the ongoing quest to create secure data environments. A secure IA environment empowers organizations to leverage their data without exposing themselves to risk. As an IA expert of security manager, you'll help organizations unlock the value of their digital data.

Sources

  • Accredited Schools, AACSB International--The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
  • Assurance, ISACA (Information Systems Audit and Control Association).
  • "Computer Network, Systems, and Database Administrators," Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-2011 Edition. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education.
  • Department of Information Systems and Technology Management, University of Texas at San Antonio.
  • Graduate Schools Ranking, U.S. News & World Report (2009).
  • IA at NSA, National Security Agency.
  • Information Assurance Career Fields, National Security Agency.
  • Information Assurance Support Environment, Department of Defense.
  • "Information Security vs. Information Assurance," Unified Compliance Framework.
  • Master of Science in Information Assurance, Norwich University.
  • Masters Programs in Information Systems Management, Carnegie Mellon University.
  • National Information Assurance Training and Education Center.
  • Programs in Computers, The Sloan Consortium.
  • Search All Accredited Programs, ABET.

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