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Computer Science vs Cybersecurity: What's the Difference?

Cybersecurity professionals work to protect & secure sensitive data from online attacks. Learn more about information security and its connection to computer science.

Cybersecurity professional developing blockchain solution to protect financial transactions

As both the frequency and severity of cyber attacks grows worldwide, job demand for cybersecurity professionals is growing rapidly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 35% growth in job outlook for Information Security Analysts and related professions, relative to the average job outlook of 8%.

Three factors have also resulted in generous cybersecurity salaries, attracting computer scientists and related tech professionals to the field:

  1. The rising costs of cyberattacks
  2. The organizational imperative to protect sensitive customer data and proprietary systems
  3. The shortage of qualified talent

So, what is the difference between computer science and cybersecurity? While both occupations focus on interconnected computer systems, networks and valuable data, computer scientists ideate, design and build computer networks, software systems and data integrations, while cyber security professionals plan and implement security measures to protect those networks, systems and data assets. Computer scientists and related professions (software engineers, data engineers) tend to be generalists, whereas Cybersecurity professionals are more specialized and focused in the areas of proactive security, monitoring and surveillance, and crisis management in the event of a hack or breach.

Despite the practical workplace differences between computer science and cybersecurity, the two occupations often overlap in their education and training. Many of the strongest, most effective Cybersecurity professionals have a holistic education and training in computer science.

Another computer science lane Schumacker found himself in was cybersecurity. The more he researched it during his time at MCS@Rice, the more he became interested in the long-term impacts of cybersecurity on society, including relevant issues in Wells at Shell such as remote equipment control and the resulting potential process safety impacts. He focused on the long-term cybersecurity outlook, and used the knowledge to place in the top 2% in the nation in both pre-competition and individual completion of the National Cyber League Fall game.

The more computer science skills a cybersecurity professional has (for example, understanding the underlying design of computer systems, databases and networks) the better s/he will be at identifying vulnerabilities and putting proactive defensive strategies and processes in place.

Learn more about the similarities and differences between cybersecurity and computer science from Rice University below.

CS vs. Cybersecurity: Differences in Job Roles and Responsibilities

CS vs. Cybersecurity: Differences in Career Salaries

CS vs. Cybersecurity: Differences in Skills Required

CS vs. Cybersecurity: Differences in Education

Integrating Computer Science and Cybersecurity

CS vs Cybersecurity: Differences in Job Roles and Responsibilities

While computer science and cybersecurity overlap in terms of tech knowledge and programming skills, there are practical differences in both occupations' day-to-day job roles and responsibilities.

This table outlines the differences between CS and cybersecurity at a high-level:

Differences Between Computer Science and Cybersecurity

Computer Science Cybersecurity
Definitions The holistic study of all aspects of computers and systems, with an emphasis on software and algorithms The sophisticated security and protection of an organization's or nation's digital assets, including systems, data and defense secrets
Focus Areas Design and development of advanced software systems ("products") Cyber defense strategy, threat detection, crisis response and resolution
Career Opportunities Software engineering, Data engineering, Machine Learning engineering, Technical Product Development, Programming Information security, Cybersecurity, Cryptography, Blockchain, Cloud systems & security, Systems administration, Network security, Military defense, Biodefense, Computer forensics

Software Engineer (Computer Scientist): Roles and Responsibilities

Computer scientists commonly work as Software engineers or developers, Data engineers and Technical Product leads within companies and organizations. Within these capacities, they may own (or be on a team that owns) the end-to-end strategy, design, implementation and agile PM processes for a single digital "product" or portfolio of products. The product could be external, user-facing, like a predictive machine learning algorithm, or an internal solution, like a blockchain application to protect financial transactions.

Because computer science skills are so broad and transferable, professionals with a CS background are often able to "flex" across different functions and teams, including software engineering, product, IT and cybersecurity.

As a testament to the growing focus on software, network and data security, DevSecOps is emerging as an interdisciplinary operational area between software development and security.

Cybersecurity Professional: Roles and Responsibilities

Cybersecurity professionals at all levels of an organization -- from Information Security Analysts all the way to the Chief Information Security Officers -- collaborate to safeguard computer systems, networks and data assets from an increasing number of high-profile hacks and breaches. Cybersecurity professionals are also prevalent in all branches of the Military, protecting countries and nations from attacks.

Although narrower than computer science in scope of responsibilities or breadth of applications, cybersecurity is a critical and high-stakes area. The cost of cyber insurance policies have risen substantially, and a single severe data breach can cost hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, while compromising trade secrets and customers' personally identifiable information.

Cybersecurity professionals develop proactive defensive strategies to protect an organizations' tech and data assets, engage in constant rapid monitoring and surveillance, and react rapidly in the event of a hack or breach. Senior cyber leads work with C-suite executives, General Counsel, Privacy, and Communications teams on crisis management if a breach occurs.

Differences in Job Outlook and Careers

Computer science-related jobs are expected to grow 21% on average through 2031, well above the 8% average growth for all occupations.

Cybersecurity and Information security roles are in even greater demand, expected to grow 33% over the next 10 years.

Read on for more information about salary differences between computer science and cybersecurity roles.

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Computer Science vs Cybersecurity: Careers and Salary Differences

Cybersecurity and computer science careers are both highly lucrative, with average total compensation in the six digits depending on location, industry, years of experience and job level.

This table shows a few CS vs cybersecurity job titles and related salaries:

Job Titles & Estimated Salaries

COMPUTER SCIENTIST JOB TITLES APPROX. AVG ANNUAL SALARY
Computer and Information Scientist $131,490
Software Engineer $105,865
Data Engineer $111,267
Machine Learning Engineer $130,019
CYBER SECURITY JOB TITLES APPROX. AVG ANNUAL SALARY
Senior Information Security Analyst $114,518
Security Systems Engineer $103,535
Network Security Architect $163,161
Director, Cyber Security $228,060
*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Indeed.com, Glassdoor

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Is Cybersecurity Harder Than Computer Science: Skills and Knowledge Needed

It's difficult to say which is harder: computer science or cybersecurity. Each person's response to that question will differ based on his/her individual strengths and preferences.

Those who understand whole systems and processes will be well-suited to the "macro" design thinking required of secure software systems, in general. Cybersecurity professionals have to think like computer scientists in identifying vulnerabilities across an organization's entire ecosystem of software applications, networks and databases.

In both occupations, professionals have to think about people's needs and motivations. A computer scientist or software engineer needs to consider the end user s/he is designing software for: Why do they need this tech solution? What are they trying to accomplish? Conversely, a cybersecurity expert needs to understand the motives of a hacker or hacker organization: Are they compelled by financial gains? Are they attempting to inflict harm on an entity or government?

In the event of a hack or breach, cybersecurity professionals may find themselves in high-stakes, high-risk projects, under pressure from clients, regulators and the public to patch compromised systems and restore sensitive data.

Read on to learn more about the technical and soft skills required of both computer science vs cybersecurity:

Computer Science Skills

Computer science is the holistic study of all aspects of computers, offering a “generalist” approach to topics ranging from Algorithms and Computer Engineering, to AI and Machine Learning, Databases and Cybersecurity. Computer scientists have diverse skills, tapping into their vast expertise on all facets of interconnected, modern computer systems and computational thinking.

Technical and soft computer science skills include:

  • Computer software systems
  • Software engineering
  • Algorithms
  • Machine learning & AI
  • APIs
  • Information Technology (IT)
  • Cloud storage and services
  • Cybersecurity
  • Understanding customers' or users' needs
  • Collaboration
  • Communication with other diverse teams of engineers

Cybersecurity Skills

Cybersecurity experts must be skilled in several areas, including the technologies, processes, and practices designed to protect networks, computers, and data from breaches, attacks, and legal and financial damages. Professionals must be able to quickly detect and identify the specific type of threat, respond, and help an organization or government recover from cybersecurity threats.

Cyber protection, defense and information security skills typically include:

  • Understanding the threat landscape, including hackers' motivations
  • Security process design
  • Monitoring and surveillance tools
  • Intrusion detection
  • Malware
  • Networking security
  • Cloud security
  • Cryptography
  • Incident response and crisis management
  • Risk assessment
  • Regulation and compliance
  • Testing
  • Internal communications and employee change management

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Differences Between Computer Science & Cybersecurity: Education Requirements

The differences between computer science and cybersecurity typically manifest in the workplace and practical day-to-day responsibilities of a software engineer vs. a cybersecurity professional. The education and training for these two professions overlap, which is why many computer science master's programs offer courses in cybersecurity as either core curriculum or specialized electives.

Learn more about the education and training requirements for computer science and cybersecurity below.

Computer Science Education Requirements

Computer science focuses on a broader scope of computing than cybersecurity. It's frequently pursued by traditional engineering (for example, mechanical, petroleum or electrical), computer engineering, math, and physics career changes. By learning programming skills, anyone can make the change to computer science and software engineering, and it's not uncommon to see developers with backgrounds in the social sciences (for example, psychology or economics) and humanities (for instance, history).

Computer science graduate programs will typically provide exposure to cybersecurity fundamentals and even real-world experiences and opportunities. For example, one of the Rice Online MCS students developed a deep interest in cybersecurity and was encouraged to compete in the National Cyber League before landing a senior technical role at Amazon.

Cybersecurity Education Requirements

Cybersecurity professionals come from a range of educational backgrounds, but most commonly from STEM fields like engineering, technology and math. Military training is also quite common, since the principles of defense, security and protection extends into cybersecurity.

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Integrating Computer Science and Cybersecurity

Given the rapid rise in job demand for cybersecurity professionals, numerous short courses, certifications and bootcamps exist to teach the practical entry-level tools and techniques, like Linux administration techniques, Wireshark and Bash scripting.

For those interested in the underlying principles of computer science and designing secure software systems and networks, Rice would recommend looking into master's in computer science programs. For example, Rice University's online master of computer science is designed for working professionals looking to pursue their degrees part-time. We typically see professionals with backgrounds in engineering, computer forensics and the military pursuing their MCS degrees.

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