Network Security vs. Cybersecurity: Which Career Path Is Best for You?

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If you're grappling with the network security vs. cybersecurity conundrum, you probably already know that they're closely linked and crucial in almost every industry. In fact, drawing a clear distinction between network security and cybersecurity is difficult, because both disciplines are concerned with securing hardware, information systems and sensitive data. That can also make it challenging to choose between a career in network security and a career in cybersecurity.

While many people think of network security and cybersecurity as synonymous, they're different enough that there are degree programs and professional pathways specific to each. Unpacking the distinctions between them is important when you're trying to plan out a career or make a career transition, but figuring out where you belong will take both research and self-examination.

The first step is learning as much as you can about the similarities and differences between network security and cybersecurity. From there, you can start looking into advanced degree programs like the Online Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE) and the on-campus Master of Science in Cybersecurity offered by Southern Methodist University's Lyle School of Engineering.

Is Network Security the Same as Cybersecurity?

The short answer is no, network security isn't the same as cybersecurity. Unfortunately, there's little to no consensus about how they differ. Various sources approach the network security vs. cybersecurity question differently. Some assert that cybersecurity is a skill cluster comprising more than 120 distinct skills—one of which is network security—while network security refers to policies and practices that prevent unauthorized access to or misuse of computer networks. Others claim that cybersecurity is just another word for computer security, which encompasses network security, hardware security and information security. Still others state that network security is concerned with security infrastructure while cybersecurity is concerned with protecting data—or vice versa.

To clarify how these disciplines are alike and how they differ, it's helpful to look at network security vs. cybersecurity separately.

What Is Network Security?

Network security is a subdiscipline of network engineering concerned with preventing unauthorized intrusion into computer networks and safeguarding the content of those networks against internal and external threats. As the name of this discipline suggests, network security focuses on the connections between devices and how devices interact, not individual devices or databases. Professionals who specialize in network security work with physical hardware connections and firewalls, antivirus software, application security, VPN encryption and access control. They also guide and monitor user behavior because unintentional negligence (e.g., users choosing weak passwords or visiting compromised websites) causes many network vulnerabilities.

Network security policies and processes cover:

  • Data loss prevention (DLP), which are the tools and processes used to prevent data breaches, misuse, and exfiltration
  • Email security, which encompasses the procedures and techniques that prevent email accounts and the content therein from unauthorized access and data theft
  • Firewalls, which are network security systems that monitor and control traffic
  • Intrusion prevention, which encompasses systems, processes, and devices that protect networks against unauthorized access and malicious activity
  • Network segmentation, or splitting networks into multiple distinct subnetworks to improve security
  • Port, file, and activity access, which network engineers monitor for suspicious activity
  • User ID and passwords security, because these are frequent attack targets and can be more vulnerable than other elements of a network
  • Using encryption to protect data in-transit and at rest

What Is Cyber Security?

According to the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), cybersecurity is "the art of protecting networks, devices, and data from unauthorized access or criminal use and the practice of ensuring confidentiality, integrity, and availability of information." While that sounds a lot like network security, the differentiating factor is the focus on unauthorized access and criminal use. Cybersecurity professionals create systems and safeguards to prevent security breaches that are malicious and come from outside an organization's network.

Cybersecurity policies and processes cover:

  • Data backup and recovery systems, which prevent data loss in the event of a cyber-attack or system failure
  • E-commerce security, which is concerned with ensuring online retail transactions are secure
  • Incident response (IR) planning, which helps organizations prepare for, detect, proactively respond to, and recover from system security incidents
  • Intrusion detection, which allows cybersecurity professionals to respond quickly to unauthorized system access
  • Malware and ransomware prevention, which is focused on preparing for and preventing attacks that involve malicious software
  • Systems forensics or data forensics, which identify why systems breaches occur and try to recover as much information as possible
  • Threat analysis, which encompasses the processes and procedures involved in identifying security risks
  • Threat mitigation, or the processes cybersecurity professionals use to detect, identify, and contain cyber threats
  • User-facing vulnerabilities, which include phishing, baiting, spyware, and cybercrime

What Is the Difference Between Network Security and Cybersecurity?

Looking at scope can help you choose between these two disciplines because it's the primary differentiating factor. In general, network security protects systems and data against attacks that are the result of network vulnerabilities. Cybersecurity protects systems and data against all kinds of digital attacks, whether they target hardware, the connections between devices, specific applications, or users. Network security engineers need to know how to protect networked systems from malicious attacks, unauthorized access of any kind, and accidental breaches. Cybersecurity engineers need to know how to protect computer systems and information systems, networked or not, plus mobile devices and database systems against advanced persistent security threats, malware, and emerging hacks. They may be responsible for safeguarding _every single element _of an organization's IT and information systems infrastructure.

What Degree Programs Teach Network Security and Cybersecurity?

Cybersecurity degree programs go all-in on computer system and network security, preparing students for technical and management careers in cybersecurity. These programs typically cover hardware and system security, data security, network security, cybersecurity policy development and the logistics of security. Some bachelor's degree programs focus wholly on cybersecurity, but most cover topics related to cybersecurity as part of the main computer science or in a concentration track. Students in SMU's B.S. in Computer Science, for example, can choose the Security track, which covers system security, data security and network security.

Computer and information systems programs may or may not cover the same topics as cybersecurity degree programs. Computer information systems is a catch-all term, and computer and information systems security is concerned with securing computing hardware and platforms, software systems and individual applications. Students pursuing bachelor's degrees in computer and information systems security might become information security analysts, security engineers or network and computer systems administrators. Master's programs in computer information systems cover everything from systems analysis and secure computer architecture to risk assessment and policy analysis.

Telecommunications programs cover network security and cybersecurity on a grand scale. At both the bachelor's degree and master's degree levels, students study the science, technology, and practical issues surrounding data transfer over long distances. Telecom security may be covered in a single course in undergraduate programs, but Master of Science in Telecommunication programs sometimes offer Security or Cybersecurity as a concentration track. Students in these programs learn how to predict, prevent, and lessen the impact of attacks on telecommunication infrastructure, providers and consumers.

Network engineering degree programs like SMU Lyle's Online MSNE might not offer a network security concentration but typically cover it in depth in the curriculum. Students in Lyle School of Engineering's 100 percent online program complete coursework in telecommunications network security, secure network design and implementation and secure network management.

Which Master's Degree Programs at SMU Develop Network Security and Cybersecurity Skills?

Students looking to advance in network security and cybersecurity careers have two degree options at the graduate level at SMU:

M.S. in Network Engineering

SMU Lyle's 20-month part-time Online Masters in Network Engineering program meets students where they are in their careers. Some are relatively new to network engineering while others are network administrators and network engineers looking for the skills and qualifications they need to advance into senior-level and management networking positions. The curriculum also helps networking professionals prepare to sit for many salary-boosting certifications. Graduates go on to work for corporate telecommunications management groups, networking equipment vendors, service providers, regulatory agencies and IT infrastructure consulting firms.

The MSNE admissions requirements are as straightforward as the program is flexible. Most applicants have bachelor's degrees in computer science, mathematics, or an engineering discipline plus some programming experience. Those who don't can still apply but may need to take articulation coursework or satisfy departmental competency requirements in addition to satisfying the program's graduation requirements.

The MSNE curriculum includes three core network engineering courses and seven electives designed by program faculty in response to industry trends like virtualization and employer demand. Core and elective classes include:

  • Advanced Topics in Wireless Communication, which covers third-generation systems, wireless data, and emerging wireless technologies
  • Advanced Cloud Engineering, which covers cloud architecting, creating a network environment, securing use and application access, and connecting networks
  • Advanced Network Design with Lab, which covers network protocols including OSPF, EIGRP, BGP, MPLS, VLAN, VPN/DMVPN, IPsec and MACsec, STP and Trill, VoIP and methods of Quality of Service (QoS) in advanced networks
  • Cloud Engineering, which covers a detailed overview of cloud computing
  • Communication and Information Systems, which covers communication in modulation systems, the information content of signals, the transition of signals in the presence of noise, and time and frequency division multiplexing
  • Data Center Network Engineering with Lab, which covers the advanced analysis of data center cloud computing and virtualization
  • Development and Operations for Network Engineers, which covers DevOps and associated software including Git, Ansible, Chef, Vagrant, Jenkins, Docker, Kubernetes, and Terraform
  • Engineering Accounting and Engineering Finance, which covers preparation and interpretation of financial statements, financial analysis, financial planning, and corporate finance policy for engineers
  • Engineering Economics and Decision Analysis, which covers economic thinking in the context of technology
  • Engineering Management, which covers pragmatic approaches to technology management
  • Internet Telephony, which covers technical protocols and practical issues related to emergency services, security, mobility, and quality of service
  • Introduction to Networks, which covers existing and emerging network technologies, common network structures, and industry entities like Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and cloud service providers
  • Introduction to Telecommunications, which covers an overview of public and private telecommunications systems, traffic engineering, switching, transmission, and signaling
  • Multiprotocol Label Switching, which covers the various applications of the MPLS protocol, the basics of MPLS and MPLS traffic engineering, and MPLS management
  • Network Analysis, Architecture, and Design, which covers requirements gathering, data flow analysis, the selection of appropriate network architectures, and network design
  • Network Automations and Programmability, which covers software applications used in the automation and programmability of modern networks
  • Network Protocols, which covers the layered protocol architecture of the internet
  • Optical and DWDM Networks, which covers emerging optical tech, like photonic packet switching
  • Probability and Statistics for Scientists and Engineers, which covers rules of probability, random variables, probability distributions, expectation and variance, sampling, statistical analysis techniques, statistical inference estimation, and correlation and regression
  • Software Defined Networks, which covers Software Defined Networking (SDN), SDN applications, challenges, advantages and disadvantages
  • Switching and QoS Management in IP Networks, which covers Quality of Service (QOS) management technology, protocols, and applications
  • Switching and Routing With Lab, which covers switching technologies and routing architectures, protocols, and functions commonly used in networked systems
  • TCP/IP Network Administration, which covers OSI and internet communication protocol models in different operating system environments
  • Telecommunications Network Management, which covers the operation, administration, maintenance, and provisioning of large-scale networks
  • Telecommunications Network Security, which covers the technology underlying secure computer networking systems
  • Wireless, Cellular, and Personal Telecommunications, which covers digital cellular design, data over cellular and current world systems and standards, plus PCS technology, standards, and networking
  • Wireless Networks, which covers elements of wireless networks, performance monitoring, and network testing in wireless setups

In addition to synchronous and asynchronous classwork, MSNE candidates complete hands-on lab work and experience-building project work with companies like CITI, AT&T, and Verizon.

M.S. in Cybersecurity

The on-campus master's-level cybersecurity program at SMU covers network security, system security, hardware security, cryptography, security protocols and access control. Students also learn about cybersecurity policy and management issues, integration, logistics and budgeting. There are some full-time students in the M.S. in Cybersecurity program, but others are professionals already working in network security, information security or cybersecurity.

The admission requirements for cybersecurity master's applicants are similar to those of the MSNE program with one major difference. Most applicants have a minimum of two years of industry experience plus the ability to write programs in high-level languages such as Java, C++ and Python. Applicants who don't meet those requirements can apply with GRE scores but may not be eligible for full admittance until they demonstrate competency in programming, operating systems, computer architecture, algorithm development, networking, and database management.

The M.S. in Cybersecurity curriculum covers the safeguarding of computer networks, systems and information, plus the physical security of facilities and devices in four core courses and six elective courses. These include:

  • Advanced Data Mining, which covers more sophisticated research methods used in data mining
  • Advanced Network and System Security, which covers security audits, intrusion detection and prevention, storage security, firewall configurations, security log analysis, DMZs, honeypots, malicious codes, and mobile and grid computing security
  • Advanced Software Security, which covers software security architectural patterns, software reverse engineering, and malware analysis.
  • Border and Transportation Security, which covers the legal, political, and economic challenges of border and transportation security
  • Computer System Security, which covers encryption and decryption, secure encryption systems, program security, database security, and network and distributed systems security
  • Cryptography and Data Security, which covers the theory and practice of both classical and modern cryptographic systems
  • Data and Network Security, which covers contemporary issues in computer security
  • Data Mining, which covers analytics techniques such as classification, association analysis, and cluster analysis
  • Digital Forensics, which covers the collection and analysis of evidence from electronic storage and systems
  • Fault-Tolerant Computing, which covers errors and failures, hardware fault tolerance, reliability, availability, reliable distributed systems, checkpointing and recovery, atomic actions data, and process resiliency
  • Hardware Security and Trojan Detection, which covers physically unclonable functions, counterfeiting, security in hardware, intellectual property protection, and secure coprocessors
  • Operating Systems and System Software, which covers network operating systems and the Internet, virtual memory management, interprocess communication and synchronization, and file organization
  • Security Economics, which covers the ways economics can help cybersecurity professionals understand information security management
  • Software Reliability and Safety, which covers techniques for ensuring reliability and security in software systems
  • Software Security, which covers security issues specific to the network application layer in the classic OSI model
  • Software Testing and Quality Assurance, which covers the relationship between software testing and software quality, as well as the role of testing in system requirements validation

Career Paths in Cybersecurity vs. Network Security

Knowing where the above degrees lead can help you solve the network security vs. cybersecurity conundrum. Network security career paths tend to focus on security issues related to network administration, engineering and architecture, while careers in cybersecurity tend to focus on network security, risk analysis, information security, secure software development, secure systems engineering, or security intelligence.

Cybersecurity isn't the better option because there are more career paths. It's just the more versatile one. Over the past 12 months, employers posted hundreds of thousands of jobs requesting network security and cybersecurity skills. Demand in both areas is booming, so you should look into careers in both to see which interest you most.

Network Security Career Paths

Job titles in network security include:

  • Director of network security, developing a strategic vision for total network protection ($148,000)
  • Network security administrator, monitoring and managing the security of one or more computer networks ($68,000)
  • Network security analyst, creating and implementing security measures to protect networked systems ($72,000)
  • Network security engineer, configuring and deploying network hardware and network software ($88,000)
  • Network security manager, overseeing the security of networked computer systems ($87,000)
  • Network security solutions specialist, identifying and evaluating unauthorized or potentially malicious network traffic ($90,000)

Cybersecurity Career Paths

Cybersecurity specialists have many titles, including:

  • Cybersecurity consultant, helping organizations protect data and systems on a contract basis ($88,000)
  • Cybersecurity engineer, identifying cyber threats and vulnerabilities in software and hardware systems ($97,000)
  • Cybersecurity manager, overseeing plans, programs, policies, and systems related to system security and information security ($135,000)
  • Digital forensics analyst, investigating computer systems after crimes and intrusions occur to find evidence related to attacks ($75,000)
  • Ethical hacker, penetrating computer systems with permission to identify vulnerabilities ($94,000)
  • Information security analyst, designing and implementing security measures that protect data, networks, software, and hardware ($73,000)
  • Security architect, overseeing the security of your organization's computer systems and data ($122,000)
  • Security software developer, writing computer programs that safeguard data and applications ($75,000)

The most important takeaway is that employers are creating jobs for network security specialists, cybersecurity specialists, and other computer security specialists much faster than the average rate of job creation across all occupations, and just about all the career paths in IT security are lucrative. The ROI of both degrees is solid, which means there's no right or wrong choice when the question is network security vs. cybersecurity.

Should I Go into Network Security or Cybersecurity?

To answer this question, consider what your area of expertise is now and where you see yourself in a few years. If you're already a seasoned network engineer and you enjoy working with connected systems, it may be easier to transition into network security than into cybersecurity. On the other hand, if you're looking into master's degree programs because you want to broaden your understanding of system security, a cybersecurity program could be the better choice. You should also consider which elements of system security interest you most. If you're interested in fortifying networked systems against threats, you might be happier in network security. If you want to detect and defend against real-time cyberattacks, cybersecurity might be the better choice.

Ultimately, the differences between these disciplines may be a nonissue in your career. Network engineering jobs no longer exist in silos, and cybersecurity is all-encompassing in many people's eyes. Large corporations may have cybersecurity engineers and network security engineers, but many small and mid-sized organizations have one system security team that handles everything.

You should also be aware that network security and cybersecurity are both fields in which there are relatively few entry-level positions. Networking and information systems professionals may spend 10+ years amassing experience before earning a master's and attempting to transition into security, and their professional development doesn't end when they graduate. Joining either field takes hard work, ambition, leading-edge skills and a commitment to lifelong learning. The hackers and criminals who spend their days trying to break into networks and information systems never stop acquiring new skills, and neither do computer security specialists.

Want to know more about how an Online Masters in Network Engineering from SMU Lyle will enhance your career? Here's what you need to know about the MSNE requirements, application deadlines, tuition and the online student experience.