A key security career decision: Should I get a degree or post graduate qualification?
Career opportunities within the UK’s security sector are growing fast. Until recent decades security was largely limited to “gates and guards”; now it covers a range of activities including risk assessment, loss prevention, traveller support, executive protection, customer experience, threat analysis, cyber security, contingency planning, crisis management and situational awareness.
Security is now a key part of an organisation’s overall resilience and can be a source of competitive advantage. Security demands a range of management skills, contextual awareness, professional knowledge, and an ability to assimilate new technology.
The rate of political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental change is accelerating ever faster. So, if you want to stay relevant you must be able to anticipate and adapt to the increasingly complex and volatile world.
Security professionals are often very good at doing things, but they need to complement their action-driven instincts with analytical and critical thinking skills. The best way of gaining these is through a rigorous degree course. In the future it is inconceivable that anyone without a degree will progress beyond middle management.
Getting a degree is not an easy path. A Bachelor’s degree normally means attending university in person. It takes three years and costs around £30,000 plus living expenses. It will saddle you with a debt that may take decades to pay off and there is no guarantee of a good job afterwards. And some find that they simply don’t have the aptitude for academic work. You need to carefully evaluate your strengths and motivation before taking this route.
A Master’s degree will take one or two years and cost around £10,000. It can be taken immediately after a Bachelor’s degree, but security professionals are more likely to take them mid-career or when transitioning from police, military, or government service. Work experience is often accepted instead of a first degree. This is both great and terrible. Great because it is a short cut to a higher qualification, terrible because academic demands to become a Master can come as a shock. Many Master’s courses are delivered part-time, online, and can be fitted around work schedules. But this is often more easily said than done. If you have a family and a busy job, finding 10-20 hours a week to study can be an immense challenge. To succeed you need to be focused and self-disciplined. You may be used to facing colossal professional challenges, but few things are more humbling than putting the kids to bed, then attempting to write an academically rigorous 3,000-word essay that needs to be handed in by the end of the week.
Getting a degree was never meant to be easy, but it has many advantages. Unlike a training course that provides specific skills, a degree is an educational course that develops theoretical knowledge, analytical skills, and critical thinking. You can train how to do a risk assessment, whereas an education helps you understand the context, development, options, pros and cons, trends, and applications for a risk assessment. You learn to think creatively about a subject rather than in binary terms.
A degree will develop your expertise and help you to apply it. You’ll find that having a thought is one thing, but expressing it on paper is another. You’ll have the opportunity to pursue your interests and develop deep insight. You’ll discover your strengths and weaknesses. You’ll develop lasting relationships with your fellow students and with your tutors. You will gain a strong sense of personal achievement, and pride in the letters after your name. And it should lead to a more fulfilling career.
When considering a degree course you’ll need decide:
- What level?
Bachelor’s degrees are best for recent school leavers. Master’s are best for those in mid-career. If you feel you are a competent security all-rounder, also consider an MBA (Master of Business Administration) which provides an excellent understanding of the business environment in which security is applied and will provide board-level credibility.
- What subject?
‘Security’ is a broad term and can refer to geopolitics, cyber, terrorism, criminal justice, or physical security. Make sure that the modules on offer match your interests. These might include risk, crisis and emergency management, forensics, intelligence, resilience, or investigations.
- What university?
With distance learning courses, location is less important, but take into account the reputation of the institution, the profiles of teaching staff, the cost, and the course structure.
Getting a degree is a huge investment. It takes, time, money, and effort. It is not for everyone, but half of all school leavers now go on to university and most applicants for senior security jobs have Master’s degrees. A degree will not only boost your prospects, it will increase your confidence and your professional ability. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.
Mike Croll is a senior lecturer in Security, Resilience and Intelligence at Buckinghamshire New University and the author of the 2023 book ‘The Rise of Security And Why We Always Want More’.
Member of the Security Institute and Senior lecturer in Security, Resilience and Intelligence Buckinghamshire New University