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Federal Information Security Careers: Plenty of Good Jobs and Scholarships Available

If you’re interested in a career in information systems security — protecting citizens and institutions against hackers — these are indeed good times. A story in today’s Government Computer News says that federal agencies want to hire large numbers of IT security specialists. Plus, there’s a scholarship program to cover much of the cost of training.

Current federal job openings in the systems security field number at least in the hundreds. The U.S. government’s job board, usajobs.gov, lists 634 separate announcements for IT security specialists (series 2210), with many of those announcements for multiple positions. Some of the advertised jobs are in the Washington, DC area; others are in regional and field offices around the country. 

While the entry-level pay for junior specialists at some of the field offices is comparable to entry-level postdoc salaries (about $30,000 per year), those with advanced degrees can start at higher levels: at least $41,000 for masters degrees and $49,500 for Ph.D.s. The actual amount will vary depending on amount of relevant experience and location. And most of the positions have job growth built in: You can add more responsibilities over time with commensurate salary increases, often up to, and sometimes beyond, $100,000 per year.

The scholarship program to train IT security specialists is called Scholarship for Service (SFS). A joint undertaking of Department of Homeland Security and National Science Foundation, SFS provides a 2-year stipend for students in certified information assurance university programs, and currently supports 250 participants at 26 institutions. About 80% of the current participants are getting masters degrees, with most of the remainder getting bachelors degrees, plus a few Ph.D. candidates. In return, participants agree to work for two years in a Federal agency.

The program’s graduates get jobs right away. According to Victor Piotrowski, NSF’s director of the program, nearly all (97%) SFS graduates get placed in federal jobs. An annual job fair for SFS graduates attracted 75 federal agencies this year, up from 29 agencies in 2005.

Advancement in these jobs is apparently swift, particularly for those technical specialists who are also knowledgeable in the government’s underlying security policies, as we pointed out in a 2005 article about federal information security in Science Careers. Since then, the need, if anything, has increased.

Mischel Kwon, a 2005 SFS-sponsored masters degree graduate from George Washington University,  is now director of the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, part of Department of Homeland Security.  She told Government Computer News, “We’re looking for analysts who can get to the real crux of the threat, and we’re looking for writers who can articulate our geeking and beeping so that management, Congress, and the public can understand what we’re talking about. With that in mind, there’s a huge, critical demand for qualified people in the information assurance field.”