A graduate degree in cyber security is a valued commodity among IT professionals. But research and theory are a bit different from practice and experience. Enter the cyber security student competition –– structured gamification events that place students into “real-world” scenarios where they test their skills against each other.
Cyber security competitions can help students who are pursuing an advanced degree, such as a Master of Science in Cyber Security (MSCS), prepare to enter a robust job market in need of talent. According to the cyber security job market tool Cyberseek, there were over 464,000 cyber security job openings in the United States between April 2020 and March 2021. MSCS students who work to hone their skills and gain applicable experience can take advantage of the many job opportunities in the field.
What Are Cyber Security Competitions?
Cyber security competitions are in-person or virtual events where individuals participate in a variety of cyber security challenges and activities. According to the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE), these competitions may focus on different areas of cyber security, such as secure coding, cyber security policy, malware detection, cyber security ethics and reverse engineering.
The purpose of these competitions is to transform knowledge of cyber security theories and tactics into actionable applications within a controlled environment. In the bigger picture, they can enable individuals to identify threats and build scenarios that stay a step ahead of cyber criminals.
Competitions come in all shapes and sizes, but one of the most popular is the capture the flag (CTF) model. A good example of CTF competitions is the attack-defense game, in which participants are pitted against each other until a victor emerges.
“In an attack-defense CTF, competitors attempt to compromise systems and services with known vulnerabilities,” IBM ethical hacking test engineer John Clarke writes in his SecurityIntelligence.com article, “Capture the Flag Competitions Can Help Close the Security Skills Gap.”
“Once a team has compromised a system,” Clarke continues, “it must then defend that system against opposing teams. Participants perform the actions of a red team (attackers) and switch to the blue team (defenders) seamlessly. This game can be continuous and run for many days.”
Benefits of Cyber Security Competitions
According to NICE, there are numerous benefits individuals can gain by participating in a cyber security competition. Several of these benefits directly affect professionals in the cyber security industry. These competitions can:
- Encourage skill development and ethical practice
- Provide access to mentoring, resources and job opportunities
- Offer opportunities to identify talent
- Contribute to the knowledge base of cyber security practitioners
- Provide anytime, anywhere learning opportunities
- Contribute to curriculum and educator capacity to meet cyber security needs
Essentially, these competitions bridge the gap between controlled classroom learning environments and the authentic situations in which new cyber security professionals might find themselves. Cyber security threats can be complex and challenging, making actual, real-world experience almost as important as educational background.
Popular Annual Cyber Security Competitions
Cyber security competitions can take place either online or at a specific location, and run the gamut from testing security flaws in business software to hacking into drone navigation systems. Typically, each contest will start with a quiz testing each participant’s knowledge of cyber security information. Then those who pass the quiz move on to the next round where their knowledge and skills will be put to the test.
Cyber security competitions have become popular and prestigious. As more private and public enterprises go online, however, countless smaller events can be expected to pop up, so students would do well to research what’s available to find those that align with their career aspirations. Some of the more well-known competitions include:
National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (CCDC)
According to its Raytheon-sponsored website, the CCDC’s mission is to “provide institutions with an information assurance or computer security curriculum a controlled, competitive environment to assess their students’ depth of understanding and operational competency in managing the challenges inherent in protecting a corporate network infrastructure and business information systems.” Their events strive to build a platform for institutions to evaluate their programs and allow students to apply their knowledge and gain practical skills within an ethical, teamwork-driven environment.
President’s Cup Cybersecurity Competition
Launched in 2019 by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), this competition aims to “identify, challenge, and reward the best cybersecurity talent in the federal workforce.” Participants can choose to apply their skills in roles such as cyber defense incident responder or exploitation analyst, either individually or as part of a team.
US Cyber Games
Founded by Katzcy in conjunction with NICE and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), this organization hosts various competitions to develop the future cyber security workforce. The organization also hosts the US Cyber Combine, an invitational that gathers top performers and puts them through a battery of tests to determine their aptitude and skills in the field.
US Cyber Challenge (USCC) Cyber Quests
The USCC describes Cyber Quests as “a series of fun but challenging online competitions allowing participants to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of information security realms.” Quests focus on artifacts for web server vulnerability, forensic analyses, packet capture analysis and similar scenarios.
National Cyber League (NCL)
This competition features ongoing “seasons” of individual and team-based competitions designed to train students on resolving numerous challenges, such as ransomware attack recoveries, vulnerable website audits and hacker identifications. Participants can prepare for the season through practice challenges or view scouting reports as the season progresses to evaluate their performance.
In this international online competition, teams square off against each other in numerous challenges related to key cyber security concepts like digital forensics, system exploitation, malware analysis and reverse engineering. Their mission is to discover new talent, raise awareness of cyber security issues and ensure the protection of children online.
Drone Wars Competition (BloomCon)
Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Mathematical and Digital Sciences has teamed up with the U.S. Army to offer the Drone Wars Competition. According to BloomCon, “The goal is to take over a Wi-Fi connected drone and fly it through an obstacle course in the shortest amount of time.”
Many other competitions are available, and cyber security students should be alert to the possibilities, paying careful attention to registration deadlines and contest dates. In most cases, even competitors who don’t win the grand prize still benefit professionally from their participation.
Advance Your Skills with a Master’s Degree in Cyber Security
Cyber security professionals will be in high demand in both the private and public sectors over the next decade. Graduates with a master’s degree, such as the University of North Dakota’s online Master of Science in Cyber Security, who also have solid certifications, credentials and experience may find careers in some of the nation’s leading organizations. Participation in cyber security contests can boost resumes and make candidates more attractive to employers.
UND prepares students for careers in cyber security with a stackable-certificate style master’s program that includes the required Cyber Security Analyst certificate track, as well as the option to choose two of the following certificate tracks: Ethical Hacking, Computer Forensics or Secure Networks. Students graduate with not only a master’s degree, but also three graduate certificates, and each certificate is designed to prepare students for specific industry certifications.
Learn more about UND’s MSCS online program today.