Security Awareness Programs & Computer-based Training

Learn & Earn: Balancing the Demands of Work, School

IT Security Professionals Offer Tips for Managing Jobs, Education Philip Foley, a former Marine, is a senior security analyst for governance, risk and compliance at Verizon Cybertrust Security. He works a minimum of 40 hours per week with extensive travel - and then dedicates another 10 to 12 hours to pursuing an online graduate degree in Information Assurance from Norwich University.

"It is very difficult to balance work and study," says Foley, who hopes one day to be a CISO. But he tries not to dwell on the challenges, focusing instead on the career opportunities his education will open. "It is very doable given the right frame of mind and discipline."

Foley represents a new generation of career-minded information security professionals - those who will do whatever it takes to balance the endless, often competing demands of job and education.

Working full time and pursuing an advanced degree takes a heavy toll, says John Rossi, professor of systems management/information assurance at National Defense University. "It usually takes a toll on their home relationships and health due to extreme lack of sleep."

But with proper time management and family support, balance can be achieved and the degree can be secured in fewer than two years. Rossi's advice to those professionals considering this option:

  • Seek Support -- Get total family buy-in to ensure that families understand the compromises and sacrifices they will need to make in this process.
  • Think Broad -- Reflect deeply on the reasons and specific areas available to pursue an academic degree. "Today it's more important to acquire breadth of knowledge rather than a narrow, focused approach," Rossi says.

Pain and Gain
At the start of each semester, Foley plans out his entire requirements to ensure he knows when his papers, reports and exams are due. He looks at the amount of reading and estimates how long it will take him to complete the abundant amount of work. He plans time in his day to cover reading and writing of reports. What does not get finished in his allotted time during the day, he finishes at night, when his family is asleep.

Foley is fortunate to work from home and make his own schedule, getting full support from his family to complete his assignments and get the space to think and read. However, managing both fronts effectively is tough.

"I've found that the downside to this greater commitment is that it's hard to keep up with everything that needs to be done, and therefore you need to prioritize your time and organize yourself regarding the things that really matter," Foley says.

Still, there are tangible benefits from this delicate balance, and employees and employers alike do see the value this commitment brings to overall work performance and productivity.

"One of the main advantages of working and pursuing academics is that it keeps my skill set current," says Foley. Reading, writing papers, performing lab assignments, interacting and discussing key issues with classmates and professors all help in transferring knowledge and acquiring solutions in real world work life. "After taking up this online graduate program, I can feel an elevated level of confidence while writing, presenting and making recommendations to my clients," he adds.

He sees the value and bigger picture in obtaining an advanced academic degree while working full time. "My goal is to become a chief information security officer in a large corporation, and my degree is definitely helping to open a lot of doors leading to leadership and management opportunities."

After Foley undertook his masters program, Robert Vescio, Director SMP at Verizon Business and a direct supervisor of Foley, has found him to be more effective in his work, including:

  • Greater ability to solve problems and handle challenges;
  • Being more creative in finding new ways of conducting business;
  • Being more organized and learning to juggle priorities effectively;

"Foley has broadened his knowledge and has become very confident in handling client issues and in his overall communication and presentation skills," Vescio says.

Tips for Maintaining Balance
Leslie Corbo is a cybersecurity analyst with a global defense contractor. She is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in computer forensics and information assurance with Utica College. I didn't want to be left behind, not understanding how to keep up with technology," she says.

The program has helped her to get into an emerging profession and remain current with new forensics tools and investigation methodologies. Her skills have sharpened in applying these network and data analytics and data mining tools at work. Also, emphasis on writing as part of her degree program has helped her present reports and write white papers.

Pursuing academics while working fulltime also has helped her stay focused and extremely motivated. "I now have the ability to get answers to questions and research solutions," she says.

Her goal is to become an online information assurance instructor and help others achieve and feel this sense of freedom she experiences currently.

Among the tips Foley and Corbo offer other professionals seeking work/education balance:

  1. Form a support group: "The number one piece of advice that I can give ... is to form a support group of sorts with some of the other members of your class," says Corbo. "Almost every professor I ever had in an online class had all the students introduce themselves - you can immediately get a snapshot of who the other students are, and find a lot of common threads between you." In her experience, study groups used various forensic tools and software programs together, ran ideas by each other, sometimes proofread each other's papers, and at times simply relied on each other for support. "We became friends," she says. "It's really just another way to be proactive."
  2. Get organized, and don't get behind: Maintain organization immediately, says Corbo. You can get lost and behind very fast and falter on both fronts. "It takes just 10 minutes to organize text, papers due, project assignments," she says. "Be on top of this by keeping marked folders, setting reminders and creating a comfortable study area."
  3. Develop good time management: Working fulltime and doing the daily deliverables can get challenging, and require effective time management, says Foley. "I ensure that I don't waste time and read all my study material while I travel to client locations on my job," he says. "I discipline myself from watching TV and spend time on weekends working on my scheduled assignments and prioritizing what needs to get done first."
  4. Be self-motivated: Pursuing academics and remaining effective at work require a good level of self-motivation, says Corbo. Professionals need to focus on the bigger picture and motivate themselves to get answers and figure out the solutions.

The challenges are real, but so are the benefits of balancing workload and academics.

"Practitioners who want it bad will be motivated toward this commitment," Corbo says. "I am in my mid-40s, so imagine the feeling of being in the flow and participating in emerging technologies. This makes me feel younger and I just want to keep going."

About the Author

Upasana Gupta

Upasana Gupta

Contributing Editor, CareersInfoSecurity

Upasana Gupta oversees CareersInfoSecurity and shepherds career and leadership coverage for all Information Security Media Group's media properties. She regularly writes on career topics and speaks to senior executives on a wide-range of subjects, including security leadership, privacy, risk management, application security and fraud. She also helps produce podcasts and is instrumental in the global expansion of ISMG websites by recruiting international information security and risk experts to contribute content, including blogs. Upasana previously served as a resource manager focusing on hiring, recruiting and human resources at Icons Inc., an IT security advisory firm affiliated with ISMG. She holds an MBA in human resources from Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, Iowa.

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