As he prepares to walk across the stage with a master’s degree in Cyber Forensics & Security, Marshall graduate student Jack McFee is excited to enter a workforce that desperately needs professionals with his skillset.
These days, and in the years to come, a lot of the protectors and crimefighters who are needed to keep the world safe are different. No gun. No badge. No police academy training.
No, this growing set of professionals is armed with a different set of skills, tools and tactics and their assignment, it’s pretty huge. It’s the entire cyber realm.
Luckily for all who need protection and for those students like Jack who thrive on putting their technology skills to the test to find answers and solve problems, Marshall University has built a cyber program that sharpens their skills through not only coursework, but plenty of real world, hands-on opportunities.
“I’m looking at cybersecurity analyst jobs or digital forensic analyst jobs,” he said. “Since our program prepares us for both fields it gives us the breadth of choosing where we want to go, which is nice. … There is a huge gap right now in the industry. You’re not going to not find a job in cybersecurity, and the field is only going to continue to grow.”
The job growth projection is over 30% in the next nine years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some more great news, as far as Jack is concerned, is that it’s a degree that is doable.
“You don’t need to be a coder in high school. You don’t need to be a computer whiz,” he said. “You need to have basic knowledge of technology and the willingness to keep up with technology because it’s constantly changing.”
Jack found his way to Marshall’s cyber security programs from Charleston, South Carolina, where he had grown up watching TV shows revolving around criminal investigations like “CSI: Miami” and “NCIS.”
“I liked forensic anthropology, but I didn’t want to go to med school,” he said. Knowing his aptitude with computers, his dad helped him explore degree programs that combined technology with crime-solving and forensics. They came across Marshall University, which his dad recognized, basically, through sports. Then they looked into lowering his tuition through the Academic Common Market, which will allow out-of-state students to attend at in-state tuition prices, if their home state doesn’t have the academic program they want.
“With the Academic Common Market and scholarships after I applied, I could attend Marshall for less than an in-state school (in South Carolina),” he said. “That’s a big selling point for Marshall definitely, the affordability.”
Marshall cyber has some definite aspects that set it apart, he said. The fact that the faculty members have worked in the field before coming to academia gives them tremendous insight that they pass along to their students, Jack said, not to mention they’re supportive and accessible to students.
One thing that the faculty have made sure of is that the students get real-world experience using the same tools they’ll use in the field. For Jack, that hands-on experience has come in three forms, participating in competitions as part of Marshall’s Cyber Collegiate Defense Club, as well as participating in Locked Shields, the world’s largest international cyber defense exercise, and working a summer internship with the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security’s Fusion Center.
Along with weekly meetings that feature speakers who are usually industry professionals, the Marshall University Collegiate Cyber Defense Club provides opportunities for hands-on learning through competitions, including National Cyber League competitions and the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (MACCDC).
The club’s performance speaks volumes about the education they’re getting here at Marshall. Along with winning the National Cyber League competition in 2020, the club regularly places highly and according to U.S. Cyber Power Rankings, Marshall’s Collegiate Cyber Defense Club currently ranks 14th nationally.
The National Cyber League challenges, which team members can do remotely from their own computer, involve several areas of cybersecurity. One is open-source intelligence, in which a competitor uses all the publicly available information on the internet to gather intelligence.
“They might give you an obscure picture of something and say, ‘Where was this?’” Jack said, adding that open-source intelligence is an area he especially enjoys.
There is also password cracking and network traffic analysis.
“Then you’ve got things like enumeration and exploitation, which is basically when they give you programs that are pretty obscure and they want you to reverse engineer it,” he said. “It’s kind of a precursor to malware analysis. If a piece of malware ends up on somebody’s computer, as a cybersecurity person, you would need to know what it does, report that to your higher-ups and prevent it from happening again.
Some challenges take five minutes while others take hours of research of trying new things, he said, but it’s satisfying when your efforts pay off.
Marshall’s Cyber Defense Club also participates in the MACCDC competition and for it, each member gathers at their cyber lab in the Weisberg Applied Engineering Complex.
In that competition, “you’re given a network to defend, and they have professionals that try to break into your network,” Jack said. “Your job is to keep them out and keep your services up and running for as long as you can.
The Locked Shields international cyber competition, which takes place in the spring in partnership with the West Virginia National Guard, “is the best real-world experience because you’re working alongside professionals,” Jack said. “They are sitting right next to you while you’re doing stuff and they can give you tips and pointers and you can watch them if you don’t know what’s going on.”
Though he’ll be venturing out into the professional world in 2024, he’s excited for the future of cyber at Marshall, which received $45 million from the state of West Virginia for a new cyber facility that will house the university’s Institute for Cyber Security. Marshall also has been designated a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education by the National Security Agency (NSA).
“We’re building that new building, and we’re building a security operations center, which not a lot of schools can boast,” he said, adding that as a graduate student, he helped in putting together the www.marshall.edu/cyber web page to provide a thorough tool for anyone interested in studying cyber at Marshall.
His advice to new and current students: Join the clubs, get involved in activities outside of class, and go for it.
“I chose Marshall because, at the time and even now, it’s still one of the most competitive programs in the country when it comes to cyber forensics and security,” he said. “I am extremely glad that I chose Marshall for Cyber Forensics & Security…. I like that this program is a 50/50 split of forensics and security. We like to use the term ‘Swiss Army Knife approach’ when we describe our program, just because they’re preparing you for wherever you might end up in the industry.”