Master’s degree in Counterterrorism full guide

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Why get a master’s in counterterrorism?

For students looking to work on the front lines of national security, a master’s degree in counterterrorism opens many doors. With the Department of Homeland security (DHS) at its center, the field of counterterrorism is an expanding and dynamic area of law enforcement. If you want to gain in-depth knowledge of national security policies, intelligence and strategies to help keep American citizens safe from terrorist attacks, this degree path is for you.

The U.S. government acts on several fronts and carries out several activities, including the following:

  • sharing intelligence with other countries
  • slowing terrorist recruitment
  • improving aviation and border security
  • applying sanctions
  • conducting military operations
  • maintaining survelliance on known terrorists
  • identifying and preventing attacks
  • analyzing data
  • preparing attack response plans

The DHS is not the only government agency involved in counterterrorism efforts. The following agencies also collaborate to keep the U.S. safe from terrorists:

  • National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC)
  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
  • National Security Agency (NSA)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • Transportation Security Administration (TSA)

Who may be interested in this degree?

If you have already completed a bachelor’s in counterterrorism or a related field, pursuing your master’s may make it easier to find a job, as most selection processes evaluate both levels of education and experience to rank candidates. Companies and government agencies often look for managerial candidates with a master’s degree.

Alternate program names

Counterterrorism degrees can have many different names. Each university titles the program as it sees fit. For instance, all of the following programs have counterterrorism content:

  • counterterrorism and homeland security
  • technology intelligence
  • international relations and global security
  • organizational leadership in homeland security
  • security and strategic intelligence
  • national cybersecurity studies

The wide variation in program names makes it essential to check the coursework involved before you apply. Master’s degrees tend to have more depth than bachelor’s programs.  Some programs are offered as a Master of Arts (M.A.) while others are a Master of Science (M.S.). The M.A. typically focuses more on the humanities, while the M.S. tends toward the scientific and technological aspects of counterterrorism.

A program name alone cannot tell you all you need to know about what is involved in a degree. Check the specific coursework on each school’s site or ask the admissions office to help you find the program that best fits your career goals.


To enter a master’s program in counterterrorism, you typically need a bachelor’s degree in the same area or a related field. For example, a bachelor’s in homeland security or international relations usually qualifies. Other admissions requirements can vary significantly from one university to another. However, most schools require the following:

  • Graduate Record Examination (GRE) test scores
  • letters of recommendation
  • resume
  • official transcripts
  • felony disclosure form
  • purpose statement

Since counterterrorism professionals work with international intelligence, it can be beneficial to know at least one foreign language. If you are fluent in more than one language, make sure you inform the school by including the information in your personal statement or application. Likewise, be sure to include any law enforcement or military experience as these skills can help you get into a program.

Many schools allow students to transfer credits from other institutions. However, each institution has unique policies regarding this practice. As a result, it is wise to check with the admissions office at the college where you are applying. The staff can inform you of any school-specific rules and whether there is a limit on the number of credits you can transfer. Some universities only allow you to transfer credits earned within the last 5 years.

Degree flexibility

You can opt to study part- or full-time while earning a master’s degree in counterterrorism. Many programs are available entirely online. Some of these are asynchronous, which means you can do your distance learning at the time that best fits your schedule. If you have work or family responsibilities, this type of program can provide the flexibility you need. There are also hybrid programs, which involve both distance learning and on-campus interaction.

Cost of the degree

The cost of a master’s degree varies significantly based on several factors. Tuition and fees for a master’s degree depend on whether you study at a public or private university. If you live on campus, you will pay more than if you commute.

The average yearly tuition and fees at a public 4-year institution are $8,950, while at a private university, this number jumps to $29,670.

Financial aid

Some scholarships are available to graduate students. However, other forms of financial assistance are much more common at this level of education. To find financial aid, the first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).


A master’s degree in counterterrorism usually consists of at least 30 credit hours. Full-time students may be able to complete the program in 1 year. Coursework may include:

Border security

In this course, students examine the entry points into the U.S. and how the government works to eliminate threats at these locations. Participants learn how federal, state, local and private agencies work together to protect borders on the land, air and sea.

Intelligence analysis

In counterterrorism, professionals need to analyze intelligence and use it to make decisions regarding daily operations. This course gives students the tools necessary to understand and apply intelligence data.

Violent extremism

This course analyzes the actions of domestic and international terrorist groups. Students learn about the possible consequences of violent extremism in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

Cyber threats

This class focuses on online security threats. Participants learn to identify and counter the current risks.

Strategies for countering violent extremism

Students learn the strategies that counterterrorism professionals use to fight the growth of terrorist groups. Topics include the history of strategy development and related government agencies.

Fieldwork and internships

Many schools offer internships or similar fieldwork at the master’s level. In most cases, this is not required for graduation. However, if you do not currently work in counterterrorism, it is usually to your advantage to get some experience before completing your degree.


Educational institutions may offer concentrations that allow students to explore specific topics in greater depth. You can choose according to your interest or planned career path. You may choose a specialization like:

National security policies

This concentration takes an in-depth look at counterterrorism policies on a national level. Students emerge with a better understanding of the functions and activities of individual government agencies.

Religious extremism

Some terrorists base their actions on religious extremism. This specialization allows you to understand how their belief systems operate and affect these groups’ actions.

Strategic leadership

Since many master’s graduates move into leadership positions, this concentration prepares graduates for such roles. Students learn how supervisors and directors manage tasks and employees in the counterterrorism field.

Cyber threats and security

Students who choose this specialization focus on online threats and how to eliminate them. Depending on the program, some information technology (I.T.) courses may be required.


Accreditation is an essential part of guaranteeing the quality of university programs. To ensure you get the best education possible, check your target school’s credentials before enrolling. You can do this by consulting the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs (DAPIP).

It’s often possible to see a university’s accreditations on its website, too. The field of counterterrorism does not have a specific accrediting body.

Career opportunities with this master’s degree

A master’s degree in counterterrorism opens doors to many positions in the public and private sectors. You may find employment with major firms that hire security analysts. Government jobs are available with the CIA, DHS, NSA, FBI and TSA. State and local law enforcement and border patrol offer potential employment opportunities too. Fusion centers also operate in major cities, coordinating local, state and federal agents to detect and prevent potential threats.

TSA program analysts play a critical role in the security of aviation and surface transportation. Along with screening equipment and training crews, TSA program analysts also coordinate transportation, intelligence, I.T. and administration. To qualify for this position, you need at least a master’s degree.

The average yearly pay for a TSA program analyst is $75,076.

An emergency management director works to prepare communities for emergencies, including potential terrorist attacks. They assess threats and supervise disaster response, coordinating with elected officials, public safety employees and non-profits.

The minimum requirements for this position are a bachelor’s degree and multiple years of experience in the field. However, employers often consider additional education in place of work experience. Thus, a master’s degree may qualify you for this position with fewer years of experience.

The average annual pay for an emergency management director is $76,250.

Continuing education

After you complete your master’s program, you may want to consider earning a doctorate (Ph.D.). This degree typically takes 3-6 years to complete. A Ph.D. may be right for you if you want to reach the highest level of leadership in counterterrorism. Another popular career choice for those with a Ph.D. is that of postsecondary teaching. As a university professor, you could earn an average salary of $80,790.

Should I earn a master’s degree in counterterrorism?

There are several advantages to a master’s in counterterrorism. Earning this degree can give you an edge against the competition in hiring decisions. It may also be necessary for leadership positions. If you are already working in a large company or government organization, promotions are likely available after earning a master’s.

Professionals with the best combination of education and experience are often the first to advance to supervisory positions. If you are interested in getting a senior position, this degree could be a wise investment for you.

National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC)

The NCTC integrates intelligence from various origins to lead the war on terror. It shares foreign and domestic data from private and public sources.

Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT)

This nonprofit organization continuously researches radical terrorist groups. The U.S. government and law enforcement agencies rely on information and evidence from this group’s files.

U.S. Department of State Bureau of Counterterrorism

The Bureau of Counterterrorism is an arm of the U.S. Department of State dedicated to coordinating counterterrorism efforts. It works to develop positive relationships with foreign governments to facilitate cooperation on terror-related issues.