It seems like CSU’s MLS in Data Privacy and Cybersecurity was made for Zain Zafar. He has always been determined, hardworking, and committed to pursuing his passion for cybersecurity. 

Zain, a Cleveland native, completed his bachelor’s in International Studies with a focus on security and intelligence at the Ohio State University. After graduating, unfortunately, he was unable to land a cybersecurity job due to a lack of experience. So, he decided to pursue a career in anti-money laundering (AML) instead and worked at a large financial institution in its AML compliance department. Later, dealing with a European privacy regulation company piqued his interest in cybersecurity and data privacy once again, so he began looking into Master’s programs that could provide the training needed to pivot back to his passion.

Finding the Right Program

Zain was particularly interested in a program that offered a blend of cybersecurity and data privacy. He had experience in data privacy law and wanted to dive deeper, but also needed more of the technical training to create a viable career. CSU looked promising. “There’s this spot in the middle of cybersecurity and legal where you need somebody to understand both,” he recognizes. 

On a phone call with Brian Ray, he discussed his current job, why he wanted to enroll in a Master’s degree program, and how CSU’s online MLS might be exactly what he was looking for. The conversation cemented that “It was a blend of both of my passions.” Zain was sold. He submitted an application and started studying in the fall of 2021.

Zain Zafar

Getting Invested and Getting Involved

Right from the start, Zain became familiar with subject basics in courses like American Law and Cybersecurity 1. In the former, he learned about landmark cases and the cybersecurity issues most relevant from a legal standpoint. In the latter, learning the definition of risk, how to scan for vulnerabilities, and spot a phishing email were essentials. During these courses, “I really started to enjoy the program,” he says.

Over the summer of 2022, Zain took Privacy Law and Cybersecurity Law. “Privacy Law was very helpful because there’s a vast amount of privacy laws in the United States and abroad,” and because many of those laws are very new, the course content was recent, relevant, and targeted. 

As far as the social element, online learning doesn’t have to be isolating. Zain is part of a cohort that has managed to meet up with each other a handful of times, both for school projects and just to hang out. They also have a group text. He has really appreciated “Having those meetings and those dialogues where we share ideas, insights about the class, and discuss how we’re trying to tackle assignments.” 

A Realistic Look at the Challenges

The time commitment and workload will always be a challenge, but Zain also gives credit to the course structure for easing the load. “It’s a fully online degree with work deadlines that are pretty flexible. Especially working a full-time job, I appreciate that basically you have the entire week to complete assignments.” When he was struggling to understand a concept, he could hop on a call or even text his professors.

Another of the challenges of pursuing a Master’s degree is the financial burden, but with “the flexibility of this being an online program, I have been able to work a full-time job without it affecting my work hours at all. I like that it’s a four-month span and getting the work done is pretty manageable for a majority of the courses.” Still, he’s cognizant that as much as an online program saves you time, it’s still an extra 10-15 hours of extra work per week.

The Career Payoff 

Ultimately, he has deemed it a worthwhile commitment. “After a year of searching, I finally landed my first cybersecurity job as a Government Risk and Compliance Analyst at Netjets, a private aviation company.” Zain reports. His CSU support system and experience were key components. For example, in the technical capstone, he completed a different lab each week, all of which went on his resume. Professor Spence Witten then told him exactly how to prepare for interviews. 

Now, in choosing his remaining two courses in the program, Zain says that he asks himself two questions: What can help me in my work today, and what can’t? Eventually, he wants to become a Chief Information Security Officer. “However long that takes, this is my career transition, and it was a very difficult transition but I do think the Master’s degree helped me.” 

Though not quite done with his time at CSU, Zain has some advice for incoming and other current students. “There were times when I was unsure about the degree, but you have to trust in your skills, certifications, and job experience. Leverage your degree, leverage your professors, leverage your resources, and leverage LinkedIn. That’s what it took to get me a cybersecurity job.”