Every PhD student has a different story to tell and a different experience to share, yet many have universal themes, especially around the dissertation process. Capella University graduate Derek Holbert shares the story of his dissertation, “Factors Contributing to Security Awareness of the End User,” which was the final step toward achieving his PhD in Information Technology Education.


[Abstract: The dependence on information technology for individuals and organizations is growing immensely with no end in sight. The ability to have data available upon request increases the opportunity for risks and vulnerabilities within an organization’s computer network. Organizations invest millions of dollars with perimeter defense mechanisms to monitor and ensure that intruders cannot enter their network. The goal is to ensure that the organizational data remain confidential, available, and keep its integrity. Perimeter security is often thought of as the first line of defense for an organization and therefore the majority of funding is devoted to purchasing the latest equipment. In spite of all the assets devoted to ensuring the perimeter security of an organization, a number of security incidents occur, as a result of employee security behavior. Many security breakdowns are attributed to a trusted end user within an organization because organizations have not addressed the “human element”. Previous research focuses on direct computer abuse by an employee, but more current research has identified that internal, external, and inherent factors contribute to the security behavior of an end user. The purpose of the research is to identify how much of an impact internal, external, and inherent factors have on an end user’s security behavior. The research study evaluated which of the above mentioned factors has the greatest effect on the security awareness of the end user.]


Derek Holbert, PhD, graduated from Capella University in 2013.

Selecting a Dissertation Topic

“I work for the government and do IT security audits,” says Holbert. “I was interested in how customers conform to requirements. I’ve seen lots of risks, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses, and wondered what contributes to these delinquencies.” Working toward his PhD enabled him to delve deeply into research around these issues, gaining a greater understanding of both the causes and possible solutions.

Holbert researched the internal, external, and inherent factors that affect an end user’s security. He learned specifically that the major common denominator in organizations that had been breached was management. “I assumed that might be the case, although I thought it would be a close second to lack of proper training,” he says. “The two were pretty close, but lack of interest and support from management played the leading role.”

He notes that this is not an easy cultural change to approach, largely because many people in management, while aware that technology faces security challenges, often are focused on other issues they see as more pressing. Or they may believe “It won’t happen here.” That can lead to a complacency regarding the second biggest risk factor, lack of training. “I’ve seen companies that are using the same security training they used 20 years ago,” says Holbert.


The PhD and Dissertation Process…

Overall, Holbert felt his PhD experience with Capella was wonderful. “I had good instructors. It was my first time with an online learning experience, no face-to-face. It’s helped me shape how I teach, now that I teach online myself.” He adds that it helped him grow as a person and as a student, and notes, “The flexibility is great. The structures were put in place up front, and communication was very good.”

In fact, Holbert goes on to say that if he pursues any future education, he would do it online. Given the travel requirements for his work, having that flexibility is critical and is what allowed him to earn a PhD at all.

In addition, he found he really enjoyed the research aspect. “It made me more aware of what I’m doing, helped me try to educate some of our users and resolve issues at work,” he says. “It was fulfilling in the sense that I’m adding to the overall field I work in.” Holbert would like to engage in more collaborative work with the end goal of continuing to contribute to his field.


…Was Not Without Challenges

Holbert said that the biggest challenge he faced was a changing of the guard when it came to dissertation committee members, which sometimes led to disagreements about direction in his program. Fortunately, his mentor, Dr. Sharon Gagnon, was a steadfast advocate for him. “She was in my corner, really backed me up,” he says.


The Capella Experience

“In the five years I was there, I could see Capella evolving, getting better and better,” says Holbert. “I could see they were learning and growing. That’s the thing—brick-and-mortar schools are very stagnant in their growth and expect students to work around university needs. Capella works around student needs and evolves to work with them.”


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