What Certifications Do You Need for Cybersecurity?

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Why do you need a cyber security certification?

The global cyber security market is forecast to expand at a compound rate of 10% a year through 2027, and that means new jobs — and fierce competition for those high-paying jobs as more and more people try to get into cyber security.

In the cyber security industry, certifications show the cyber security skills you have and can be absolutely critical to your cyber security career trajectory.

So ask yourself: Where do you see yourself in three years? Do you want to focus on a company’s security infrastructure or do you want to be on the front lines? Or perhaps you want to be an auditor or pen tester, ensuring current systems work as they’re supposed to. For executives, maybe you just want a formal understanding of the systems supporting your company.

Keep in mind that some certifications are for the beginning of your career while others are more important later on. Often, there are multiple certifications for a specific path. Depending on your interest, there’s a different certification that fits your path. So let’s figure out what certifications you need for your cyber security path.

What types of cyber security certification programs are available?

Cyber security certifications fall into one of three categories: professional (technology field); professional (industry-specific); and academic.

Professional (technology field)

Most professional cyber security certifications are for those working directly in a technology role, whether it’s directly in cyber security or a related field like information technology or networking.

These certifications help round out areas of expertise, educate people about new technology and industry methods, and develop domain expertise. Most major cyber security certifications fall into this category.

Professional (other industry)

Many industries are starting to offer cyber security programs targeted to their specific challenges and problems. While these aren’t in the scope of our discussion, they can be a great way to stand out if you have experience in an industry that requires extensive domain knowledge. A few examples of this type of certification include:

Make sure to mine your industry network for recommendations on the right certifications for your space.

Academic

These certifications represent huge opportunities because they can help demonstrate to employers that you have a practical understanding of challenges in the cyber security field. There are a number of great academic options, including:

Feel free to check for programs in your area if you’d prefer an in-person experience to the various online offerings available.

Prerequisites for a cybersecurity certification

Cyber security certifications are important, but they can vary widely in terms of what you need in order to get them. 

When choosing your program, your core focus should be on whether the certification will help you in your chosen career path, but there are also a few other things to consider when choosing your certification. That is, you need to account for your eligibility, timeline, and the certification’s cost.

  • Eligibility. Do they require you to have a bachelor’s degree in a technical field? Do they require a certain work history? Do you need to complete some preliminary assessments or courses?

  • Time. What is the average study time/course time? When is the earliest you can expect to hold the certification? Make sure to look out for certifications that may only become valid after you have gathered a certain number of years’ work experience.

  • Cost. How much does it cost to complete the course or take the exam? Are study materials included?

The top 6 professional cyber security certifications and who they’re for

1. Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)

Certified Ethical Hacker

Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) is considered the industry standard for professionals pursuing a career as an ethical hacker/penetration tester. It focuses on preparing IT professionals for enterprise-level security responsibilities, including testing and anticipating weak spots in systems.

Key skills you need for CEH:
  • Understanding Trojans, worms and viruses

  • Denial-of-service attacks

  • Jijacking web servers and applications

  • Cryptography

  • SQL/code injection

  • And more

The CEH exam costs $950 and is based on a self-study model, with multiple vendors providing courses. To be eligible, participants must either pass a course offered by the exam sponsor, the EC-Council; or possess two years of work experience in an information security-related field.

2. Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)

CISM website

The Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) designation, provided by ISACA, is a key certification for technology professionals looking to transition to management roles.

Key skills you need for CISM:
  • It builds on existing expertise to develop skills in information security management

  • Governance

  • Risk management

  • Program development/management

  • Incident management

CISM certification requires more than passing the exam. Security managers must have relevant full-time work experience in designated job practice areas, and pay an application and exam fee.

3. CompTIA Security+

A screenshot of the CompTIA cyber security certification website

The CompTIA Security+ certification is a global exam designed to determine an applicant’s baseline skills in key information security areas.

Key skills you need for Sec+:
  • Attacks, threats, and vulnerabilities

  • Incident response

  • Governance, risk, and compliance

  • Enterprise environment architecture and design. 

The CompTIA Sec+ exam costs $370 and study programs are available.

Because of its comprehensive nature and global acceptance, many professionals find this to be a great core exam to demonstrate their capabilities in the information security space.

4. Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)

CISSP website

Billed as “the world’s premier cybersecurity certification, the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) designation represents your ability to design, implement, and maintain an ongoing cybersecurity program.

CISSP is offered by the International Systems Security Certification Consortium (ISC2).

In addition to its global recognition, it fulfills the US. Department of Defense (DoD) Directive 8570.1, which makes it a critical resource for government employees, security consultants, and contractors employed as security professionals. 

CISSP holders can also pursue specialized concentrations in three key areas:

These specializations help you stand out in your specialized work role and introduce you to a tight network of professionals who share your skills.

5. Certified Information Security Auditor (CISA)

CISA website

The Certified Information Security Auditor (CISA) designation from ISACA is designed for professionals seeking in the auditing, controlling, and monitoring of an enterprise’s information technology systems. 

Performing an information systems audit is a fast-growing field — according to ISACA, the average salary for confirmed CISA holders is $110,000+.

CISA holders must have relevant work experience in core practice areas and pay a fee. Professionals already in the audit and/or risk management space may find that this certification is the perfect way to expand their capabilities on an enterprise level.

6. GIAC Security Essentials (GSEC)

GAC Security Essentials

Not sure where to start? The GIAC Security Essentials (GSEC) certification may be worth a look. Whether you are entry-level and looking to build your credentials, or an established industry professional, the GSEC can be a strong validation of your overall skills.

Topics run the gamut from user information and device access control and password management; to risk management; to cryptography.

As with some other certifications on this list, it meets the standards for certain US Department of Defense (DoD) directives and is thus a go-to for many government employees and contractors. 

Finding the right cyber security certification for you

The organizations mentioned above typically sponsor a number of certifications that target specific fields and/or niches. 

An easy way to determine the right certification exam for you is to look at job descriptions for jobs and companies that interest you, and see if you can find any patterns in terms of education, work background, and certifications. Study the testimonials on certification pages to get a sense of whether their career paths mirror your own ambitions.

You should also make the most of internet message boards, communities, and industry networking. Active threads on sites like Reddit and Quora debate the pros and cons of certifications for specific jobs and companies. And a quick LinkedIn search will turn up certification holders in your network, giving you trusted contacts for discussing your questions and concerns.

And don’t forget to join groups dedicated to cybersecurity in general, and to the various organizations offering the certifications below. The more you understand a target firm or industry’s current requirements, the better your chances are to make the most of your study time and the money you are investing in your career.

Results may vary, but a few job pathways worth exploring include:

Penetration Tester (Pen Tester)

ZipRecruiter Average Salary: $100k

Certifications to get to become a pen tester:

In addition to the Certified Ethical Hacker certification listed above, consider the Licensed Penetration Tester (Master) or Certified Penetration Testing Professional (CPENT) designation from the EC-Council. 

Billed as “the world’s most advanced penetration testing program,” this grueling exam takes place in a live, monitored 24-hour session with real-life, timed challenges. Candidates who score 70% or more will earn the CPENT designation; candidates who score 90% or more will also earn the Licensed Penetration Tester designation. A strong performance on this test is an indicator of a high level of understanding in network security issues.

Further reading: How to Become a Pen Tester

Cyber Security Analyst

ZipRecruiter Average Salary: $100k

Certifications to get to become a cyber security analyst:

The CompTIA Cybersecurity Analyst (CySA+) certification is a go-to in the field, blending an exam environment with hands-on questions. It covers key intelligence and threat detection techniques, effective responses, and key preventative measures, and is DoD-approved. 

Becoming a cyber security analyst is a valuable stepping stone to more advanced roles in the space.

Cybersec First Responder

ZipRecruiter Average Salary: Not Available

A ‘first responder’ needs to know an enterprise’s systems backwards and front so that they can help lead real-time responses to network threats, as well as ensure that future threats have reduced lag time between intrusion, detection, and elimination.

The Cybsersec First Responder (CFR) designation is DoD-8570 compliant and serves as a strong validation of your ability to serve in the crucial role of security incident response.

This may be the ideal career path for professionals who want to match wits with unidentified hackers in real time, helping organizations minimize damage from threats as they occur.

Cloud Security Professional

ZipRecruiter Average Salary: $96k

Certifications to get to become a cloud security professional:

ISC2’s Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP) designation focuses on cloud architecture, design operations, and service orchestration. Recommended careers that should consider the CCSP include enterprise architects, security architects and consultants, and system architects.

A Forbes article from 2020 noted that “cyber security professionals with cloud security skills can gain a $15,025 salary premium by capitalizing on strong market demand for their skills in 2021,” so the CCSP might be useful for anyone already in cyber security, too.

IT/Enterprise Risk Manager

ZipRecruiter Average Salary: $105k

Understanding a firm’s enterprise IT risk - and implementing controls to eliminate, reduce, and mitigate that risk - requires a special combination of talents. 

Certifications to get to become an IT/enterprise risk manager:

Many risk managers turn to the ISACA certification to become Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC). 

CRISC holders are well-suited to be part of the ongoing growth of the information security and risk management fields, and can develop skills that will make them high-value targets for future management opportunities, given their holistic view of the enterprise.

IT Governance

ZipRecruiter Average Salary: Not Available

Another option for professionals interested in management and governance is ISACA’s Certified in the Governance of Enterprise IT (CGEIT) certification, billed as ‘framework agnostic” and “the only IT governance certification for the individual.’ 

With their understanding of full enterprise IT architecture and resources, and the ability to realize cross-enterprise optimizations, CGEIT holders average $141,000/year.

SOC Analyst

ZipRecruiter Average Salary: $97k

A security operations center (SOC) analyst works to monitor an enterprise’s IT infrastructure, and to protect it from threats — both real and theoretical. Analysts monitor network traffic, assess organizational weak points, and review logs and alerts for suspicious activity.

SOC analysts often work in teams, and their knowledge of a firm’s technology infrastructures makes them key elements in the overall enterprise security apparatus. This can make SOC Analyst a great step as you move towards a broader governance or management position.

Certifications to get to become SOC analyst:

There are a number of competing certifications in the space, including the well-regarded CompTIA CySA+, the EC-Council’s Certified SOC Analyst program, and the CISCO Certified CyberOps Associate designation.

Conclusion

The variety of cyber security certifications illustrates just how critical the space has become. Professionals who hold the right designations will stand out from the crowd and can pursue their career goals with increased confidence.

With training options ranging from entry-level to experienced professionals, everyone should be evaluating their career plans to see if a cybersecurity certification will help prepare and position them for their next step.

If you’re interested in becoming a cyber security pro, Flatiron Schol’s cybersecurity analytics course and cybersecurity engineering course teach you everything you need to know to start a career in cyber. Typically speaking, the analytics program is slightly less technical than the engineering program.

Also remember: certifications are not the end-all, be-all for a cyber career. Soft skills are important in cyber security, too – as are cyber security coding languages.

Further reading:

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Michael Middleton

Writer

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