Cybersecurity Career Paths: Everything You Need to Know

In recent years, the Internet has become something of a digital Wild West, a place chock-full of opportunities — and vulnerabilities. Even as the rise of Big Data offers a host of lucrative possibilities to tech-savvy businesses, cybercriminals can undermine them, fighting to seize and (mis)use troves of sensitive, vulnerable data.

That’s where you come in. Today, cybersecurity professionals serve as defenders against bad actors online, protecting consumers and businesses across the globe from cybercrime. 

Sound intriguing? In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about walking a cybersecurity career path.

Think About What Kind of Work Appeals to You

You want to protect businesses from cybercrime — but where do you even start? 

Before you can begin plotting your cybersecurity career path, you need to understand what working in the field entails and how you hope to specialize. After all, the industry is vast; according to the 2018 Aust Cyber Report, the global cybersecurity market is worth roughly $145 billion. It is on track to increase 86 percent to $270 billion by 2026, far outstripping other industries.

This fast-paced growth isn’t all that surprising. As systems have become more sophisticated, hackers have redoubled their efforts to reveal vulnerabilities and expose lucrative personal information such as credit card numbers, financial records, and healthcare data. 

In the third quarter of 2019, the RiskBased Data Breach Quick View Report noted the occurrence of 5,183 separate data breaches which exposed 7.9 billion records globally. This constitutes a 33.3 percent uptick in total breaches and a more than doubling (112 percent) of exposed records over the previous year. 

These numbers illustrate why cybersecurity is such a high priority; companies of all sizes and industries need to protect themselves from expensive and confidence-shattering exposure.

A chart showing employment growth for cybersecurity analysts

As a professional in the field, you have the choice of where your cybersecurity career path falls. A host of industries employ skilled security experts; according to a 2019 (ISC)2 report, 22 percent of surveyed cybersecurity professionals work in IT, 8 percent in financial services, 7 percent in government, 6 percent in manufacturing, 6 percent in healthcare, 5 percent in education, 5 percent in engineering, and 5 percent in retail.

As this data demonstrates, being a “cybersecurity specialist” doesn’t limit you to one job description. There are countless roles in the job market  — so many, in fact, that you may need to limit yourself to a few chosen specialties.

As cybersecurity consultant Kevin Beaver shared for Security Intelligence, “Once I went out on my own as an independent consultant, [I] figured I was going to do all things security-related. I was sorely mistaken — arguably delusional […] it became clear to me that I needed to specialize in something, so I did just that.” 

Let’s dive into a few of the specialties that you might pursue as you further your career in cybersecurity. 

Penetration Testing

One of the ways to make sure your company is building secure systems is to test them against various types of attacks. 

Penetration testers attack processes and take advantage of vulnerabilities just as any other hacker might — with the organization’s permission, of course. Many penetration testers work for security companies that specialize in testing for a broad base of diverse business clients. 

Data Loss Prevention

Cybersecurity engineers who specialize in data loss prevention (DLP) focus their efforts on deploying security programs and ensuring that all protective software is up-to-date and functioning smoothly. 

These professionals troubleshoot programs that interfere with their security measures, manage data security across servers and databases, and handle user privacy concerns as they appear. 

Cybersecurity Architecture and Policy

As the name suggests, a cybersecurity architect designs a secure framework to encompass a company’s information. These professionals also develop business protocols, standards, and internal policies that all team members can follow to protect their company’s data. 

Architects typically have a wealth of experience working in IT and have a comprehensive understanding of cybersecurity products and protocols. 

Identity and Access Management

It seems almost too obvious to say that authorization is essential in a secure system. At any given point, consumers and business leaders need to know that those accessing an organization’s data are authorized to do so. 

A cybersecurity professional who specializes in identity and access management is responsible for ensuring that a company’s identification, authorization, and permissions protocols are in place across all systems and at all touchpoints. 

These specialists have ample expertise in how protocols differ between platforms (i.e., between desktops and smartphones, tablets, and so on). They are also tasked with the job of learning and enforcing identification policies within their organization. 

Forensic Analysis and Incident Response

Even the best-protected businesses have occasional breaches. 

For those in forensic analysis and incident response units, work starts after the worst has already occurred. These professionals analyze adverse security events to determine how a breach occurred and what needs to be done to eliminate the vulnerability. 

Depending on the issue at hand, forensics specialists are also trained in how to collect evidence to be used in formal trials. 

Secure Software Development

As the name suggests, professionals who specialize in secure software development work to develop secure software applications. Regardless of their function, these programs are designed and stringently tested to ensure that they have no vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit. Secure software development specialists can work to develop programs used in-house, or can otherwise focus their efforts on developing software for consumer sale. 

Do any of these roles appeal to you? Once you know where you want to specialize, you’ll have a better idea of how to tailor your education.

Given these consequences, it’s no surprise that cybersecurity professionals are in very high demand.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of roles for information security analysts will grow 32 percent — more than six times the average for all other professions  — between 2018 and 2028. Roughly 35,500 cybersecurity jobs will be added to the American job market over that period.

Assess Your Current Skill Set

Before you can plot a cybersecurity career roadmap that suits your chosen specialty, you need to establish your starting point and understand your existing skill set. The educational path you take toward a cybersecurity career can vary significantly depending on your previous experience and where you are in life.

For example, if you already have programming experience but want to specialize in cybersecurity, your chosen educational path may differ from that of someone who has never written code before. That said, it is worth emphasizing that it is still possible to become a cybersecurity professional even if you don’t have prior experience at all — so long as you have the right education and training.

To determine your next step, assess your availability and previous educational experiences. Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Can you commit to a full-time program, or will you need to abide by a part-time schedule? 
  • Do you already have a four-year degree or other formal education in computer science or programming? 
  • If you already know how to program, does your expertise extend to coding for security purposes? 

Developing a clear picture of what you already know — and what you have yet to learn — is a critical part of determining your optimal educational route. Let’s review a few of the educational options that are available to aspiring cybersecurity professionals. 

Learn the Required Skills

There are several paths that you can take to obtain the skills necessary for a career in cybersecurity. Formal college programs and cybersecurity boot camps offer two of the most popular learning routes available to aspiring cybersecurity professionals, each with their own pros and cons. 

People who have already graduated with a bachelor’s degree may not want to invest the time to gain a second degree or may not be well-situated to invest in a master’s program. That said, attending college may be an excellent choice for people who want a comprehensive background in computer science or another cybersecurity-adjacent field and have the time and resources to devote to a multi-year program. 

Boot camps, on the other hand, offer intensive training in a comparatively short period and at a lower price point. These courses provide the structured program and instructor support of university education but with a narrower focus on teaching the practical skills required for employability. However, these courses often don’t have the bandwidth to instruct learners in theoretical concepts or non-skills-based cybersecurity knowledge. 

The route that you choose depends on your timeline, previous education, personal situation, and resources. 

Start Progressing Through Different Roles

Once you have walked your educational path and built a robust repertoire of hard skills, you can begin amassing on-the-job experience. As with most professions, cybersecurity specialists usually start their career with an entry-level job and work their way up to becoming senior experts. 

Let’s review a few of the roles available at entry-, mid-, and senior-levels. 

A chart showing a cybersecurity career path including entry, intermediate, and senior positions

Entry Level

An entry-level job is one that, predictably, allows you to enter your chosen field. It’s the very beginning of one’s cybersecurity career roadmap.

However, the doorway that an entry-level role provides isn’t necessarily open to everyone; even an entry-level cybersecurity job requires some degree of training and education. In most cases, employers will only consider applicants who can demonstrate that they have the skills and practical knowledge to hit the ground running.

Entry-level roles provide aspiring cybersecurity professionals the opportunity to grow their talents through hard-won expertise and prove themselves. Once you’ve landed that first job, you can plant the first seeds for a long and rewarding career. 

Interested in what roles might come up on your interview roster? Let’s review a few likely titles. 

  • Cybersecurity Technician — A cybersecurity technician oversees, upgrades, and plans for the security of computers on a network, often responding to user tickets and implementing a company’s security policies in day-to-day business. 
  • IT Auditor — An IT auditor manages risks and controls for their employer’s networks and computer systems. Professionals in this role typically work in a team to proactively search for weaknesses and develop plans to prevent security breaches.
  • Incident Analyst — An incident analyst investigates security problems, breaches, and privacy concerns as they emerge. A person in this role may diagnose security problems or work with their employer to develop methods to prevent similar issues in the future.

Intermediate Level

Once you have a few years of experience in the field, you can start searching for opportunities to move up to a mid-level job. 

As you climb to an intermediate level, you may take on additional management responsibilities, such as overseeing entry-level cybersecurity technicians, providing more project direction, or taking the lead on new initiatives. With more experience and better-honed skills, you will naturally find yourself in a better position to understand and assume a leadership position on cybersecurity issues.

A few mid-level jobs in cybersecurity include the following:

  • Cybersecurity Analyst — A cybersecurity analyst investigates security breaches, monitors systems for issues, and installs security software and firewalls. An analyst is less likely to be tasked with providing the one-on-one client support that an entry-level technician does. Instead, they would be more likely to assume a broader perspective over systems at large.
  • Cybersecurity Consultant — A cybersecurity consultant may work as part of a team or independently to assess the security solutions in use, advise clients about measures they might take to protect themselves better, or research potential threats.
  • Penetration Tester — A penetration tester uses hacking skills and high-level coding and social engineering to look for security flaws in software, networks, and systems. A person in this role might design tools and tests to look for vulnerabilities. They often have the option to find employment with an organization or work independently.

Senior Level

As a senior-level cybersecurity professional, you are at the apex of your cybersecurity career path. You may run your own business, manage teams or overall networks, or even develop and pioneer new cybersecurity software and technologies.

Here are few of the senior level positions you may find yourself considering down the line:

  • Cybersecurity Administrator — A cybersecurity administrator manages and oversees the implementation of security technology across an entire network or company, including developing policies, implementing procedures, and directing a cybersecurity team’s efforts.
  • Cybersecurity Engineer — A cybersecurity engineer uses high-level programming skills to develop security policies, create security frameworks, and create new security solutions.
  • Cybersecurity Architect — A cybersecurity architect plans and executes an overall approach to security and safety throughout an organization, building security systems from the ground up with a system-wide view.

Where Are You on Your Cybersecurity Career Path?

Cybersecurity can offer a tremendously rewarding career path with significant upward mobility and massive job growth across industries in the years to come. You can move forward along your personal roadmap to cybersecurity success — but you need to make a conscious decision to start moving. 

Ask yourself: 

  • Where am I on my career journey?
  • Which positions do I want to aim for?
  • Which educational venues (boot camp, undergraduate degree, certification programs, etc.) would best suit my needs and timeline?

With a little effort and dedication, you can build a rewarding career in cybersecurity. If you’re ready, start exploring your educational options today!


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