Computer Forensic Investigator: 2021 Career Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on Sep 22, 2021

Digital forensics sits at the intersection of cybersecurity and criminal justice.

A digital forensic investigator leans against a computer server in a data center. He's wearing a grey t-shirt and dark grey pants.

Computer forensic investigators help retrieve information from computers and other digital storage devices. The retrieved data can then be used in criminal investigations or as evidence in cases for cyber crimes. Learn whether this career at the intersection of cybersecurity and law enforcement might be a good fit for you, as well as how to get started.

What do computer forensic investigators do?

Much like a forensic investigator captures evidence from the scene of a crime, a computer forensic investigator gathers evidence found on computers, mobile phones, and other digital devices.

Tasks and responsibilities

The specific tasks of a digital forensic investigator will vary depending on the company or agency and industry. These are some of the tasks you might expect to perform (based on real job listings):

  • Retrieve data from virtual and physical devices

  • Collect and analyze network intrusion artifacts and evidence of malicious network activity

  • Reconstruct the series of events leading to a compromise or breach

  • Collect, process, analyze, and preserve digital evidence in criminal cases

  • Extract and analyze metadata

  • Collaborate with law enforcement, as well as legal, compliance, and HR teams

  • Ensure chain of custody of digital evidence

  • Write technical reports to document case findings

  • Identify potential threats and provide recommendations for better security

  • Provide testimony in depositions, trials, and other legal proceedings 

Where you’ll work

Many computer forensic investigators work within the law enforcement industry, whether directly for law enforcement agencies or for private firms hired by agencies to manage digital evidence. It’s also possible to work as a forensic analyst for a private company. In this case, you’re likely to be tasked with identifying vulnerabilities, investigating breaches, and attempting to retrieve data from damaged or compromised digital storage devices.

Some digital forensic investigator jobs require you to be on call to respond to incidents that might not take place during normal business hours.

Possible job titles

Digital forensics is a relatively new field. You might see this type of work associated with a variety of different job titles, and “computer forensics” and “digital forensics” are often used interchangeably. Some possible job titles include:

*Digital/computer forensic investigator

*Digital/computer forensic analyst

*Digital/computer forensic examiner

*Digital/computer forensic consultant

*Digital/computer forensic specialist

*Digital/computer forensic evaluator

*Network forensic analyst

*Multimedia forensic analyst

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Why pursue a career in digital forensics?

If applying your technical skills toward keeping the internet safe sounds interesting, then a career in digital forensics could be a good fit for you. Besides offering an always-evolving challenge, digital forensics jobs are often well-paid and in-demand, too.

Computer forensics investigator salary

Digital forensic analysts in the US make an average salary of $75,128, according to September 2021 Glassdoor data. Job sites ZipRecruiter and CyberSeek report even higher average salaries of $85,102 (computer forensics investigator) and $94,000 (cyber crime analyst) respectively. 

Job outlook

While the US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not include digital forensic analysts as a job category in its Occupational Outlook Handbook, it does report that information security analysts and forensic science technicians should see job growth of 33 and 16 percent respectively. This is much higher than the average rate of 8 percent across all occupations. 

Digital forensics career path

CyberSeek classifies “cyber crime analyst” as an entry-level role in cybersecurity. Getting your start with a job in digital forensics could open up opportunities for more advanced, better-paying roles like penetration tester, cybersecurity consultant, cybersecurity manager, or security architect.

Read more about what cybersecurity career path might be a good fit for you.

How to become a computer forensic investigator 

If you’re interested in a career in computer forensics, here are some steps you can take to get started.

1. Build your digital forensics skills.

Success in cybersecurity, including digital forensics, often relies on having the right technical and workplace skills for the role. For a career as a computer forensic investigator, consider investing in skills like:

  • Digital storage devices: Understand how data is stored on hard drives and consumer electronic devices so you’re better equipped to retrieve critical or compromised data.

  • Operating systems: You’ll need to know how to find and retrieve information from Windows, Linux, MacOS, Unix, and Android devices.

  • Cryptography: Often the data you’ll need to retrieve and analyze will be encrypted, so it’s critical to understand encryption and decryption methods.

  • Communication: You may be tasked with documenting evidence and writing reports on your findings. In this role, you may have to communicate technical concepts to non-technical audiences, like company executives or juries.

  • Malware engineering: You may be tasked with reverse engineering a piece of malware to better understand its functionality and impact.

  • Digital forensic software: Programs like Forensic Toolkit (FTK) contain a collection of forensic tools to help you scan devices for information and crack encryptions.

  • Data privacy laws: Since you’ll be working with sometimes sensitive data, you’ll need to be familiar with local, federal, and international data protection laws.

  • Problem solving: Rarely is the data you’re looking for sitting out for you to find easily. Instead, be prepared to do some sleuthing to solve complex problems.

Do I need a degree to become a computer forensic investigator?

Many digital forensics jobs require a bachelor’s degree in computer forensics, computer science, or a related field. According to CyberSeek data, 90 percent of cyber crime analyst jobs request at least a bachelor’s degree [1]. 

If you have a bachelor’s degree in another field, earning a relevant certification could help validate your skills to potential employers.

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2. Get certified.

By earning a relevant cybersecurity certification, you can validate your skills to recruiters and hiring managers, enhance your resume, and open up new job opportunities. Some commonly-requested certifications for digital forensics jobs include:

  • Certified Computer Examiner (CCE)

  • EnCase Certified Examiner (EnCE)

  • GIAC Certified Forensic Analyst (GCFA)

  • GIAC Certified Forensic Examiner (GCFE)

  • GIAC Network Forensic Analyst (GNFA)

  • Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP)

3. Start with an entry-level position. 

Many cybersecurity professionals, including digital forensic analysts, gain experience in entry-level information technology (IT) roles before advancing into information security. By working as a network analyst, IT support specialist, or systems engineer, you can build practical technical knowledge that can serve as a foundation for more advanced digital forensics skills.

Next steps

Take the next step toward a career in cybersecurity with the IBM Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate on Coursera. Learn more about the myriad roles available in the field, including digital forensics, while building job-ready skills.

If you think digital forensics could be a good fit, learn how to identify, collect, and preserve digital evidence with the Computer Forensics Specialization from InfoSec.

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IBM Cybersecurity Analyst

IBM

PROFESSIONAL CERTIFICATE
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Computer Forensics

Infosec

SPECIALIZATION

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Article sources

1. CyberSeek. "Cybersecurity Career Pathway, https://www.cyberseek.org/pathway.html." Accessed September 22, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Sep 22, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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