What Is a Cryptographer? 2022 Career Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on

A cryptographer is a data security professional with considerable expertise in encryption. To pursue this career path, you’ll want to aim for relevant degree programs, internships, and certifications. Read on to learn more.

[Featured image] To cryptographers work together on an encryption algorithm on a computer monitor.

If you like solving puzzles, you might enjoy a career as a cryptographer. Cryptography is the field that looks at how to keep information secure so that only the person who is supposed to see it can. Often the job involves cracking—or hacking—codes that encrypt data. Cryptographers use their knowledge of codes and computers to keep data and information safe.

To become a cryptographer, you should plan to develop strong computer-based skills, such as the ability to write code and decipher data, through a degree program, internship, or certification program.

Cryptology is one of many jobs in information security. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects strong demand and high pay for information security professionals, even with less than five years of experience. Of course, it takes training to learn how cryptography works and how it fits into an information security infrastructure. You need to understand computer science, mathematics, and programming.

Data security is complex and constantly changing. At the same time, those wanting to beat that security are also continually improving their ability to break into computer systems and steal data. Fortunately, several degrees and certificate programs can prepare you for this fascinating career.

What is cryptography?

Put simply, cryptography is the practice of writing and solving codes. A cryptographer is responsible for converting plain data into an encrypted format. Cryptography itself is an ancient field. For millennia, people have used codes to protect their secrets. Modern cryptography is the same; what’s different is the nature of the codes and the methods used to encrypt and then decrypt data.

Cryptographers are critical members of the information security defense team. They study encryption methods to find new ways to keep data secure while creating keys to the code so that the right users can access the information they need. If you have solid data and analytical skills, are interested in both mathematics and codes, and enjoy the challenge of creating effective ciphers, cryptography could be a good fit.

Learn more about what cryptography involves from Dan Boneh, Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University:

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Cryptography is an indispensable tool for protecting information in computer systems.

What does a cryptographer do?

Depending on the organization you work for, your day-to-day tasks as a cryptographer might include:

  • Developing cryptographic code

  • Implementing and optimizing cryptographic algorithms for your company's systems

  • Improving the speed of cryptographic capabilities

  • Collaborating with information security analysts, security architects, and other cross-functional teams

  • Identifying weaknesses in current security solutions

  • Testing cryptology theories

  • Providing technical support for hardware and software engineers

Cryptographer skills 

Cryptographers need a mix of technical and workplace skills to do their jobs well. A foundation in math and programming is critical; working with users to help them keep their data staff is almost as important.  

Technical skills

Cryptography is a technical position that requires a firm foundation in math and computer science. If you're interested in pursuing a career in cryptography, here are some skills you should work on:

  • Linear algebra, number theory, and combinatorics

  • Programming (Python, Java, or C++)

  • Operating systems

  • Security software and hardware

  • Computer architecture

Workplace skills

Cryptography involves technical skills, but your workplace skills also matter. Many employers will look for the following skills in cryptographer candidates:

  • Written and oral communication: Clear language can help identify security problems and get solutions in use because it reduces errors when setting up security systems. It can also help ensure that everyone in an organization understands and follows information security procedures.

  • Critical thinking: As a cryptographer, you'll often be tasked with finding optimal solutions to complex security problems in an evolving security landscape.

  • Self directed and adaptable: Encryption technology and cybersecurity threats are always changing, so you'll benefit from being adaptable and self directed in keeping up with the latest trends and technologies.

Read more: Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills: What’s the Difference?

Cryptographer salary

The average annual base salary for a cryptography engineer in the US is $98,086, according to Glassdoor (May 2022). The amount you make will vary based on your education level, amount of experience, location, and industry. Obtaining security clearance and certification can also impact your earning potential.

How to become a cryptographer

Cryptographers need to understand computer science and mathematics at a college level. Also, most computer security jobs require an undergraduate degree. Some cryptographers continue to do graduate work, even continuing to a doctoral level to develop deep expertise in encryption and decryption.

While a degree isn't always necessary in cybersecurity, most cryptographers find that college study is an effective way to acquire the necessary technical skills and qualify for entry-level jobs that lead to cryptography positions.

1. Consider earning a degree in cybersecurity or computer science.

A cryptographer needs familiarity with code systems, programming, and system architecture. These courses are covered in most undergraduate computer science and applied mathematics majors.

Employers often prefer candidates with master’s degrees. Most graduate programs in computer science and cybersecurity include research and analysis work that puts graduates on the cutting edge of data encryption. The extra years in school give these people more expertise in codes and ciphers in information security settings.

It is not unusual for a cryptographer to have a doctoral degree. Large technology organizations, especially those that develop and market security applications, need cryptographers with significant knowledge of encryption theories. Getting a PhD involves even more research experience, which leads to more knowledge about designing strong data security systems.

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2. Start with an internship or entry-level job in information security.

Cryptography is not typically an entry-level job; it usually requires five years of professional information security experience. After college, gain the experience needed by looking for a role as a security analyst or system analyst.

Another way to build work experience and learn more about cryptography is to take on a role as an intern. Many companies hire college students with an interest in cybersecurity for internship programs. Some even involve providing research assistance to cryptology teams, which can help you determine if you would enjoy the research aspect of a graduate program. 

Read more: How to Get a Cybersecurity Internship: 2022 Guide

3. Get certified. 

Certification can show a prospective employer that you have the knowledge to complement your work experience. Suppose you want to learn cryptology for a particular operating platform or use a particular technology. In that case, a certification program may be the way to organize your coursework and demonstrate your accomplishments.

Some common certifications among cryptographers include:

  • Certified Encryption Specialist (ECES)

  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)

  • CompTIA Security +

Read more: 10 Popular Cybersecurity Certifications

Get started on Coursera

Explore whether a career in cryptography could be right for you by taking Cryptography I from Stanford University. Start building the in-demand cybersecurity skills employers are looking for with the IBM Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate. Learn at your own pace, and earn a credential for your resume.

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