How to Become an Ethical Hacker? A Career Guide

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Ethical hackers use their cybersecurity skills to counter cybercriminals and prevent cyberattacks. Learn more about what it takes to qualify for this role and if it’s a career path for you.

[Featured image] An ethical hacker is standing in an electrical room while holding a laptop to their chest.

To become an ethical hacker, you’ll need a combination of relevant education and experience. There are various ways to achieve that, but many employers prefer candidates with at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science, computer engineering, or a related field. However, other alternatives exist, including military training and bootcamps. 

In this technology-driven world, understanding cybersecurity is helpful in preventing costly cyberattacks on individuals, businesses, and governments. In this article, learn what it takes to become an ethical hacker, different job opportunities, and more. 

Read more: Ethical Hacker Salary: What You'll Make and Why

What does an ethical hacker do?

The primary goal for ethical hackers is to find, correct, and test an organization’s systems for any security issues. To be successful in this role, you’re expected to follow specific guidelines to hack legally; this includes receiving approval from the organization to imitate real-world cyberattacks. Some typical tasks and responsibilities for an ethical hacker include: 

  • Executing system assessment to determine how someone may hack an organization’s system 

  • Using penetration-testing methods to showcase how hackers may launch a cyberattack

  • Reporting any security breaches that are discovered 

  • Ensuring that discoveries are confidential between the client or company

  • Examining an organization’s technology infrastructure, like its operating system and networks, for any weakness 

Necessary skills for ethical hackers

To be an ethical hacker, you’ll need high ethical standards. This is what separates ethical hackers from people who illegally hack into systems. In this role, you'll be using many of the same skills as a criminal hacker and have access to sensitive data. Your character and ethics are essential. Other skills include a mix of technical and workplace skills, such as:

  • Strong knowledge of basic hardware and database management

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills

  • A good understanding of the phases of ethical hacking

  • Research skills to help you stay abreast of the latest threats

  • Performing network traffic analysis

  • Scanning ports for vulnerabilities

  • Analyzing patch installation processes

  • Trying to evade intrusion prevention and detection systems

  • Programming skills, including essential languages like JavaScript, PHP, SQL, and Python

  • Social engineering skills, which help you better understand how some attacks are started

Read more: What Is Ethical Hacking?

Salary and job outlook

According to Glassdoor, the estimated total pay for an ethical hacker in the US is $134,403 annually [1]. This figure includes an average base salary of $109,264 and $25,139 in additional pay. Additional pay may represent profit-sharing, commissions, or bonuses. Keep in mind that factors that influence your earning potential include geographic location, years of experience, the industry you work in, and the types of certifications you have. 

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that ethical hacking-related jobs, such as information security analysts, are in high demand. The field will grow by 32 percent from 2022 to 2032, a rate that's significantly faster than the average growth rate of 8 percent [2]. The growth rate represents about 16,800 new job openings annually over the decade. 

Job opportunities for ethical hackers

In this ever-evolving digital world, you’ll quickly see that there’s opportunity for cybersecurity professionals in almost every industry. 

As an ethical hacker, you might work in a private, public, or government organization as an employee or in a consulting role. You might find it as a standalone position, or it may be one facet of what you’ll do as part of another cybersecurity-related role. Some common roles may include: 

  • Penetration tester: As a penetration tester, you’ll perform simulated cyberattacks on an organization’s network and computer systems to identify weak areas before cybercriminals can exploit them. 

  • Information security analyst: In this role, you'll use ethical hacking to pinpoint weaknesses and vulnerabilities. You’ll also work in a broader capacity by performing compliance control testing, developing training programs, and implementing security practices.

  • Security engineer: As a security engineer, you'll not only perform ethical hacking but also plan and execute upgrades to the network, test new security features, and respond to security incidents.

4 steps to become an ethical hacker

Relevant education and experience help build a rewarding career while inspiring trust among potential employers. Although there’s no single path to become an ethical hacker, these are four steps to launch your career. 

1. Develop a strong foundation and consider a degree.  

Due to the sensitive nature of this position, you need to have a strong background in information technology. Many employers look for ethical hackers who hold a bachelor's degree in computer science, cybersecurity, or a related IT field. Typically a degree’s coursework is a good opportunity to gain hands-on experience in the field, particularly if you find a program that includes lab time working with hacking tools as part of the curriculum. 

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Read more: 4 Ethical Hacking Certifications to Boost Your Career

Common courses

As an ethical hacker, your main objective is to look at the network or system’s security. You'll need sharp hacking skills and a thorough understanding of networks, firewalls, coding, operating systems, and more. Common areas of focus that can help you build those skills include:

  • Hacking and patching 

  • Programming languages

  • Computer engineering

  • Penetration testing

  • Technical writing and legal issues in technology

  • Ethics

  • Cyber incident response

  • Business management

  • Information security

  • Fundamentals of security analysis

Read more: Cybersecurity Terms: A to Z Glossary

What are the alternatives to getting a degree?

Online learning platform Springboard notes that college degrees may sometimes struggle to keep up with the skills demand for cybersecurity professionals. A cybersecurity bootcamp certification may qualify you for entry-level work experience. 


2. Gain relevant experience.

As you begin your job search, you may find that junior-level ethical hacking roles require years of experience. You can gain experience in related entry-level positions like IT technician, systems administrator, or junior penetration tester. Another way to gain experience on your resume would be to develop your own projects, enter competitions, and volunteer.

Once you have relevant experience, apply to ethical hacking roles you’re qualified for. As an ethical hacker, you'll be expected to test systems, networks, and programs for vulnerabilities and update and maintain security programs. 

3.  Stay updated on information security trends.

Ethical hacking and cybersecurity are fast-paced, rapidly-evolving industries. Criminal hacking evolves just as quickly, which is why it's essential to stay on top of the latest and emerging threats. Once you’re working in the field, you’ll have to continue staying abreast of hackers’ techniques, cybersecurity threats, and other relevant issues. 

Read more: 10 Common Types of Cyberattacks and How to Prevent Them

4. Obtain certification.

According to Indeed, certifications will help place you among the most sought-after tech professionals in the job market. It may also lead to new opportunities for high-ranking and paying jobs in private IT sectors and the government. Here are some certifications to consider: 

  • Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) is offered by the EC-Council and helps learners gain hands-on experience with cybersecurity techniques. You’ll need to renew it every three years and complete a minimum of 120 hours of continuing education.

  •  Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) is offered by OffSec and introduces penetration testing and white-hate hacking techniques and tools. You’ll gain knowledge about the latest hacking tools from industry professionals. This program is recommended for information security professionals. 

  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) is offered by ISC2 and is ideal for experienced cybersecurity professionals. Gaining this certification validates your cybersecurity skills to potential employers. This certification covers topics like asset security, security management, network security, and more. You’ll need five or more years of relevant work experience to qualify for this exam.

Read more: 10 Popular Cybersecurity Certifications 

What are the benefits of getting certified? 

Obtaining a certification helps prove to potential employers that you've got the skills to think like criminal hackers and defend networks and systems against different cyberattacks. It may boost your resume, increase your earning potential, and give you professional recognition. 


Read more: 4 Ethical Hacking Certifications to Boost Your Career

Private sector vs. government jobs

In both realms, you'll be working to prevent malicious hackers from accessing systems and networks, disrupting them, or stealing data and sensitive information. If you're working in the private sector, you'll have an active role in inspiring trust to a company’s stakeholders and customers by protecting company assets, like their data and other sensitive information. 

If you're working for the government, your work may include protecting citizens' sensitive information and defending national security by safeguarding data and information.

Get started

Take the next step toward a career in cybersecurity by enrolling in the Google Cybersecurity Professional Certificate on Coursera. This certificate is your gateway to exploring job titles like security analyst SOC (security operations center) analyst, and more. Upon completion, you’ll have exclusive access to a job platform with over 150 employees hiring for entry-level cybersecurity roles and other resources that will support you in your job search.

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