Ethical hackers play the role of an intruder by attempting to gain access to a computer system or network, application, or data. They do this legally and with authorization from the company as a way to identify vulnerabilities. Working in this field means you need to think like a hacker and use your best offensive cybersecurity skills to help improve the security of your company.
If you’re interested in a career as an ethical hacker, you might consider earning a certification as a way to:
Build new offensive security skills
Validate your skills to potential employers
Enhance your resume
Qualify for new job opportunities
Boost your confidence on the job
In this article, we’ll outline four popular certification options for ethical hackers (or aspiring ethical hackers). Learn more about what to expect from each certification exam, and get tips for how to prepare yourself for success.
These four well-respected cybersecurity certifications are particularly relevant for careers in ethical hacking, penetration testing, and other areas of offensive cybersecurity.
** All average base salary data sourced from Payscale as of September 2022.
This ethical hacking certification from the EC-Council ranks among the top cybersecurity certifications companies are hiring for, appearing in nearly 10,000 job search results. The CEH is designed to help you think like a hacker and build skills in penetration testing and attack vectors, detection, and prevention.
Requirements: To qualify for the CEH exam, you need two years of work experience in information security. You can waive this requirement by completing an official EC-Council training.
Cost: $950 to $1,199 depending on testing location
Tip for passing the exam: The EC-Council offers a free CEH Exam Blueprint which outlines the topics covered in the multiple-choice test. Previous test takers have reported success using the practice exams from Boson to get a feel for what the actual test questions are like.
If you’re interested in penetration testing, a task within the umbrella of ethical hacking, then the GPEN certification could be a good fit. Earning your GPEN demonstrates your ability to perform penetration tests with the latest techniques and methodologies. Topics covered include test planning, scoping, and recon; scanning and exploitation; password attacks; and web application pen testing.
Requirements: There are no prerequisites for taking the GPEN exam.
Tip for passing the exam: Take advantage of the two practice tests included when you register for the exam. These tests are designed to simulate the actual exam environment. This can help you know what to expect and assess areas that might need more study.
Read more: How to Become a Penetration Tester
The PenTest+ exam from CompTIA is unique in that it features both multiple-choice and performance-based questions (questions that test your ability to solve problems in a simulated environment). The exam covers your ability to perform penetration tests in a variety of situations, including cloud, hybrid, web application, onsite, and internet of things (IoT) environments.
Requirements: There are no required prerequisites, but CompTIA recommends that you have three to four years of information security experience, and that you’ve mastered the materials covered in the Network+ and Security+ exams.
Salary: $88,206 (for penetration tester)
Tip for passing the exam: The PenTest+ exam tests your knowledge in different ways, so it’s a good idea to prepare using a variety of different study resources. Here’s a few resources that come recommended by previous test takers:
Dr. Michael Solomon’s CompTIA PenTest+ video training
CompTIA PenTest+ Study Guide by Mike Chapple and David Seidl
CompTIA PenTest+ Practice Tests by Crystal Panek and Robb Tracy
CompTIA is launching a new version of their PenTest+ exam on October 27, 2021. In the latest version (PT0-002), a new Tools and Code Analysis domain will replace the Penetration Testing Tools domain, and the Reporting and Communication domain will be weighted more heavily than in the previous exam. Be sure to check that your study materials reflect the version of the exam you’re registered for.
Another highly sought-after certification for pen testers, ethical hackers, and other offensive-minded security pros, the OSCP tests your ability to breach a series of target machines and produce detailed reports for each attack.
Requirements: There are no formal requirements to sit the exam, though Offensive Security recommends that you be familiar with networking, bash scripting, Perl or Python, and Linux. You may also consider taking the Penetration Testing with Kali course prior to taking the exam.
Cost: From $999
Tip for passing the exam: Practice taking technical notes as you work through boxes or challenges during your preparation. Organize your notes with a table of contents so you can quickly access what you need on test day if you encounter a challenge that looks familiar. It’s also a good idea to prepare a report template for exploits ahead of the exam.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that information security analysts are projected to grow 35 percent in this decade, much faster than the 8 percents average across all occupations . As demand increases for cybersecurity professionals, so does the demand for specialized skills like those needed for ethical hacking.
Some of the job roles that often request or require these ethical hacking certifications include:
If you’re just getting started in cybersecurity, or if you’re curious whether a career in cybersecurity could be a good fit for you, start learning from top industry experts with the IBM Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate and the Google IT Support Professional Certificate. Build skills in virtual lab environments as you earn a credential for your resume.
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Ethical hackers help organizations improve their security by breaching computer systems and networks to find vulnerabilities before cybercriminals exploit them.
Working as an ethical hacker can mean abundant job opportunities and high salaries with the right skill set. It’s also a role where you can constantly challenge yourself and develop new skills. Knowing that your work keeps people’s data secure can be rewarding in its own way.
Ethical hackers in the US make an average total salary of $105,298, according to October 2022 data from Glassdoor.
As the cost and severity of cyber attacks continue to rise, so too does the demand for cybersecurity professionals with the skills to help defend organizations. This includes ethical hackers. In fact, both the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) and Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) certifications rank among the 10 cybersecurity certifications that appear most frequently on job descriptions.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Outlook Handbook: Information Security Analysts, https://stats.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/information-security-analysts.htm.” Accessed September 21, 2022.
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.