4 Ethical Hacking Certifications to Boost Your Career

Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 6, 2021

The right certification could be the key to advancing your career in offensive security.

A man in a white sweater and headphones sits at his laptop preparing for an ethical hacking certification exam. A cup of coffee sits next to him on the table.

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 salary data represents average base salary in the US as of October 2021 (PayScale).

1. Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)

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

Salary: $82,966

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.

2. GIAC Penetration Tester (GPEN)

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.

Cost: $2,499

Salary: $103,000

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

3. CompTIA PenTest+

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.

Cost: $370

Salary: $87,737 (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

What’s new? 

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.  


4. Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP)

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

Salary: $95,000

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.

Roles that might request or require an ethical hacker certification

Cybersecurity Ventures predicts that there will be 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs around the globe by 2021. The unemployment rate in the industry has been nearly zero percent since 2016 [1]. As demand increases for cybersecurity professionals, so too 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:

  • Ethical hacker

  • Penetration tester

  • Red team 

  • Malware analyst

  • Code auditor

Get started in cybersecurity

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. Build skills in virtual lab environments as you earn a credential for your resume. 

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

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Article sources

1. Cybercrime Magazine. "Cybersecurity Talent Crunch To Create 3.5 Million Unfilled Jobs Globally By 2021, https://cybersecurityventures.com/jobs/." Accessed October 6, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 6, 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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