What is Pen Tester Certification? Types, Requirements, Jobs

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Pen tester certifications demonstrate your expertise. Discover the many benefits and various types of pen tester certifications to decide what’s best for you.

[Featured image] Cybersecurity Penetration Tester checks data on a computer monitor

Pen tester certifications demonstrate your proficiency and knowledge of penetration testing. This critical cybersecurity function helps keep networks, systems, websites, and applications safer from breaches and hacking by finding vulnerable areas. As a pen tester, a job under the umbrella of ethical hacking, you’ll play an essential and sensitive role for the companies and organizations you work for. 

Given the sheer volume of data created across every industry, it’s not surprising that the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates jobs like pen testers to grow by an average of 35 percent between 2021 and 2031 [1]. Statista expects the yearly data created will surpass 180 zettabytes by 2025, up from an estimated 97 zettabytes in 2022 [2]. There is a need for pen testers in various fields, including technology, finance, and health care—but nearly any business is a potential target for hackers and cybercriminals. 

Whether you’re already working as a pen tester and looking to advance your career or just getting started, getting certified can be helpful. Those credentials can help you stand out as an expert. Before pursuing certification, it helps to learn about the types of certificates available and the requirements for pen tester certifications to choose the options that best meet your level of expertise and experience. 

What exactly is pen/penetration testing?

Penetration testing is a type of ethical hacking involving simulating cyberattacks intentionally using various tools and methods. By pinpointing how cybercriminals could exploit the system, network, or application you're testing, you’ll be able to help the company you're working for strengthen weak areas before an attack happens. 

It’s kind of like playing offense in the fight against breaches. While firewalls and antivirus software can help defend systems, thinking like a hacker can put the entire infrastructure through a vigorous test. As a pen tester, you'll safely attack servers, apps, mobile devices, networks, and any other potential entry points or points of exposure. If you can compromise the system, you might try using that to launch additional attacks on internal assets. This allows you to gauge how deep the potential access goes while identifying all possible weak spots.

While there are various tools and methods, you'll commonly take one or more of three pen-testing approaches. They include: 

  • Black box pen testing: This closely simulates an authentic attack. You'll get minimal information about the system you're targeting. This helps you identify spots that are vulnerable to external attacks.

  • Gray box pen testing: This approach provides a focused assessment by giving you the knowledge and access that most users would have. This allows you to efficiently assess the asset's security and focus more on the systems that hold the greatest value from the beginning of the test. It more closely simulates an attack from someone with long-term asset access.

  • White box pen testing: In this approach, you'll have full access from the beginning to the asset's source code. This allows you to run a comprehensive test and in-depth security assessments. It also provides access to all areas, including code quality, something black box testing can't provide. White box approaches require the most time since you’ll look at large volumes of data, including source code, to evaluate internal and external weaknesses.

Read more: How to Become a Penetration Tester: 2022 Career Guide

Why is penetration testing important?

Penetration testing helps prevent attacks before they happen. Research conducted by Positive Technologies in late 2020 and early 2021 showed that external attackers could breach the local networks of companies in 93% of its pen testing projects [3]. Another study found that 98 percent of the web applications it studied could be vulnerable to cybercriminals' attacks, malware, and data theft [4]. 

These numbers underscore the importance of pen testing. Cybercrime is estimated to cost $10.5 trillion worldwide by 2025, a $4.5 trillion increase from 2021 costs, according to Cybersecurity Ventures [5].

How do pen testers make a difference? In this role, you’ll help an organization gauge the effectiveness of its security policies and procedures. You’ll also help teach its employees and leaders how to cope with a breach if it happens. In addition to pinpointing security risks, you'll also help with the following:

  • Determining the effectiveness of existing security measures

  • Help strengthen weaknesses for more effective risk management

  • Ensure that the organization meets all relevant regulations and compliance requirements regarding data protection

  • Provide proactive measures to defend against security breaches as part of a comprehensive group of security solutions

Pen tests vs vulnerability scans: What’s the difference?

At first glance, you might think that pen tests and vulnerability scans are the same things, but vulnerability scans use automated tools to look for possible weaknesses in security. Pen tests actively exploit those weaknesses to determine how deeply a cybercriminal could access the tested asset.

Think of it in terms of physical security at a home or business. Vulnerability scans are like the automated alarm system that checks to ensure all windows and doors are closed and locked. Pen testing is like the actual burglar who finds an unlocked entrance, opens it, walks through, and keeps going to see how far they can get before something stops their progress.

Classification levels for pen testing certifications

You might consider many different pen tester certifications depending on your area of expertise and experience. The requirements for pen tester certification vary but can often be broken down into three levels: Entry, intermediate, and expert. 

Entry-level certifications often cover the basics of information security, including conducting vulnerability scans, taking the lead on in-depth vulnerability assessments, and finding security flaws. Intermediate certificates require a bit more knowledge and experience but don’t have requirements that are as extensive as those for getting certified at the expert or advanced level. 

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Penetration testing certifications to consider

Some leading pen testing certifications come from professional organizations like CompTIA, the International Council of E-Commerce Consultants (EC-Council), Offensive Security, Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC), and InfoSec Institute. To choose the certification that’s best for you, look at the amount of training and experience required, the requirements for maintaining that certification, and how the industry views the organization issuing the credential. A few of the certificates to consider are the following: 

Comp TIA

CompTIA is considered among the newer organizations offering pen testing certifications. Still, it has a solid reputation throughout the information security and IT industry for its credentials, including its intermediate-level CompTIA PenTest+. 

There aren't any experience requirements or other prerequisites to take this exam, but CompTIA does recommend having at least three years of working in information security. If you don't have much hands-on knowledge, you'll need to take significant time preparing for the test because it's heavy on in-depth, hands-on technical know-how. In addition to being valuable to all pen testers, this certification is also good if you're considering working with or for the government since it complies with the US Department of Defense requirements.

EC-Council

  • Entry: EC-Council lists its Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) credential as a core offering. You'll take a five-day training course and need to pass a six-hour test. The process is designed to challenge your ability to use ethical hacking techniques like network scanning, hacking systems, and conducting vulnerability analyses to solve security challenges across different networks and operating systems.

  • Intermediate: The next level credential you might consider getting is the Certified Penetration Testing Professional (CPENT). The training program is designed to teach you about performing pen tests for enterprise networks, using a live practice range and instruction on how to pen test for IoT and OT systems, customizing scripts, building your own tools, and more. The hands-on exam is online and presents you with rigorous challenges to test your knowledge, skills, and ability to focus.

  • Expert: The Licensed Penetration Tester (LPT) credential is a master-level credential. You get LPT certification if you score 90 percent or better on the CPENT exam. Scores of this level or better differentiate your ability to test even well-protected systems. You'll come up against networks with multiple layers and in-depth defenses while working under pressure and using advanced techniques.

Offensive Security 

  • Entry: The Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) credential can help you break into pen testing. You'll need to have a good foundation in administration in Linux and Windows, scripting with bash or Pythons, and TCP/IP networking. You also will be required to take Penetration Testing with Kali Linux, one of the organization's PEN-200 courses. This test is a practical lab that you complete over 24 hours.

  • Intermediate: Offensive Security also offers a more advanced credential, the Offense Security Experienced Penetration tester (OSEP), which requires taking the Evasion Techniques and Breaching Defenses course and passing the 48-hour practical lab exam.

  • Expert: The Offensive Security Certified Expert (OSCE) is an advanced-level credential that you might consider after getting the OSCP credential and spending more time gaining experience in the field. You must take the exam within 48 hours. You'll conduct a penetration test of the organization's isolated exam network, which has different operating systems and configurations. The test’s design demonstrates your expertise and ability to work well in a stressful environment.

GIAC

  • Intermediate: The GIAC Certified Penetration Tester (GPEN) credential doesn’t have any prerequisites, but it does require you to have knowledge of Windows and Linux, a good understanding of TCP/IP protocols, and a solid understanding of concepts like password attacks, Metasploit, and scanning for targets. The test is designed to demonstrate your skills in conducting pen testing, including planning and recon, scanning, escalation, and pivoting. 

  • Expert: GIAC’s  Exploit Researcher and Advanced Penetration Tester (GXPN) credentials are for advanced pen testers. The exam will test your ability in various areas, including getting around network access controls, using and developing advanced fuzzing techniques, exploiting cryptographic weaknesses, exploiting networks, and writing shellcodes.

InfoSec Institute

  • Entry: Gaining the Certified Penetration Tester (CPT) credential can help you start your career in pen testing. It's designed to demonstrate your knowledge and abilities to use pen testing practices and methods. The exam consists of multiple-choice and hands-on exams that require you to overcome three challenges.

  • Intermediate: To qualify for the digitally-focused Certified Mobile and Web Application Penetration Tester (CMWAPT) credential, you’ll need a Security+ certification or equivalent. You’ll also need a good understanding of pen testing concepts, including pen testing methodologies for web and mobile applications and principles of secure coding. 

  • Expert: You'll need advanced expertise and pen testing skills for the Certified Expert Penetration Tester (CEPT) credential. The exam is designed to showcase your mastery in various areas, including pen testing methodologies, reverse engineering, writing shellcode for both Unix and Linux, and exploit creation for Windows, Linux, and Unix.

Choosing a pen testing certification

Not sure what certification is best for you? Various methods can guide your decision about the pen testing certification you pursue. One of the most effective ways to choose is to speak with a professional who works in a similar role to learn more about the certifications that helped them along the way or the types of credentials they look for if they're hiring. You can also look at job listings to get a feel for what hiring companies are looking for. 

Enrolling in penetration testing courses and bootcamps can help boost your knowledge and propel you forward. Ultimately, you’ll want to choose appropriate certifications for your level of experience and goals.

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How to get jobs involving penetration testing

Before diving into the path to becoming a pen tester, it’s essential to do a little self-reflection. It can be a challenging and rewarding career. Still, it requires a lot of focus, determination, high-level problem-solving skills, and a commitment to continuous education to stay on top of trends. If you’ve assessed your career goals and your self-assessment reveals that this is a career aligned with your interests and strengths, getting an education and practical experience can help you on your path.

Meet educational requirements

In the past, a degree wasn't necessary to work in this field. However, today's employers strongly prefer hiring pen testers and other ethical hackers with computer science, information technology, computer engineering, or cybersecurity degrees. An associate degree may be sufficient to gain entry-level employment. Still, roughly 66 percent of jobs require candidates to have a bachelor's degree, with another 25 percent requiring a master’s, according to Cyberseek [6].

Gain practical knowledge and skills required for pen testing

Because this is a mid-to-high-level role in cybersecurity, gaining practical experience will be a vital part of your career path. Many students start getting hands-on experience in internships during their schooling. Additionally, you might seek an entry-level job in IT auditing, systems engineering, or networking, for example. During your education and early work experience, you’ll be building the skills and expertise you’ll need for a role in pen testing. This includes:

Technical skills

  • Familiarity with pen testing tools like Kali Linux, nmap, Metaspoit, and John the Ripper

  • Ability to use various computer languages, including Bash, Python, and Powershell

  • Advanced expertise in exploits and vulnerabilities

  • Deep understanding of various operating systems, including Windows, Linux, and Unix

  • Comprehensive knowledge of network protocols, including ARP, DNS, and TCP/IP

Workplace skills

  • Desire to continually learn: Just as cybercriminals' strategies continue evolving, so will your strategies as a pen tester.

  • Strong written and verbal communication: You'll be required to convey what you've found to clients and supervisors and must also be able to do so for non-technological people.

  • Ability to work as part of a team: As you start your career, you’ll be working with others as part of a more prominent cybersecurity or information security team.

Professional organizations for pen testers

As a pen tester, having a solid network can be helpful throughout your career. For example, joining a professional organization like Information Systems Security Association (ISSA) can provide valuable resources that can help connect you with training, workshops, and career centers. Professional organizations can also provide information and training for some leading certifications. Additional examples include: 

(ISC)2

This nonprofit association helps its members stay current on the constantly evolving security landscape with its Professional Development Institute, networking options, collaboration opportunities, and certification programs. Some 168,000+m global members work as chief security officers, technology officers, systems engineers, and network administrators.

CompTIA

CompTIA is a diverse organization that advocates for the entire information technology ecosystem, including the professionals who design, deploy, manage, and secure its technology. This vendor-neutral organization offers certifications, training, market research, and education.

ISACA

ISACA members have access to an extensive network of resources, including its 165,000+ global members, including various IT professionals ranging from security pros to IT auditors to executives. In addition to professional credentialing, members also have opportunities for professional development like online training, continuing education, and conferences throughout the year.

Similar specializations and career paths to pen testers 

Many consider pen testers to be the front line of cybersecurity. While there are a lot of specialized skills involved, there are a variety of related career paths that pen testing certifications can also help you pursue. A few examples include the following:

  • Information security analyst: In this role, you will protect organizations from security breaches by monitoring the security of their networks, databases, and systems in addition to collaborating with others in addition to training others to manage security risks. According to the BLS, the median annual pay is $102,600 [7].

  • Security software developer: As a security software developer, you'll revise existing applications, make necessary upgrades, and work with other members of development teams to build applications and create security technologies. According to Glassdoor, the average annual pay for this role is $71,295 [8]. 

  • Security architect: As a security architect, you'll design the infrastructure that helps protect computer systems from security breaches. You'll also commonly test systems for vulnerabilities, plan security measures, and conduct security assessments. Glassdoor indicates the average annual pay is $172,666 [9].

  • Chief information security officer: In this leadership role, you'll oversee the technology programs, infrastructure, and policies of the organization you work for. You'll lead teams, create budgets, and make all critical decisions in choosing providers and implementing systems, including security systems. The average annual pay is $254,585, according to Glassdoor [10].

  • Security engineer: As a security engineer, you'll design, create, and deploy the systems and tools used to enhance information security, devices, and systems. According to Glassdoor the average annual pay for security engineers is $129,412 [11].

Ready to enhance your tech skills with a pen tester course?

Before pursuing pen testing certification, it helps to build your skill set and develop your knowledge base with courses designed to give you some practical skills to see if it’s a good match. Online courses and training are an effective way to learn about the stages of pen testing, methodologies, techniques, tools, and industry standards. 

For example, if you have no prior experience, you might consider taking a course like IBM's Penetration Testing, Incident Response, and Forensics to learn the basics. With intermediate options like the Secure Coding Practice Specialization offered by the University of California's UC Davis on Coursera.

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Article sources

1

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Information Security Analysts: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/information-security-analysts.htm.” Access October 25, 2022.

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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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