Pen tester certifications demonstrate your expertise and elevate your resume. Discover the benefits and various types of pen tester certifications to decide what’s best for you.
Whether you’re already working as a pen tester and looking to advance your career or just getting started, getting certified can help you stand out to employers as an expert in your field. Before pursuing certification, it can help to learn about the types of certificates available and the requirements for pen tester certifications first. You can use the guide below to help you choose the options that best suit your level of expertise and experience.
Pen testing is short for penetration testing. It's 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 similar to the role QA testing plays in the software development life cycle.
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.
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.
There are three main pen testing approaches:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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: 2023 Career Guide
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, your job falls under the umbrella of ethical hacking. You’ll play an essential and sensitive role for the companies and organizations you work for.
A pen tester certification is not always required. However, certain employers may prefer candidates who have them. They can also be an excellent way to demonstrate your skills in specialized areas or with certain technologies.
The requirements for a pen tester certification vary but can often be broken down into three levels: entry-level, intermediate or mid-level, and advanced or expert-level. 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.
Many 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.
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+. This certification is a great match for those considering working with the government since it's in compliance with the US Department of Defense requirements.
There are no experience requirements or other prerequisites to take this exam. However, CompTIA recommends at least three years of working experience in information security. If you have little hands-on knowledge, you'll need to prepare vigorously for this test. It focuses heavily on in-depth, hands-on technical know-how.
Entry-level pen testing certification: 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-level pen testing certification: 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 Internet of Things (IoT) and Operational Technology (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-level pen testing certification: 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.
Entry-level pen testing certification: 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-level pen testing certification: 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-level pen testing certification: 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.
Intermediate-level pen testing certification: 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-level pen testing certification: 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.
Entry-level pen testing certification: 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-level pen testing certification: 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-level pen testing certification: 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.
Not sure what certification is best for you? One of the most effective ways to choose is to look at job listings to get a feel for what hiring companies are looking for.
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:
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+ global members work as chief security officers, technology officers, systems engineers, and network administrators.
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 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.
Because this is a mid-to-high-level role in cybersecurity, gaining practical experience will be a vital part of your career path. If you're a student or transitioning out of a related role, you might begin with an entry-level job in IT auditing, systems engineering, or networking, for example. Here are a few essential workplace and technical skills for pen testers to master:
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
Desire to stay current with pen testing strategies, risks, and technologies
Strong written and verbal communication skills
Ability to collaborate with other team members
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 . There is a need for pen testers in various fields, including technology, finance, and health care. Nearly any business is a potential target for hackers and cybercriminals.
If you're new to the field, you might consider taking an introductory course like IBM's Penetration Testing, Incident Response, and Forensics. Or, build your knowledge in a specialized area with the Secure Coding Practice Specialization offered by the University of California's UC Davis on Coursera.
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US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Information Security Analysts: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/information-security-analysts.htm.” Accessed January 13, 2023.
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.