Penetration Tester: 2024 Career Guide

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Penetration testers play a key role in cybersecurity. Read about the common tasks associated with the job and tips to help get you started in your career.

[Featured image] A penetration tester works on a laptop computer at a desk.

Penetration testers, or pen testers for short, perform simulated cyber attacks on a company’s computer systems and networks. These authorised tests help identify security vulnerabilities and weaknesses before malicious hackers can exploit them.

A career as a pen tester often starts with an entry-level cybersecurity position. In this article, we’ll go into more detail about what penetration testers do, why this in-demand cybersecurity career could be a good fit for you, and how to get started.

What does a penetration tester do?

Penetration testers take a proactive, offensive role in cybersecurity by performing attacks on a company’s existing digital systems. These tests might use various hacking tools and techniques to find gaps hackers could exploit. Throughout the process, you’ll document your actions and create a report on what you did and how successfully you breached security protocols.  

Penetration tester tasks and responsibilities

The day-to-day tasks of a pen tester will vary depending on the organisation. Here are some common tasks and responsibilities you may encounter in this role:

  • Perform tests on applications, network devices, and cloud infrastructures

  • Design and conduct simulated social engineering attacks

  • Research and experiment with different types of attacks

  • Develop methodologies for penetration testing

  • Review code for security vulnerabilities

  • Reverse engineer malware or spam

  • Document security and compliance issues

  • Automate common testing techniques to improve efficiency

  • Write technical and executive reports

  • Communicate findings to both technical staff and executive leadership

  • Validate security improvements with additional testing

Where do penetration testers work?

Penetration testers typically work in one of three environments.

  • In-house: As an in-house penetration tester, you work directly for a company or organisation. This typically lets you know the company’s security protocols well. You may also have more input into new security features and fixes.

  • Security firm: Some organisations hire an outside security firm to conduct penetration testing. Working for a security firm offers greater variety in the tests you’ll get to design and perform. 

  • Freelance: Some penetration testers choose to work as freelancers. Choosing this path can give you greater flexibility in your schedule, but you may need to spend more time looking for clients early in your career.

Penetration testing vs. ethical hacking

The terms penetration testing and ethical hacking are sometimes used interchangeably in cybersecurity, but they have slightly different meanings. Penetration testing focuses on locating security issues in specific information systems without causing damage. Ethical hacking is a broader umbrella term that includes a wider range of hacking methods. You can think of penetration testing as one facet of ethical hacking. The roles overlap with a cybersecurity Red Team—the group that gives security feedback from the adversary's perspective.


How to become a penetration tester

As a penetration tester, you can earn a paycheck by legally hacking into security systems. It can be a fast-paced, exciting job if you’re interested in cybersecurity and problem-solving. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at the steps you might take to get your first job as a penetration tester.

1. Develop penetration testing skills.

Penetration testers need a solid understanding of information technology (IT) and security systems to test them for vulnerabilities. Skills you might find in a pen tester job description include:

  • Network and application security

  • Programming languages, especially for scripting (Python, BASH, Java, Ruby, Perl)

  • Threat modelling

  • Linux, Windows, and MacOS environments

  • Security assessment tools

  • Pentest management platforms

  • Technical writing and documentation

  • Cryptography

  • Cloud architecture

  • Remote access technologies

Popular penetration tester tools

Today’s penetration testers have various tools to help make their jobs faster and more efficient. If you’re interested in becoming a pen tester, it can help to gain familiarity with one or more of these tools.

*Kali Linux: Popular pen-testing operating system

*Nmap: Port scanner for network discovery

*Wireshark: Packet sniffer to analyse traffic on your network

*John the Ripper: Open-source password cracker

*Burp Suite: Application security testing tools

*Nessus: Vulnerability assessment tool

*OWASP ZAP Proxy: Web application security scanner

Get hands-on experience with some of these tools in two hours or less with a Guided Project on Coursera. Start with Wireshark for Basic Network Security Analysis or Web Application Security Testing with OWASP ZAP.


2. Enroll in a course or training program.

Enrolling in a specialised course or training programme is one of the best ways to start developing the skills you’ll need as a penetration tester. With these programs, you can learn in a more structured environment whilst building multiple skills. 

If you’re new to cybersecurity, consider an option like the Google Cybersecurity Professional Certificate. The whole programme is online and self-paced, so you can learn job-ready skills whilst working or managing life’s other responsibilities.

Do I need a degree to become a penetration tester?

Whilst having a degree in computer science, IT, or cybersecurity is helpful, not all penetration testing jobs require a degree. Typically, your level of experience and ability to complete the task matter more than what degree (if any) you have. If you’re starting in cybersecurity without a related degree, it might be helpful to pursue a certification to validate your skills.

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3. Get certified.

Cybersecurity certifications demonstrate to recruiters and hiring managers that you have the skills to succeed in the industry. In addition to general cybersecurity certifications, you can also get certified in penetration testing or ethical hacking. Reputable certifications to consider include:

  • Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)

  • CompTIA PenTest+

  • GIAC Penetration Tester (GPEN)

  • GIAC Web Application Penetration Tester (GWAPT)

  • Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP)

  • Certified Penetration Tester (CPT)

Earning one of these certifications generally requires passing an exam. Besides earning a credential for your CV, preparing for a certification exam can also help you develop your skill set.

4. Practise in real and simulated environments.

Many companies want to hire penetration testers with previous experience. Luckily, there are ways to start gaining experience outside of the workplace. Many pen testing training programmes include hands-on testing in simulated environments.

Another way to gain experience and make your CV stand out is to participate in bug bounty programs. In these programs, companies typically offer cash bonuses to independent pen testers and security researchers who find and report security flaws or bugs in their code. It’s an excellent way to test your skills and start networking with other security professionals. You can find a list of bounties on sites like Bugcrowd and HackerOne

Finally, you’ll find several websites designed to allow penetration testers to practice and experiment through fun, gamified experiences legally. Here are a few to get you started:

5. Start in an entry-level IT position.

Many penetration testers start in more entry-level IT and cybersecurity roles before advancing into pen testing. If you want to pursue a career in pen testing, consider starting in a role like network or systems administrator or information security analyst to build your IT skills.

6. Begin your job search.

When you’re ready to begin applying for pen tester jobs, extend your search beyond the usual job sites. Whilst LinkedIn, Indeed, and Naukri are excellent resources, you should also scan specialised cybersecurity job boards, like Dice and

Why pursue a career in penetration testing?

A career as a pen tester allows you to apply your hacking skills for the greater good by helping organisations protect themselves from cyber criminals. It’s also an in-demand, high-paying career path.

Penetration tester salary

Penetration testers in India make an average base salary of ₹6,68,511, according to Glassdoor [1]. Your salary depends on various factors, including location, experience, education, and certifications. Some industries, like financial services and military contracting, tend to pay higher salaries than others.

Job outlook

Cybersecurity roles are in high demand, and the role of penetration tester can be across sectors including financial services, health care and government, and IT, meaning there are plenty of options for employment. 

Career path for penetration testers

As you gain experience as a penetration tester, you may advance to lead a pen testing team. Some penetration testers become information security managers and may even move into executive roles.

Start your career in cybersecurity

Start building job-ready skills in cybersecurity with the Google Cybersecurity Professional Certificate on Coursera. Learn from top industry experts and earn a credential for your CV in less than six months. 

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Article sources

  1. Glassdoor. “Penetration Tester Salaries,,18.htm.” Accessed 25th August 2023.

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