How to Become a Cryptographer
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Cryptographers create and decipher codes and encryptions that keep data and communications secure. As cyberattacks increase each year, cryptographers can expect a favorable job outlook and higher-than-average salaries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 13% growth rate (faster than average) for all computer and information technology (IT) jobs between 2020 and 2030.
The military, government agencies, and health and financial organizations need professionals to keep their sensitive data secure. Cryptographers typically need extensive IT experience and at least a bachelor's. However, many employers prefer cryptographers with a master's degree in a field like cybersecurity or computer science.
This page explores how to become a cryptographer. We explain what a cryptographer does, education and experience requirements, and different paths to this career.
What Is a Cryptographer?
Cryptographers — sometimes called cryptologists — are specialized cybersecurity professionals who help ensure sensitive information stays private. They encrypt data with algorithms and ciphers to prevent unauthorized access. In other cases, they may crack encryption codes.
Cryptologists make it safer to conduct business online, including paying for goods and services, sending emails, and storing medical records. The defense industry, healthcare organizations, tech companies, and financial institutions depend on cryptologists to keep their confidential information secure. The military particularly needs cryptographers to make sure national security information does not leak.
Cryptologists often work on teams of cybersecurity and information technology professionals. Typical job responsibilities for a cryptographer include developing ciphers and algorithms, identifying and mitigating potential risks, and communicating technical information to people outside of the profession.
Education Requirements for Cryptographers
At minimum, cryptographers need a bachelor's degree in a field like cybersecurity, information technology, computer science, or computer engineering. These programs cover fundamental theories of computing, advanced mathematics, and computer programming languages. Students in these programs can gain the skills to work with encryption.
Most cryptography job listings require at least a bachelor's degree, but many employers prefer job applicants with a graduate degree. A typical master's program takes about two full-time years to complete and develops advanced expertise and technical skills.
A master's can help graduates stand out from applicants who hold only bachelor's degrees. Completing graduate-level education can offer benefits like higher earning potential and qualification for advanced positions, including managerial roles. In some cases, professional experience and certifications can substitute for education, or vice versa.
Although there are no formal continuing education requirements for cryptography, professionals in tech should stay current with new technology developments to understand evolving best practices. Cryptographers may also need to teach themselves new computer programming languages as their responsibilities change.
Professional development workshops, online courses, self-study, and industry organizations can all provide continuing education opportunities.
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Experience Requirements for Cryptographers
Although there are no industry-universal experience requirements for all cryptographer jobs, many positions require at least five years of relevant professional experience in computing and IT.
Prospective cryptographers can build their skills through entry-level positions like information security analyst or computer programmer, eventually progressing to more advanced roles like computer and information systems manager. In some cases, education or certifications can substitute for professional experience, or vice versa.
Many educational programs let enrollees gain professional experience while learning. Internships, capstones, co-op work programs, and volunteering can provide real-world practice for future cryptographers.
Cryptography internships allow prospective professionals to gain career experience as they complete their education. Interns receive a supervised learning experience and build upon their classroom knowledge.
The duration of cryptography internships varies: Some run only a few weeks, while others can take an entire academic year. Work requirements depend on the organization offering the internship, but duties can include academic literature reviews and security protocol analysis.
Cryptography students can find internships at government agencies and in some parts of the military. Some private healthcare, finance, and tech companies also offer cryptography-related internships. Interns typically receive academic credit and may or may not get paid.
Certification Requirements for Cryptographers
There are no official certification requirements for cryptographer careers. However, completing professional certifications demonstrates mastery of industry-required skills and knowledge. Depending on the credential, certification-holders may need to complete continuing education or periodically recertify to keep their credentials current.
Obtaining a certification can help differentiate prospective cryptographers from other job candidates. These credentials can also lead to higher salaries and career advancement opportunities. Some government defense employers may require a cybersecurity certification.
Relevant certifications for cryptographers include:
EC-Council Certified Encryption Specialist: This certification from EC-Council demonstrates foundational knowledge in cryptography. Applicants must pass an exam demonstrating knowledge of topics like algorithms, asymmetric cryptography, and ciphers. To attempt the exam without completing the certification training, applicants must have one year of relevant professional experience.
Certified Information Systems Security Professional: This certification from (ISC)² attests to the holder's ability to design, manage, and implement cybersecurity programs. Applicants must pass an exam and become an (ISC)² member. This credential is helpful for careers like security analyst, security consultant, and IT director or manager, though prospective cryptographers may also benefit.
How Do I Become a Cryptographer?
Cryptographer is not an entry-level position, so obtaining the knowledge and experience necessary for your first cryptography job can take several years.
Typically, this process begins with a bachelor's degree in a relevant field, which takes about four full-time years to complete. Although a bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for a cryptographer career, many employers prefer or require a master's degree, which adds another 1-2 full-time years of study.
Most positions require at least five years of professional experience, though education and certifications can sometimes substitute for experience. Thus, between educational and experience requirements, the process to become a cryptographer often takes 6-9 years.
Below, we outline detailed steps to becoming a cryptographer.
Steps to Becoming a Cryptographer
Bachelor's Degree Path Earn a Bachelor's Degree. Start the journey toward a career in cryptography by earning a four-year bachelor's degree in a field like cybersecurity, computer science, computer engineering, or information technology. Take classes that focus on mathematics, computer programming languages, and algorithms. Complete an Internship. Real-world experience from an internship can help you land your first job. Many college programs offer internship opportunities for currently enrolled students. Pursue Certifications. Cybersecurity credentials demonstrate skills and expertise to potential employers. These certifications can also help you stand out from other job applicants. Gain Professional Experience. Most cryptography positions require at least five years of professional experience in information security. Potential entry-level jobs that can provide relevant experience include information security analyst, computer programmer, and software developer. Complete Continuing Education. To keep your skills fresh and learn important new technologies, cryptographers should complete continuing education on an ongoing basis.
Master's Degree Path Earn a Bachelor's Degree. Complete an Internship. Pursue Certifications. Gain Professional Experience. Earn a Master's Degree. Many employers prefer or require cryptographers to hold a graduate degree. Most master's degrees take 1-2 full-time years to complete. Consider fields like computer science, mathematics, cybersecurity, or information security with a concentration in cryptography. Some employers may substitute a master's degree for professional experience. Complete Continuing Education.
Should I Become a Cryptographer?
Though the process to becoming a cryptographer is often lengthy, the career can offer higher-than-average salaries. BLS data shows information security analysts, a large career category that includes cryptographers, earned a median annual salary of $102,600 as of 2021. Analytical problem-solvers with strong math and computer skills may find cryptography very rewarding.
Because of the constantly changing cyberthreat landscape, cryptographers must always update their knowledge of the field. Their duties can also change each day, making the career's responsibilities dynamic. Because of the importance of protecting valuable digital information, the job can sometimes be stressful, as mistakes can lead to privacy breaches. Weigh the pros and cons of becoming a cryptographer to help make an informed decision about this career.
The Job Hunt
Networking can be crucial for finding a job as a cryptographer. Talking to professors, internship mentors, or attending professional organization networking events can help aspiring cryptographers find work in the field.
Students and recent graduates can often find help through their school's career services center. Resources may include job fairs, mock interviews, professional development opportunities, and access to exclusive job boards.
Check the sites below for cryptographer job openings.
Resources for Future Cryptographers
What Is a Cryptographer?
Salary and Career Outlook for Cryptographers
Day in the Life of a Cryptographer
Certifications for Cryptographers
Frequently Asked Questions About Cryptographers
What are the minimum requirements for a career as a cryptographer?
Cryptographers typically need a bachelor's degree in a field like cybersecurity, computer science, or information technology. Many employers prefer job applicants with a master's degree. It is not uncommon for employers to require at least five years of relevant professional experience.
Can you learn how to be a cryptographer at a bootcamp?
Web development bootcamps may cover some aspects of cryptography in their curricula, but they do not provide the in-depth education and skills development that most employers require for cryptography positions.
Can you learn cryptography on your own?
You can learn some of the basic features of cryptography on your own, but because most cryptography jobs require a bachelor's or master's degree, most people benefit from formal education in this field.
How long does it take to become a cryptographer?
Typical minimum requirements to become a cryptographer include a four-year degree and five years of related experience. Students who earn a master's degree can sometimes substitute education for experience, though this still entails 5-6 years of full-time study.
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