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Penetration testers, also known as pen testers, perform assessments on computer systems to discover weaknesses and improve security. Pen tests resemble cyberattacks against networks and servers, but with the consent of the client.
From 2020-2030, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 33% job growth rate for information security positions, which include penetration testers. More companies need penetration testers to protect computer systems before actual hackers can gain access to sensitive information. Most licensed penetration tester roles require only a bachelor's degree and certification in penetration testing, but further education can help candidates stand out in the job market.
From 2020-2030, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 33% job growth rate for information security positions, which include penetration testers.
Penetration testing certification prepares testers for senior-level roles. Aspiring pen testers earn certification after completing bachelor's degrees in cybersecurity disciplines. These professionals can work in network administration, security administration, web-based programming, and system administration.
This page delves into the best penetration testing certifications and educational requirements.
What Is Certification in Pen Testing?
Pen testing certification prepares testers for real-world experiences. To receive certification, each candidate must complete coursework and a comprehensive exam covering all stages of the testing process. The exam explores modern techniques for pen testing.
Those seeking penetration testing certification can pursue several credentials. Most certifications cater to pen testers with some amount of experience in system administration and networking. The best penetration testing certification focuses on hard skills like operating system exploitation, client-side attacks, and buffer overflow exploit writing.
Why Pursue Pen Test Certification?
Earning a pen test certification can help your job application stand out against the competition. A pen test certification might also aid in earning promotions or high-level security jobs — especially if the certification covers a specific topic within pen testing.
The BLS recorded 141,200 information security jobs in 2020 and projects this figure will grow to 188,300 by 2030. This figure includes all information security roles beyond penetration testers alone, however. As technology evolves, security protections for computer networks and applications must grow in conjunction or risk vulnerability to cyberattacks. Pen testers play a critical role in ensuring cybersecurity.
According to the BLS, information security analysts earned an annual median salary of $103,590 as of May 2020. Penetration testers can find work in several cybersecurity fields, including advanced roles in management and senior leadership.
Read More About Working as a Pen Tester
- Penetration Tester Career Overview
- How to Become a Penetration Tester
- The Typical Day of Penetration Tester
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What the Best Penetration Testing Certifications Have in Common
Interested candidates can pursue pen testing training at beginner, intermediate, and expert levels. The best pen test certification caters to a candidate's career goals and accurately measures a tester's knowledge of pen test techniques.
Earning several certifications can boost a pen tester's resume even further.
To earn pen test certification, certification organizations require testers to take an exam covering real-world scenarios and multiple-choice questions. Some exams may orient testers toward leadership or management roles, while others focus on hard technical skills.
Earning several certifications can boost a pen tester's resume even further. Earning such qualifications can happen over the course of a career as the pen tester continues to grow and develop their abilities. Read through three of the top penetration testing certification organizations below.
Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC)
The Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC) offers over 30 quality cybersecurity certifications. GIAC certifications remain valid for four years, but the certification renewal process begins after two years.
Certifications conducted by GIAC offer career-focused lessons and exams that prepare testers for real-world work environments. GIAC's certifications rank among the highest quality credentials in the industry and come recommended in many job descriptions.
- GIAC Foundational Cybersecurity Technologies:
The GIAC foundational cybersecurity technologies (GFACT) certification introduces new pen testers to encryption, programming, networking, computer hardware, and security concepts. This certification demonstrates a pen tester's knowledge of basic security fundamentals.
The GFACT caters to new cybersecurity individuals and university students. The program includes key pen testing concepts and strategies that testers can continue to build on in more advanced certifications.
Candidates take one exam with 75 questions and a two-hour time limit. Test-takers must receive a minimum score of 71% to pass.
- GIAC Security Essentials:
The GIAC security essentials (GSEC) certification covers elements of information security relating to real-world environments. The exam extends beyond introductory terminology and ideas to provide testers with situational questions that require creative problem-solving skills and more advanced pen testing knowledge.
The GSEC includes defensible network architecture, cryptography, and web communication security topics. As an intermediate-level certification, students must possess a baseline understanding of information security.
To earn the certification, testers take one exam with 106-180 questions and a five-hour time limit. Passing requires a minimum score of 73%.
- GIAC Certified Penetration Tester:
The GIAC certified penetration tester (GPEN) certification verifies a tester's ability to perform a penetration test using industry-leading technologies and strategies. Security personnel, pen testers, ethical hackers, red team members, and blue team members commonly earn this certification.
The GPEN entails a detailed examination of pen test planning, in-depth scanning and exploitation, and in-depth password attacks. The exam uses CyberLive to put candidates through authentic pen testing simulations to test their skills and knowledge.
The exam is composed of 82-110 questions, with three hours allotted for completion. Test-takers must earn a minimum score of 75% to pass.
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International Council of E-Commerce Consultants
The International Council of E-Commerce Consultants (EC-Council) is the world's largest cybersecurity certification organization. Nearly 100 countries recognize its certifications, with over 200,000 security professionals holding active certification under the organization.
EC-Council is one of several organizations endorsed by the GI Bill® and the National Security Agency. Recipients of EC-Council certifications can find employment with leading technology companies and media outlets, along with the U.S. government.
- Certified Ethical Hacker:
The certified ethical hacker (CEH) certification tests the five phases of ethical hacking: reconnaissance, gaining access, enumeration, maintaining access, and covering tracks. CEH covers a broad understanding of pen testing, making it ideal for beginner pen testers.
The CEH exam covers over 500 ethical hacking scenarios, including web API threats, cloud attacks, and web shells. Test-takers answer 125 multiple-choice questions over four hours. Depending on the overall question difficulty, passing scores range from 60%-85%.
- Certified Penetration Testing Professional:
The certified penetration testing professional (CPENT) certification focuses on effective penetration testing performance. The exam evaluates an individual's ability to conduct pen tests in several environments. Students must also demonstrate proficiency in building testing tools, writing exploits, and performing double pivots to access hidden networks.
Students can take CPENT courses online, followed by the certification exam. The online course prepares students for the exam by offering realistic practice exams, informative learning material, and sample questions.
The online course includes 14 modules covering different sections of pen testing. The exam comprises two sections, which test-takers complete over 24 hours.
- Practical Web Application Penetration Testing:
The practical web application penetration testing certification instructs students on how to discover vulnerabilities in web applications and networks, as well as how to protect against potential attacks.
The course covers building end-to-end web application security models, testing network configurations for vulnerabilities, and developing automated web hacking techniques. This certification suits individuals interested in learning how web developers secure websites from potential hackers.
The course takes five hours to complete and includes 18 chapters of content with 93 videos.
Offensive Security, also known as OffSec, takes an offensive approach to pen testing and cybersecurity. The certification encourages testers to learn technical skills, critical thinking abilities, and creative problem-solving strategies.
OffSec differs from other certification organizations by not requiring annual fees or recertification. After passing the exam, individuals remain certified for their entire careers.
- Evasion Techniques and Breaching Defense: Advanced Pen Testing Training:
The advanced pen testing training certification focuses on bypassing security systems designed to prevent cyberattacks and uncover potential weak spots.
The course and exam best suit advanced penetration testers with a wealth of knowledge and a desire to improve their pen testing skills further. OffSec seeks candidates who possess the ability to identify and exploit vulnerable locations, along with a strong understanding of basic active directory attacks.
First, candidates take the PEN-300 course and online lab to prepare for a 48-hour proctored exam. Enrollees earn certification after passing the final exam.
- Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP):
Unlike many other ethical hacking courses, the Offensive Security certified professional (OSCP) certification is self-paced. The course introduces students to penetration testing tools and strategies through modules and practical experience.
OSCP coursework applies the latest hacking tools and techniques, along with instruction from Kali Linux experts. The exam pushes students to think creatively when solving problems and attempting new strategies.
Once enrolled, each student completes 90 days of lab access and one-on-one mentoring or small group instruction. Upon course completion, each enrollee receives one attempt at passing a proctored 24-hour exam.
- Offensive Security Exploit Developer:
The Offensive Security exploit developer (OSED) course and exam cater to intermediate-level pen testing students. Throughout the course, enrollees explore the fundamentals of reverse engineering, build custom exploits, learn how to bypass security mitigations, and write handmade Windows shell code.
Course prerequisites include familiarity with debuggers, basic exploitation concepts, and Python 3. Students receive access to student forums, course guides, video modules, and virtual lab environments to support the course material.
After completing the OSED course and online lab, each student takes a 48-hour proctored exam. Candidates receive their scores within ten business days.
Additional Pen Test Certifications
Not all pen test certifications stem from the organizations outlined above. Students can enroll in independent programs for high-level or specific pen test subfield certifications. Most of the following options offer a course and exam with a comprehensive education on penetration testing skills, knowledge, and leading industry techniques.
- Certified expert penetration test
- Certified penetration tester
- CompTIA PenTest+
- Licensed penetration tester master program
Before selecting a pen test certification program, students should consider their career goals and current knowledge. Early-career professionals may choose introductory-level certification programs, while midcareer individuals can opt for more advanced certifications.
Preparing for Pen Tester Certification Exams
Pen test certification exams consist of multiple-choice and practical performance questions. Each exam assesses a student's ability to solve complex problems related to pen testing and knowledge of best practices.
Important strategies for test preparation include:
- Study With Multiple Sources: Many pen test certification organizations offer study packets to help students prepare for potential exam questions.
- Take Practice Tests: Practice tests provide realistic examples of exams to help students prepare in a predetermined amount of time.
- Understand All Sections of the Exam: Students who can anticipate what is in each exam section might spend less time reading and more time answering questions.
Best Sources for Studying
- SANS Offensive Operations
- Open Web Application Security Project
- Offensive Security
Test-takers can also draw on any previous work or educational experience that might help with solving problems on certification exams.
More Education Options
- Certificate Programs in Information Technology
- Certificate Programs in Cybersecurity
- Associate in Cybersecurity Programs
- Bachelor's in Cybersecurity Programs
- Master's in Cybersecurity Programs
- Cybersecurity Bootcamps
Choosing Between Penetration Tester Certifications
Several factors come into play when selecting which pen test certification to pursue. Read through the points below for what to consider when choosing a penetration tester certification.
- Cost: Penetration testing certifications can range dramatically in price. Some exams cost around $300, while others cost several thousand.
- Requirements: Pen testers beginning their careers usually must complete introductory certification programs, while midcareer testers can pursue advanced certifications. Each level requires different prerequisites from candidates.
- Renewal Cycle/Requirements: Most pen testing certifications require renewal in a set window. Depending on the organization, the renewal window is two years or four years. Some certifications require no renewal.
- Test Length: Pen test certifications exams usually last 2-5 hours. However, some can take as long as 48 hours to complete.
- Test Content: Candidates can engage with general penetration testing certifications and topic-specific certifications. Usually, mid- or senior-level testers earn topic-specific certifications, while beginners earn general pen test credentials.
Resources for Penetration Testers
What Is a Penetration Tester?
Read this article to learn about educational requirements and career paths for penetration testers.
A Day in the Life of a Penetration Tester
Consult this page for insight on the unique daily challenges and tasks in this role.
Salary and Career Outlook for Penetration Testers
This guide provides long-term salary and career expectations for penetration testers.
Questions About Certifications for Penetration Testers
How long does it take to become a certified penetration tester?
Penetration testers earn certification after passing an exam. The amount of time spent studying prior to the exam varies depending on how long the tester wants to prepare. Some organizations require students to take a course to prepare for the exam, which can last five hours to 90 days. Most penetration testers possess bachelor's degrees, which typically require four years of full-time enrollment.
Are penetration testers licensed?
A licensed penetration tester (LPT) and certified penetration tester necessitate different requirements. For example, becoming an LPT requires each candidate to take a longer and more comprehensive exam. LPT credentials often apply more to pen testers with little preexisting knowledge and industry experience.
What qualifications do you need to be a penetration tester?
Most penetration testers earn bachelor's degrees in cybersecurity-related fields. This credential is usually enough to land a job in the industry, but pen testers can also earn certifications in topic-specific fields of cybersecurity to boost their credentials.
What is the best penetration testing certification?
GIAC and EC-Council feature some of the leading pen testing certifications. The best penetration testing certification aligns with a candidate's professional and personal goals.
Featured Image: Joos Mind / The Image Bank / Getty Images
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