How to Become a Penetration Tester

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Find the right education path to take advantage of this fast-growing industry and join the front-lines on technology and security.

While becoming a penetration tester can take several years of training, the high demand can lead to lucrative work and strong job security.

In August 2021, the Biden-Harris Administration met with some of the biggest tech companies in the world to announce a cybersecurity initiative. Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple plan to invest a combined of tens of billions of dollars in cybersecurity education, training, jobs, resources, and other programs.

The initiative reflects the high demand for cybersecurity jobs. Cyber Seek, a project backed by the U.S. Department of Commerce, reported over 460,000 cybersecurity job listings from April 2020 through March 2021.

Penetration testers fill a crucial role in cybersecurity. Sometimes referred to as ethical hackers or white-hat hackers, penetration testers try to hack security systems at the owner’s request to test system vulnerabilities. This page explores the requirements and necessary steps to become a penetration tester.

Explore This Page: Required Education | Certifications | Steps to Become a Penetration Tester | The Job Hunt | Resources | FAQs

What Is a Pen Tester?

A penetration and vulnerability tester, or pen tester, uses their hacking knowledge to test digital security systems for flaws. A pen tester simulates cyberattacks to help security experts find and close vulnerabilities against malicious attacks.

Pen testers work directly with cybersecurity personnel and software engineers. They may not communicate with security before certain tests to simulate real cyberattacks, otherwise known as double-blind testing. After conducting tests, a pen tester summarizes the results and presents their findings to the security department.

Depending on their role, some pen testers may help companies design security policies and procedures. Penetration testers must stay on top of developments in the field to accurately simulate new cyberattacks. These professionals can pursue work with nearly any company that has an online presence or uses technology.

Read More About Penetration Testers

Required Education for Penetration Testers

According to Cyber Seek, 71% of all pen testing jobs listed online from April 2020 through March 2021 required a bachelor’s degree. Only 8% of employers advertised jobs requiring a lower level of education. The remaining 21% sought applicants with graduate degrees.

PayScale’s data on penetration testing jobs shows that many employers look for bachelor’s degrees in information technology, cybersecurity, and other related majors. However, some employers may waive education requirements for relevant experience or certifications.

According to Cyber Seek, 71% of all pen testing jobs listed online from April 2020 through March 2021 required a bachelor’s degree

Individuals wondering how to become penetration testers can start by pursuing bachelor’s degrees. In some cases, a pen tester may create software and tools to probe security networks. As a result, pen testers need to master coding and computer logic to find flaws in digital systems.

Pursuing a graduate degree or penetration tester certifications can distinguish candidates from other job applicants. Students should look for college programs that emphasize Linux, Python, and Java. These skills rank among the top requested programming languages for pen testing. Employers also seek applicants with skills in container security, threat hunting, SaaS security, and anomaly detection.

Students can also enroll in cybersecurity bootcamps to develop the necessary pen testing skills. These intensive career prep programs can last from a few months to half a year or more, depending on the program and course load.

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Required Experience for Penetration Testers

Along with earning a bachelor’s degree or higher, the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Careers and Studies recommends that aspiring pen testers pursue additional certifications, continued education, and relevant experience.

Cyber Seek lists penetration tester as a mid-level position among cybersecurity roles. Before becoming pen testers, many applicants find entry-level jobs as IT auditors, cybercrime analysts, and cybersecurity specialists. Job-seekers may need to gain additional experience in networking, software development, or systems engineering before switching roles.

Previous experience with information security, vulnerability assessment, and project management can help applicants find jobs.

Internship Opportunities

Students can gain experience through internships and co-op programs through schools and other organizations. The rising need for cybersecurity employees has led to additional work and training opportunities.

For example, government departments like the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) offer experiential programs to students. Internships through CISA and the NSA may pay competitive salaries based on the candidate’s education level.

The CISA-backed Cybersecurity Talent Initiative allows graduates to pay off their student loans by working in cybersecurity for the federal government for two years.

Required Certifications for Penetration Testing

Employers place a heavy emphasis on professional certifications. Cyber Seek reports that over 290,000 open cybersecurity positions from April 2020 to March 2021 required applicants to have certifications.

Luckily, some college programs and cybersecurity bootcamps design their curriculums with professional certifications in mind. However, professional certifications may require work experience or additional training to sit for the exam.

Cyber Seek reports that over 290,000 open cybersecurity positions from April 2020 to March 2021 required applicants to have certifications.

The top requested certifications for pen testing jobs include:

  • Certified Information Systems Auditor
  • CompTIA Security+
  • Certified Ethical Hacker

Employers also value any certifications from the Global Information Assurance Certification group.

Comparing the Top Requested Certifications for Cybersecurity

Certified Information Systems Auditor CompTIA Security+ Certified Ethical Hacker
Organization ISACA CompTIA International Council of E-Commerce Consultants (EC-Council)
Prerequisites Five years of related work experience; degrees up to a master’s can substitute a total of three years of experience None Two years of related work experience to take EC-Council courses and sit for the qualifying exam
Available Prep Courses and Materials Offers a free practice quiz, study books, and instructor-led prep courses Virtual labs, study guides, instructor-led courses, and other e-learning resources Various prep courses with online, in-person, and self-paced options
Renewal/Upkeep Three-year cycle; earn 20 continuing education credits each year and 120 total credits each cycle Three-year cycle; earn 50 continuing education credits for renewal Three-year cycle; earn 120 continuing education credits each cycle

Learn More About Certifications for Penetration Testing Explore Other Cybersecurity Certifications

How Do I Become a Pen Tester?

Since many pen testing jobs require a bachelor’s degree, interested candidates can start by researching related college programs. After graduation, aspiring pen testers should start pursuing one or more professional certifications. Some certifications require additional experience, courses, and training to sit for the exams.

Individuals can spend at least four years gaining the necessary education. Graduate programs or certifications will add to the timeline. Students can also attend cybersecurity bootcamps to learn practical skills and boost their CVs. Certificate programs can also fill in any missing hard skills required for pen testing, such as programming languages.

Steps to Becoming a Penetration Tester

Core Career Path to Becoming a Pen Tester

  1. Enroll in a related baccalaureate program. Prospective students should research and choose bachelor’s programs in cybersecurity that fit their needs. Only consider schools with regional accreditation. Some programs receive approval from the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity Programs.
  2. Gain experience and skills in college. Bachelor’s degrees typically take four years of full-time study. Students can take advantage of internships and other opportunities in college.
  3. Branching paths. The following choices are not mutually exclusive or arranged in a specific order. Some job-seekers pursue graduate degrees or certifications after spending several years in the workforce.
    1. Work in cybersecurity or information tech. Many professional certifications and jobs require years of work experience to qualify. Graduates can work in software development, information systems, or other tech roles for a few years before switching over to cybersecurity.
    2. Pursue a graduate degree. After earning a bachelor’s degree, students can attend graduate school for further education. A graduate program can present additional work opportunities while teaching advanced topics in the field. Some pen testing positions require applicants to possess graduate degrees.
    3. Enroll in bootcamps and other programs. Students can take cybersecurity bootcamps to learn additional skills and knowledge they may not have encountered in college. Since many jobs require candidates to possess bachelor’s degrees, bootcamps may work best as a supplement to existing education.
  4. Earn professional certifications. Candidates can use their knowledge and experience in cybersecurity and information technology to take certification exams. In some cases, graduates need to meet additional qualifications to qualify for some exams and professional roles.
  5. Find a penetration testing job. You should now qualify for pen testing jobs after gaining the requisite education, experience, and professional certifications.
Get started on your degree at a top cybersecurity school

Should I Become a Penetration Tester?

While the job requires several years of education and training, a career in pen testing can be lucrative. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a median annual salary of $91,250 as of May 2020 for computer and information technology occupations. The BLS projects 13% employment growth for these jobs from 2020-2030.

BLS data for information security analysts indicated a 31% projected job growth rate from 2020-2030. This rate may better reflect the significant demand for cybersecurity professionals.

The ongoing struggle between security experts and cybercrime leads to rapid developments in the field, which may be challenging to keep up with. Pen testers have to remain on the cutting-edge of these changes to accurately simulate new methods of cyberattacks.

See How Location Affects Salary for Penetration Testers What Does a Typical Day for a Pen Tester Look Like?

The Job Hunt

The increased demand for cybersecurity workers has led government bodies like the NSA to create and promote job programs. Applicants can also find positions on the career pages of major tech companies like IBM and Cisco.

Companies may refer to pen testing roles as vulnerability testers, so candidates should include alternative titles in their searches. Many job boards now include filters for remote roles, along with typical filters for experience level and location.

  • USAJOBS

    The U.S. government backs several initiatives and work programs to attract cybersecurity talent. The USAJOBS board is the official government site for finding open jobs across all departments.

  • Dice

    Dice caters exclusively to the tech sector, including jobs in cybersecurity. The site also features industry news and career development resources.

  • ClearedJobs.Net

    Founded in 2001, this site shares available jobs in defense, intelligence, and cybersecurity. ClearedJobs also keeps track of related job fairs around the country.

  • ZipRecruiter

    This mainstream job board lists over 12,000 results for penetration testing positions as of September 2021. Many employers advertise through ZipRecruiter to increase their visibility among candidates.

  • Infosec-jobs

    This cybersecurity and information security job board provides an easy search experience by tagging jobs with their required skills.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is penetration testing in cybersecurity?

    Penetration testing is a form of ethical hacking that exposes systems vulnerabilities with the owner’s explicit permission. A pen test simulates malicious cyberattacks on a security system to ensure it protects against real-world cyberattacks.

  • Which pen tester qualifications are the most important to have?

    Most pen testing jobs require candidates to have a relevant bachelor’s degree or higher. Professional certifications also hold significant value in the industry. Applicants should demonstrate their pen tester qualifications with mastery of Python, Java, and Linux programming languages.

  • Is the path to certification for penetration testing difficult?

    The difficulty level depends on the individual and the certification. Some certifications require more steps and qualifications than others. Exam organizations like the ISACA provide free pre-tests to measure your exam preparedness.

  • How long does it take to become a pen tester?

    A first-time student may spend 4-6 years or more training to become a pen tester. Most positions require a bachelor’s degree, which usually takes four years. Master’s degrees and some professional certifications can add two years or more to the process.


Featured Image: Marko Geber / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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