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Cybersecurity is one of the fastest-growing, highest-paying career fields in the U.S. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects information security analyst jobs will grow by 33% between 2020 and 2030. The median annual salary for these professionals was $103,590 as of 2020.
Problem-solvers who enjoy working with technology may find security specialist jobs enticing. On this page, we use the terms "security specialist" and "cybersecurity specialist" interchangeably. However, in other industries, "security specialist" may refer to physical security jobs. Internet security is our focus here.
This page introduces the best security specialist certifications, how to earn them, and what benefits they can offer.
What Is Certification in Cybersecurity?
Unlike some professions, cybersecurity workers do not need state licensure to practice. However, earning one of the top security specialist certifications can lead to higher salaries and more advanced roles. Cybersecurity specialist certifications serve two purposes: to train entry-level professionals and to provide seasoned experts with validation of their skills.
Private companies and professional associations provide an array of security-related certifications. Vendor-neutral security certifications — usually offered through professional associations — validate holders' skills and expertise. Vendor-provided certifications — typically offered from software companies — verify that holders can use a specific software product.
Why Pursue Certification as a Cybersecurity Specialist?
Employers appreciate security certifications because they signal deep knowledge, commitment to the field, and credibility. A 2015 study from CompTIA found that 93% of human resources professionals valued IT certifications. Approximately 72% of employers required IT certifications, and 60% used them to confirm subject matter expertise.
Certifications can also help security specialists increase their salaries. The 2020 Global Knowledge IT Skills and Salary Report revealed IT professionals who earned certification received a $12,000-$13,000 pay raise on average. The certified information systems security professional certification (CISSP) certification from (ISC)2 offered the top average salary at $119,170.
The report also revealed multiple certifications often provide more value than single certifications: in 2020, professionals with six or more certifications earned $13,000 more on average than experts with just one certification.
Earning a cybersecurity certification often requires several years of experience along with passing a rigorous exam. Even entry-level security specialists can earn a beginner certification, however, such as CompTIA's security+ or network+ certifications.
Read more about working as a security specialist at the links below.
- Security Specialist Career Overview
- How to Become a Security Specialist
- The Typical Day of a Security Specialist
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What the Top Security Specialist Certifications Have in Common
The best security specialist certifications hold validation from the American National Standards Institute or a body authorized under the ISO/IEC 17024 standard. This standard serves as a conformity assessment, much like accreditation, for personal certification bodies.
Top certification organizations require extensive professional experience in addition to passing a rigorous exam. Candidates who qualify for certification must abide by standards of ethical conduct and maintain their certifications through ongoing education. Interested applicants should review how long a certifying body has existed and how many certifications it has awarded.
Finally, certification candidates should be aware that some employers demand a specific certification. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense requires the CISSP or the healthcare information security and privacy practitioner (HCISPP) certification for employees in specific roles.
The certification bodies listed below are some of the top cybersecurity associations in the U.S. While not exhaustive, this list introduces some of the top security specialist certifications.
CompTIA is a vendor-neutral certification, education, and research agency in the information security industry. Working across the fields of networking, cloud computing, cybersecurity, and technical support, CompTIA has awarded more than 2.5 million certifications.
Testing applicants can access career roadmaps that help determine the right certificate for their skills, goals, and interests. The organization also offers training events, continuing education experiences, and career tools. Visitors to its website can download extensive research and analysis in a variety of subfields.
A comprehensive certification covering penetration testing, this credential validates skills in vulnerability assessment, scanning, and analysis. It also covers managing and exploiting weaknesses in the Internet of Things (IoT), the cloud, and hybrid environments.
CompTIA revised the requirements for this penetration testing certification in October 2021. Now, applicants need 3-4 years of hands-on security experience along with knowledge of network+ and security+. The 165-minute exam consists of 85 questions, both multiple-choice and performance-based.
CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner (CASP+)
Developed for senior security engineers and security architects, the CompTIA CASP+ certification assesses a candidate's readiness to review an organization's preparation for cyberattacks.
Updated in 2021, the CASP+ exam consists of 90 multiple-choice and performance-based questions answered within a 165-minute timeframe. Applicants need at least 10 years of IT experience and at least five years of hands-on security experience.
CompTIA Cybersecurity Analyst (CySA+)
CompTIA's cybersecurity analyst certificate validates professionals' ability to apply behavioral analytics to devices and networks. CySA+ holders should be able to detect and prevent cybersecurity threats using continuous monitoring.
Candidates must pass an 85-question exam that evaluates their ability to detect threats, interpret data, address vulnerabilities, and recover from incidents. Test-takers have 165 minutes to complete the exam. Applicants need knowledge of network+ and security+ along with at least four years of experience.
(ISC)² began in 1989 when several professional organizations collaborated to develop an international information security certification process. Today, the organization counts 160,000 certified security professionals among its members.
(ISC)² certifies beginners and seasoned professionals alike. Most certifications require hands-on experience and passing an exam. Candidates who do not hold the necessary experience may become (ISC)² associates while they complete their requirements.
Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
CISSP validates candidates in a broad array of cybersecurity skills and expertise. Test-takers must show that they can design, implement, and manage a cybersecurity program. Applicants need five years of paid experience with at least two years in one or more of the eight domains the certificate covers.
Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP)
CCSP candidates demonstrate advanced skills in designing, managing, and securing cloud-based data, infrastructure, and applications. The credential requires test-takers to demonstrate mastery of six security domains, including cloud data security and cloud design. Applicants need five years of paid work experience in IT with at least three years in security and one or more years in at least one of the test's six domains.
Certified Authorization Professional (CAP)
CAP certificate-holders must prove advanced skills in governance, risk, and compliance. Applicants need at least two full years of paid work experience in one or more of the seven domains this certification covers. Candidates with less experience who pass the exam may become (ISC)2 associates.
HealthCare Information Security and Privacy Practitioner (HCISPP)
HCISPP blends cybersecurity skills with best practices and techniques in privacy for healthcare settings. This certification validates skills for managing and assessing security and privacy controls that protect organizations. Certification requires passing an exam that covers seven related domains.
Founded in 1969, ISACA now serves 145,000 technology professionals across 180 countries. The organization publishes research, offers professional development opportunities, awards high-performing security experts, and provides credentials to security specialists. These certifications can benefit professionals at all levels of their careers.
ISACA generally demands both work experience and passing an exam to achieve certification. The organization also hosts conferences, online training, and in-demand learning experiences to help certified professionals meet their continuing education requirements.
Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)
CISA assesses a candidate's ability to plan, execute, and report on audit engagement. Candidates must demonstrate skill in five workplace domains: the information systems auditing process; information systems acquisition, development, and implementation; information systems operations and business resilience; governance and management of IT; and protection of information assets.
Certified in Emerging Technology Certification (CET)
Four ISACA certificates combine to form the emerging technology certification: cloud fundamentals, IoT fundamentals, blockchain fundamentals, and artificial intelligence fundamentals. CET requires no work experience. Candidates simply have to pass each exam and then maintain their essential continuing professional education credits and maintenance fees.
Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)
More than 46,000 professionals hold the CISM certification, earning a worldwide average salary of $118,000 in management roles. CISM validates holders' expertise in program development, risk management, incident management, and information security governance.
Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC)
The only credential that emphasizes enterprise IT risk management, CRISC confirms skills in building an agile risk management program. Candidates must show they can prioritize, identify, analyze, evaluate, assess, and respond to risks. More than 30,000 people hold CRISC certification, earning an average salary of $114,000 per year.
Cybersecurity Practitioner Certification (CSX-P)
Built on the NIST cybersecurity framework, this certification verifies cybersecurity skills across five functions: identify, protect, detect, respond, and recover. Candidates must prove their skills virtually in a proctored setting. The exam covers four content areas — business and security environment, operational security readiness, threat detection and evaluation, and incident response and recovery.
Additional Certifications for Cybersecurity Specialists
Many other organizations offer recognized cybersecurity certifications, including:
GIAC offers 40 cybersecurity certifications in areas such as offensive operations, cyberdefense, cloud security, industrial control systems, and digital forensics and incident response.
Working in 145 countries, the EC-Council has certified 220,000 security professionals. Applicants can work toward core or advanced certifications in penetration testing, threat analysis, or security management.
A technology conglomerate, Cisco offers four cybersecurity certifications, including cyberops associate and cyberops professional.
This board offers 13 job-specific cybersecurity certifications. Applicants must pass a multiple-choice exam.
Preparing for Cybersecurity Certification Exams
Cybersecurity certifications demonstrate security specialists' advanced skills and knowledge. The required exams consequently explore the challenging, complex world of internet security at length. Professionals who sit for certification exams can prepare using proven, effective study strategies and resources such as:
- Certification Coaches or Tutors
- Coaches and tutors can help students prepare for cybersecurity certification exams. Prospective test-takers may find coaches through online tutoring boards or by contacting the computer science department at local higher education institutions.
- Online Learning Tools
- Tools such as Quizlet allow test-takers to create their own flashcards and take advantage of a suite of other digital study solutions.
- (ISC)2 Training
- One of the foremost certification organizations, (ISC)2 provides a variety of exam preparation tools and services to help test-takers prepare.
To expand your education even further, explore cybersecurity certificate programs, degrees, and bootcamps at the links below.
- 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 the Best Security Specialist Certifications for You
Security specialist certifications offer a quick, marketable, and affordable way to advance a career in cybersecurity. Not all certifications offer the same benefits. When choosing a security specialist certification, consider the following aspects of each credential:
- Certification can prove expensive and time-consuming. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and some employers will help pay for select certification programs.
- Renewal Cycle
- Certifications are rarely permanent. How long does this certification last, and what is required to renew it?
- Test Style and Length
- Find out how many hours the test normally requires. Are the questions multiple choice or in another format?
- Test Content
- Beginner certifications should cover the fundamentals of cybersecurity. More advanced certifications, however, may delve deeper into a single specialized area of study.
- Alignment With Career Goals
- Just because certification is popular in the industry doesn't mean it's right for everyone. What specific career path does this certification develop?
More Resources for Security Specialists
What Is a Security Specialist?
Explore the field of cybersecurity, including what a security specialist does and the top skills required for security careers. Also discover more about salaries and career paths for security specialists.
How to Become a Security Specialist
Learn about the education and experience required to become a security specialist. This page discusses certifications, degrees, and the steps required to get started in the cybersecurity field.
Day in the Life of a Security Specialist
Find out the main duties a security specialist performs over the course of a typical day. This page also spotlights the real-life experience of a top security specialist.
Salary and Career Outlook for Security Specialists
Discover how much security specialists earn according to their experience, location, and education. This page also offers information on career prospects and job outlook.
FAQ About Cybersecurity Specialist Certifications
What certifications do I need to be a cybersecurity specialist?
There is no specific required certification for cybersecurity specialists. However, these professionals often hold at least one postsecondary degree in cybersecurity or a related field along with certification from a private agency.
How long does it take to become a certified security specialist?
Each cybersecurity certification varies in length. Some certifications simply require that applicants pass an exam. However, these exams cover complex technical information that can take many months of study to master.
Do security specialists need to be licensed?
Cybersecurity specialists do not require state or federal licensure. Some employers may require or prefer applicants who hold certain certifications. Entry-level cybersecurity personnel may find that certifications help them achieve the next step of their career path.
What is the best security specialist certification?
Many security certifications can help specialists stand out in the job market. Some of the best-known certifications include the industrial security professional certification, the certified information systems security professional certification, and the certified ethical hacker certification.
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