Computer Forensics Analyst Career Overview
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Computer forensics analysts play key roles on cybersecurity and investigation teams. These professionals specialize in gathering and analyzing data related to cyberattacks and illegal online activity. They apply advanced data retrieval and incident analysis skills to cases involving espionage, organized cybercrime, hacking, fraud, terrorism, and the storage and distribution of illegal content.
Successful analysts possess strong analytical minds, sharp eyes for detail, and advanced technical proficiencies. They also understand the legal standards that guide criminal investigations, and they excel in communicating with others. While some digital forensics analysts work for private companies, a large percentage of their employment opportunities exist in the realm of law enforcement.
These professionals enjoy a particularly strong job outlook. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS projects information security jobs to grow 32% between 2018-2028.
This guide provides important information for anyone considering a career as a computer forensics analyst, including key skills, major employers, and answers to frequently asked questions.
What Does a Computer Forensics Analyst Do?
Computer forensics analysts assist in the investigation of crimes and cybersecurity incidents. In many cases, they work to recover hidden, encrypted, or deleted information related to the case. They also safeguard the integrity of data by following a chain of custody that ensures its admissibility in court.
Supplementary and adjacent duties include offering expert insights to law enforcement personnel and prosecutors regarding the validity of their digital evidence. In some instances, they lead or participate in interviews with suspects or victims. Digital forensics specialists also help prepare evidence before criminal trials.
Computer forensics experts commonly work in the criminal justice system. Many private industries also employ them, including companies in financial services, information technology, computing, network security, and defense sectors. Privately employed digital forensics analysts help buttress an organization’s internal cybersecurity team and provide an added safeguard in the event of a hack or cybercrime.
As their careers progress, many computer forensics analysts go on to train newly emerging professionals and junior team members. However, reaching this point comes with its own challenges. The profession demands commitment and flexibility, as many digital forensics experts work long and unusual hours, especially when investigating active cases.
The following lists outline key soft and hard skills that aspiring digital forensics analysts need to succeed.
Key Soft Skills for Computer Forensics Analysts
- A Desire to Learn: Technology changes fast, and so do the techniques criminals and hackers use. Digital forensics professionals must constantly update and expand their knowledge base to stay current in the field.
- Commitment to Professional Development: Top-performing computer forensics analysts push themselves toward higher levels of performance through ongoing development, training, and skills upgrades.
- Strong Communication Skills: Computer forensics experts must communicate effectively in both verbal and written forms, as their work often proves critical to the successful prosecution of cybercriminals.
- Careful Attention to Detail: Digital forensics analysts often search for the data-based equivalents of a needle in the haystack. Thus, they must bring sharp focus and attention to detail to every job.
Key Hard Skills for Computer Forensics Analysts
- Technical Knowledge: Computer forensics professionals require up-to-date, advanced knowledge of digital storage methods, operating systems, programming, hacking techniques, and malware.
- Strong Ethics: The ability to ethically handle retrieved and recovered data ranks among the most critical hard skills a computer forensics analyst needs.
- Understand the Law: Digital forensics experts need to understand the legal aspects of criminal investigations to at least an intermediate level.
- Knowledge of Best Practices: Chain of custody practices represent a crucial aspect of what digital forensics experts do. Capable professionals must display excellent mastery of best practices.
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A Day in the Life of a Computer Forensics Analyst
The daily tasks of a computer forensics analyst vary by factors like industry, role, and individual cases. Sometimes an analyst focuses on just one case, while other periods bring multiple simultaneous investigations.
Computer forensics experts must prepare themselves for the abrupt changes and challenges that can occur at any point in the investigative process. New discoveries from other colleagues or team members can rapidly change the nature of a case, while emergencies requiring immediate responses also occur without warning.
For many digital forensics analysts, Monday mornings represent the one constant of their routines. Work weeks typically begin with team meetings to discuss progress and updates related to active investigations.
The role of a computer forensics expert carries many responsibilities. The following section details five key examples.
Computer Forensics Analyst Main Responsibilities
- Securing Devices and/or Systems
- Analysts play a frontline role in securing tamper-proof access to electronic devices, systems, and network equipment that may hold digital evidence related to an investigation.
- Using Specialized Forensics Software
- Many professional analysts supplement their own technical skills with specialized applications and software products that assist their forensic data searches.
- Identifying and Following Data Trails
- Investigations commonly include elements that seek to link suspects with co-conspirators and other external parties or accomplices. Analysts specialize in finding and following the electronic crumbs that make up these data trails.
- Writing Reports and Presenting Findings
- Analysts need to create written reports of their findings. They must also deliver verbal reports to others involved in investigations.
- Upgrading Skills
- The best computer forensics investigators spend a significant amount of time upgrading their technical skills through participation in workshops and continuing education opportunities.
Computer Forensics Analyst Salary
According to PayScale data from 2020, forensic computer analysts make average salaries of about $73,900 per year. The lowest-earning 10% make approximately $50,000 per year, while the top 10% of earners make $118,000 or more.
Forensic Computer Analysts
These ranges speak to the many different factors that influence the salaries of active professionals. Some industries pay more than others, with top earners typically working in the private sector. Location also plays a significant role; generally, digital forensics investigators living in major cities enjoy premium pay rates.
Finally, factors like education level, experience, technical proficiency, seniority, and job function also influence earnings. In general, senior analysts and analysts with advanced degrees tend to make the most money. The following chart breaks down typical earnings by experience level.
Average Annual Salary of Forensic Computer Analysts by Experience, 2020
|Entry Level||Early Career||Midcareer||Experienced|
Where Can I Work as a Computer Forensics Analyst?
Law enforcement agencies continue to represent a significant employment base for computer forensics professionals, but private industry also hires them in growing numbers. As demand for capable analysts continues to rise, qualified individuals enjoy expanded employment options.
Key private-sector employers include companies with advanced data protection and cybersecurity needs. Computer forensics analysts may find opportunities in areas like financial services, defense, and aerospace, as well as health informatics and the technology and IT sectors.
Location can significantly affect the career of a digital forensics analyst. Professional opportunities for computer forensics specialists usually cluster in major metropolitan areas and seats of government. Salaries also tend to rise in big cities, but the raw numbers tell only part of the story when it comes to earnings.
Emerging computer forensics specialists should also consider their lifestyle needs and preferences alongside factors like cost of living and quality of life. For example, the affordable cost of living in a smaller city or more remote state can offset the lower salaries typically paid in such areas. Staying up to date on cost of living indices can help people with the mobility to respond to job offers in different destinations.
Consider the data in the following table, which highlights several locations where computer forensics specialists enjoy above-average earnings.
Top-Paying Cities For Forensic Computer Analysts, 2020
|Top-Paying Cities||Percentage Above Average Pay|
Organizations related to law enforcement, intelligence, and domestic security rank among the leading employers of digital forensics specialists. In these public-sector settings, investigators typically spend most of their time on cases involving criminal elements. Their work often serves as evidence in court cases.
While these functions also extend to the private sector, the day-to-day duties of analysts in certain industries can differ significantly. Computer forensics analysts in IT, for example, usually function as parts of cybersecurity incident response teams. Their duties include analyzing successful and attempted breaches to identify and remediate the vulnerability that granted unauthorized system access.
In other private settings, such as financial services, defense, and other industries that involve proprietary or sensitive information, analysts help deter and neutralize risks posed by insiders. Employee malfeasance represents one of the leading threats to such organizations, and computer forensics specialists play a major role in preventing and investigating them.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- The FBI is a federal law enforcement, domestic security, and domestic intelligence agency. It plays a leading role in the investigation and prosecution of major federal crimes.
- Booz Allen Hamilton
- Headquartered in the Washington, D.C., suburb of McLean, Virginia, Booz Allen Hamilton ranks among the largest and best-known information technology and management consultancies in the United States. The company also maintains approximately 80 other offices in the U.S. and internationally.
- ManTech International Corporation
- This leading American defense contractor works with both public and private partners. It includes approximately 9,000 employees and specializes in serving the needs of clients with advanced information security and integrated technology needs.
How to Become a Computer Forensics Analyst
Most people enter the field after earning a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree. Applicable majors include computer science and computer engineering, as well as specialized cybersecurity degrees that offer concentrated study paths in digital forensics.
Computer forensics analysts also benefit from earning professional certifications. While these credentials technically remain optional for many positions, an increasingly competitive employment landscape means candidates stand much better chances of landing a job if they hold at least one recognized industry certification.
Computer forensics experts must constantly expand, improve, refresh, and upgrade their skills to ensure they remain current and capable of responding to any incident or threat.
Steps to Becoming a Computer Forensics Analyst
- Develop familiarity with digital technologies, including computer operating systems and programming. Build an academic background in mathematics and sciences.
- Enroll in a bachelor’s program in computer science or computer engineering. Qualified applicants can also consider specialized undergraduate programs in cybersecurity, depending on their availability.
- Add a specialized master’s degree in cybersecurity or digital forensics to earn a competitive edge in the job market. Consider adding optional specialized computer forensics certifications to bolster your resume.
- Identify a potential practice area, either specifically or by narrowing down to public-sector and private-sector options. Research job openings that match your qualifications and desired career path criteria, then apply.
Computer Forensics Analyst Requirements
The following subsections offer details on computer forensics analyst requirements. Use them as a guide for plotting out an ideal career track while bearing in mind that specific positions may require additional qualifications.
Education Requirements for Computer Forensics Analysts
Students seeking computer forensics analyst degrees can look for programs in areas like computer science, computer engineering, and cybersecurity. Schools increasingly offer specialized cybersecurity programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and these generally offer a more direct path into the profession. Some novice and junior positions may require only an associate degree, but most jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree.
Bachelor’s programs typically demand four years of full-time study and cover foundational and more advanced computer forensics concepts. Master’s programs usually take two years of full-time study to complete, covering advanced and specialized topics. As such, job-seekers with master’s degrees often end up securing job offers with higher pay rates.
Supplementing a degree with professional certifications can pay dividends in the form of improved earning potential and employment opportunities. Examples of these certifications include programs from organizations like AccessData, the International Association of Computer Investigation Specialists (IACIS), and the EC-Council. The next subsection examines these learning paths in greater detail.
License and Certification Requirements for Computer Forensics Analysts
Candidates do not need a formally issued license to become a computer forensics analyst, but employers often prefer candidates who hold one or more of the following:
- Global Information Assurance Certifications: GIAC certifications focus on incident response capabilities, and include seven unique programs as of 2020.
- Computer Hacking Forensic Investigator: Offered by the world-renowned EC-Council, the CHFI designation appeals to professionals interested in investigating cybercrime.
- Certified Forensic Computer Examiner: Delivered by the IACIS, the CFCE program includes two phases: a peer review phase and a certification phase. Candidates must recertify every three years to maintain valid standing.
- AccessData Forensics Certifications: AccessData offers numerous specialized certifications for professionals who aspire to work in law enforcement settings.
Required Experience for Computer Forensics Analysts
Experience is a critical qualification for advancing into leadership roles. However, computer forensics specialists can land their first jobs in the field without experience if they possess the right education, skills, credentials, and aptitudes.
Even so, employers typically favor candidates who have at least some firsthand working knowledge of what their future job will entail. As such, experiential learning opportunities can greatly enhance the value of a degree.
If possible, select a degree program that includes optional or mandatory field training, such as a work placement or practicum. This opportunity allows emerging professionals to put their learning into practice in a supervised capacity.
The Computer Forensics Analyst Job Hunt
Most reputable, accredited degree-granting institutions feature career services offices, which can act as excellent launching pads for job searches. Some computer science departments even host their own career centers, giving graduates priority access to industry-specific resources.
Beyond these resources, consider venues like job fairs, trade shows, and conferences hosted by respected professional organizations. As in many other fields, mentor relationships and personal networking efforts can also lead to job opportunities.
These online job boards and career services sites also represent good places to look:
This popular job search and career development portal supports a helpful feature for new graduates: the ability to specifically seek out entry-level positions.
This niche site allows job-seekers to narrow their searches by position title and location.
In addition to offering job listings, Glassdoor allows users to research companies and evaluate their suitability as a potential employer.
Another industry-specific portal, NinjaJobs brands itself as the leading job search platform for information security professionals.
Computer Forensics Analyst Upward Mobility
As with any career path, computer forensics professionals can branch out into adjacent roles and positions with more responsibility once they gain experience. Common examples include:
Computer Forensics Director
Most organizations, and especially those in law enforcement, employ teams that include digital forensics analysts. Computer forensics directors lead and supervise those teams, making this path a natural fit for skilled investigators seeking to rise into positions of greater responsibility. Experience requirements vary but tend to fall in the range of 10-plus years. Salaries typically represent the high end of the range paid to regular analysts.
Digital forensics analysts sometimes opt for self-employment as freelance security consultants, which broadens the scope of their work beyond investigations to include analyses of organizational IT security assets. This type of work gives them the freedom to vary the type of work they do, move between sectors and industries, and build their own businesses. The BLS groups this position within the broader framework of information security analysts, who enjoy median earnings of almost $100,000 per year.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to become a computer forensics analyst?
Most digital forensics analysts hold at least a four-year bachelor’s degree when they land their first job. Those seeking master’s degrees and/or optional certifications usually add 1-3 years to that timeline.
What degree is needed to be a computer forensics analyst?
Most computer forensics analysts hold bachelor’s or master’s degrees in computer science, computer engineering, cybersecurity, digital forensics, or a related field.
How much does a computer forensics analyst make?
PayScale reports nationwide average earnings for digital forensics analysts at about $73,900 per year. The entire salary range spans from around $50,000 per year to $118,000 at the high end.
What requirements are there to become a computer forensics analyst?
In addition to a specialized degree that delivers the necessary technical skills, computer forensics analysts can obtain optional professional certifications that indicate proficiency with specific skill sets. A background in criminal justice also helps those aspiring to work in law enforcement.
What is the role of a computer forensics investigator?
Digital forensics analysts mainly work to retrieve, catalog, and safeguard digital data related to criminal and cybercrime investigations. They also preserve evidence to ensure its admissibility in court, and they may advise other investigators on the value or utility of other digital evidence they find.
Professional Organizations for Computer Forensics Analysts
- International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists: This high-profile organization offers three tiers of memberships to students, junior professionals, and law enforcement personnel. IACIS training and certification programs carry major prestige, and members enjoy priority access.
- International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners: This organization administers the industry-standard Certified Computer Examiner (CCE) credential. Formal membership remains available solely to CCE-certified professionals, who enjoy discounts on professional liability insurance along with many other career-building resources and benefits.
- The American Society of Digital Forensics and eDiscovery: Operating in select U.S. cities, including Chicago, Atlanta, and New York, this organization offers membership benefits that include hours of downloadable training videos and access to an exclusive career center.
- High Technology Crime Investigation Association: Offering free courses, intensive online training seminars, and a packed lineup of conferences and events, this education-oriented organization remains open to active professionals who investigate technology-based crimes and students in relevant programs.
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