Last Updated: March 3, 2020
Also known as computer forensics engineers, examiners, analysts, or investigators, computer forensics experts investigate cyber crimes, including data breaches and other security incidents. Often collaborating with other security professionals, these professionals gather and inspect evidence from information technology (IT) equipment, computer networks, and related contexts before submitting evidence to law enforcement and/or other authorities.
Forensics experts often work for big corporations in various industries, legal firms, or governments. Large, international firms sometimes feature entire units focused on computer forensics. Depending on their expertise, some forensics experts may conduct consulting work independently or for private companies. Salaries vary based on industry, employer, and position, but most forensics experts make good money. According to PayScale, information security analysts earn a median annual salary of $72,000.
Designed for aspiring forensics experts seeking information about this career path, the following page outlines these professionals' roles and job responsibilities. The information below also reviews the education, skills, education, and work experience required for forensics experts. This page also discusses factors influencing job prospects and salaries for this profession.
What Does a Forensics Expert Do?
To investigate and retrieve cybercrime evidence, forensics experts need IT knowledge to retrieve data stored on devices and systems, which often means dismantling and reconstructing information and security systems. Forensics experts carefully retrace cybercrime evidence back to the initial breach and identify which security weakness allowed it.
These professionals also organize cybercrime evidence into clear, detailed reports accessible to executives, law enforcement, lawyers, and judges. Forensics experts often need to explain reports, answer questions, and sometimes serve as expert witnesses in court.
Forensics experts seek to improve organizational security, often advising executives on system improvements and/or training employees on cybersecurity matters. Companies hire forensics experts for protection, as data breaches can result in financial or information theft that damages company finances and reputation.
Forensics expert job experience requirements vary by position, employer, industry, and location. Most entry-level forensics analysts need at least 1-3 years' forensics experience, while senior positions usually require five or more years. Relevant certifications and internships sometimes help to meet these experience requirements.
Steps to Become a Forensics Expert
Some law enforcement professionals undergo on-the-job training to pursue forensics expert specialization, but most aspiring forensic experts begin by earning relevant undergraduate degrees. Most forensics expert jobs require bachelor's degrees in computer/digital forensics, cybersecurity, or related fields. Fortunately, many bachelor's programs in computer science (CS), engineering, and information technology offer concentrations in cybersecurity or digital forensics, giving prospective students lots of choices for programs in this growing field.
Forensics experts must know cyber crime types and methods and possess technical and legal reporting skills, so graduates with more general IT or CS degrees may need additional education through courses, training, certification programs, or graduate degree programs.
Learners pursuing their cybersecurity education should seek opportunities to gain work experience through internships or entry-level IT positions. Professional organizations such as the International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists or the International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners provide skills training, networking, job listings, and career resources. They may also offer certifications often required for various IT forensics positions.
This cybersecurity certifications guide identifies the certified information systems security professional certification as the most popular high-level credential in security policy and management. Forensics experts may also need certifications as EnCase-certified forensics examiners, certified forensic analysts, certified reverse engineering analysts, or computer forensics examiners.
Other certifications include certified information systems auditor, certified information security manager, and global information assurance certified incident handler. Penetration testers may opt for certified ethical hacker, certified penetration tester, or offensive security certified professional certifications.
Graduates possessing requisite education, credentials, and work experience may qualify for entry-level positions as computer forensics technicians or junior forensics analysts. Job titles vary widely, and other potential computer forensics job titles include information security crime investigator, digital/computer crime specialist, and computer forensics engineer. Experienced forensics professionals may pursue roles as senior forensics analyst or senior forensics manager.
Top Required Skills for a Forensics Expert
Skills required for forensics experts vary widely by job title, employer, and industry. According to PayScale, forensic computer analysts benefit from various soft and hard skills in project management and cybersecurity.
Whether working independently or collaboratively, these professionals organize, analyze, and present cyber crime findings to legal professionals, so soft skills in organization, analysis, and communication benefit forensics experts. These professionals also need to understand criminal behavior and summon motivation and self-discipline to work independently when necessary.
Forensics experts also need advanced IT and CS hard skills and knowledge in computer hardware and software, operating systems including MS Windows and UNIX/Linux, networks, and computer programming languages. Many forensics professionals should know ISO standards, COBIT and ITIL frameworks, and specific security technologies and systems.
Other forensics-related hard skills include cryptography principle application, evidence handling, and eDiscovery tool usage. Forensic software applications to know include FTK, Helix, Cellebrite, and EnCase.
Forensics-related bachelor's programs prepare students by combining law and IT courses. Students take legal courses in criminal procedure, criminal law, criminal investigation, and white-collar crime. Computer science courses may cover Python, networking fundamentals, and operating systems. IT forensics courses include operating systems forensics, malware forensics, and digital forensic analysis. Many programs include internships, allowing students to build their forensics resumes and learn from more established forensics experts.
Forensics Expert Salary
Forensics experts' salaries vary by position, employer, and industry. Credentials and work experience often move professionals into higher salary brackets. In general, however, mid- and upper-level forensics professionals usually make very high salaries.
According to 2018 salary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), information security analysts make an annual mean salary of $98,350 -- more than double the national $51,960 mean annual wage for all occupations. Information security professionals also enjoy far more promising job prospects than most professions. At 32%, information security analysts' projected job growth from 2018-2028 proves over five times higher than the 5.2% growth average projected for all occupations.
The top industries employing information security analysts include computer systems design and related services, management companies and enterprises, and credit intermediation and related activities. Many information security analysts also work in insurance or consulting services.
Meanwhile, the top-paying industries include pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing, wholesale electronic markets, and legal services. Utility system construction and electronic component manufacturing also make the list of five highest-paying industries. Information security analysts make the highest salaries in New York, Virginia, and California, with Texas and Florida not far behind.