How to Become a Cryptographer

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Cryptologists and cryptanalysts create and decipher codes, cryptograms, and puzzles. Cryptologists write cyphers, algorithms, and security protocols to encrypt data, while cryptanalysts break down existing code to decrypt information. These professionals ensure safe communication and information exchange in government, business, and nonprofit settings.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) computer and information technology occupations will see an estimated 546,200 new positions between 2018 and 2028. As cyberthreats and security breaches continue to hamper financial institutions, government agencies, and the business sector, cryptology professionals remain vital to keeping information safe.

What Does a Cryptographer Do?

Cryptographers secure computer and information technology systems by creating algorithms and ciphers to encrypt data. They often also carry out the duties of a cryptanalyst, deciphering algorithms and cipher text to decrypt information. Cryptographers also analyze existing encryption systems to identify weaknesses and vulnerabilities. They develop and test cryptology theories and techniques, implementing new or revamped encryption solutions. By working with organizations and institutions, cryptographers incorporate security needs with industry standards, ensuring highly secure data transmission.

As cryptanalysts, cryptology professionals decrypt data, breaking down algorithms and ciphers to access information. By decrypting messages and coding systems, cryptanalysts better understand how to avoid gaps in security. These professionals possess knowledge and skills in industries requiring high levels of confidentiality. By encrypting and decrypting data, cryptographers and cryptanalysts protect individuals, groups, businesses, and organizations alike.

Cryptographers work for the government, especially to secure military data and protect national security. They maintain the integrity of electronic medical records and personal health information for healthcare companies and organizations. They also encrypt financial data like bank records, e-commerce activity, and credit and debit card information.

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Steps to Become a Cryptographer

The path to a career in cryptography begins with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, computer engineering, or related field. Coursework develops foundational knowledge and skills in mathematics, computer and information technology systems, and programming languages. Aspiring cryptographers need strong mathematical skills. They may complete a double major, studying mathematics alongside a computer-related discipline. A math major emphasizes the data structures, abstract algebra, and algorithms essential for a career in cryptology.

Most cryptography jobs require at least five years of experience in computer and information technology security. Entry-level positions as software programmers, information security analysts, or computer system analysts build familiarity with information technology security hardware and software. A mid-level role as an information technology manager or network and computer systems administrator can also give future cryptographers insight into information technology design, organization, and leadership.

Many employers prefer to hire cryptographers with a master’s or doctoral degree. Graduate programs in cybersecurity, mathematics, or computer engineering lead to positions in cryptography. Non-technical degrees in economics, English, or public administration can facilitate a career in the field alongside extensive computer-related experience. Graduate programs also build research and analytical skills applicable to cryptography.

Cybersecurity certifications provide cryptographers with more paths to career advancement and earning potential. Certifications build skills in the field, and demonstrate expertise to employers.

The EC-Council offers a certified encryption specialist (ECES) program to train students and professionals in algorithms, cryptography, and steganography. They participate in practical applications of ciphers and algorithms, while learning symmetric, key, and asymmetric cryptography concepts.

Certified information security systems professional credentials from (ISC)² enhance knowledge of security practices and principles, meeting cybersecurity training requirements of the United States Department of Defense (DoD).

Top Required Skills for a Cryptographer

Cryptographers need knowledge of computer systems, network, and database architecture. Familiarity with data structures and algorithms remains essential, as do advanced mathematics skills. Cryptographers must understand complicated mathematical theory and apply concepts and techniques to encryption algorithms.

Cryptography professionals also know multiple programming languages. Commonly used languages include Python, Java, and C++.

Through understanding information security software and hardware, cryptographers have insight into security solutions. Experience in information technology support enhances these skills. Cryptographers additionally have experience with operating systems, including Microsoft Windows and UNIX.

Cryptographers use encryption algorithms based on symmetric and asymmetric key-block ciphers. Common algorithms include Triple Data Encryption Algorithm (Triple DES) and Rivest-Shamir-Adelman (RAS). Triple DES protects against security incursions by applying a symmetric-key block cipher three times to each data set. RAS was one of the first commonly used public-key cryptosystems for data transmission.

Through analysis and critical thinking, cryptographers develop algorithms and ciphers to secure sensitive information. They create security solutions by identifying, rectifying, and mitigating existing and future risks. Cryptographers also interpret encrypted information, deciphering it to gain access to security protocols and secure content.

Cryptographers need strong verbal and nonverbal communication skills. As individuals tasked with data encryption and decryption, they often work as part of a team. Cryptographers relay their findings to colleagues, providing detailed explanations of their practices and processes. They may also explain technical concepts to non-technical professionals, making complicated concepts and ideas accessible to general audiences.

Cryptographer Salary

With an estimated 12% growth in employment between 2018 and 2028, computer and information technology occupations are projected for strong gains. According to PayScale, cryptographers earn average salaries just over $73,000.

Cryptographers work for government, technology, and financial entities. The Department of Defense and the National Security Agency employ cryptographic professionals to protect military, national security, and cybersecurity systems and data.

Information technology companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple need cryptographers to protect their data alongside that of their users and consumers. Banks, investment firms, and accounting companies also rely on cryptographers to secure confidential financial information.

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Note: Take a look at our Guide to Cybersecurity Certifications for more information and advice.

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Are you ready to find a school that's aligned with your interests?

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