- The U.S. job market has almost 600,000 openings requesting cybersecurity-related skills.
- Employers are struggling to fill these openings due to a general cyber-skill shortage, with many openings remaining vacant each year.
- When evaluating prospective information-security candidates, employers should look for certifications as an important measure of excellence and commitment to quality.
- This article is for business owners looking to hire cybersecurity experts, or for individuals interested in pursuing a cybersecurity career.
Cybersecurity is one of the most crucial areas for ensuring a business’s success and longevity. With cyberattacks growing in sophistication, it’s essential for business owners to protect their companies by hiring qualified cybersecurity experts to manage this aspect of their business. The best candidates will have a certification in information security and cybersecurity. This guide breaks down the top certifications and other guidance you’ll need to make the right hire for your company. It’s also a great primer for individuals who are embarking on a cybersecurity career.
Best information security and cybersecurity certifications
When evaluating prospective InfoSec candidates, employers frequently look to certification as an important measure of excellence and commitment to quality. We examined five InfoSec certifications we consider to be leaders in the field of information security today.
This year’s list includes entry-level credentials, such as Security+, as well as more advanced certifications, like Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH), Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) and Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA). According to CyberSeek, more employers are seeking CISA, CISM and CISSP certification holders than there are credential holders, which makes these credentials a welcome addition to any certification portfolio.
Absent from our list of the top five is SANS GIAC Security Essentials (GSEC). Although this certification is still a very worthy credential, the job board numbers for CISA were so solid that it merited a spot in the top five. Farther down in this guide, we offer some additional certification options because the field of information security is both wide and varied.
1. CEH: Certified Ethical Hacker
The CEH (ANSI) certification is an intermediate-level credential offered by the International Council of E-Commerce Consultants (EC-Council). It’s a must-have for IT professionals who are pursuing careers in white hat hacking and certifies their competence in the five phases of ethical hacking: reconnaissance, enumeration, gaining of access, access maintenance and track covering.
CEH credential holders possess skills and knowledge of hacking practices in areas such as footprinting and reconnaissance, network scanning, enumeration, system hacking, Trojans, worms and viruses, sniffers, denial-of-service attacks, social engineering, session hijacking, web server hacking, wireless networks and web applications, SQL injection, cryptography, penetration testing, IDS evasion, firewalls and honeypots. CEH V11 provides a remapping of the course to the NIST/NICE framework’s Protect and Defend (PR) job role category, as well as an additional focus on emerging threats in cloud, OT and IT security, such as fileless malware.
To obtain a CEH (ANSI) certification, candidates must pass one exam. A comprehensive five-day CEH training course is recommended, with the exam presented at the course’s conclusion. Candidates may self-study for the exam but must submit documentation of at least two years of work experience in information security with employer verification. Self-study candidates must also pay an additional $100 application fee. Education may be substituted for experience, but this is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Candidates who complete any EC-Council-approved training (including with the iClass platform, academic institutions or an accredited training center) do not need to submit an application prior to attempting the exam.
Because technology in the field of hacking changes almost daily, CEH credential holders are required to obtain 120 continuing-education credits for each three-year cycle.
Once a candidate obtains the CEH (ANSI) designation, a logical progression on the EC-Council certification ladder is the CEH (Practical) credential. The CEH (Practical) designation targets the application of CEH skills to real-world security audit challenges and related scenarios. To obtain the credential, candidates must pass a rigorous six-hour practical examination. Conducted on live virtual machines, candidates are presented 20 scenarios with questions designed to validate a candidate’s ability to perform tasks such as vulnerability analysis, identification of threat vectors, web app and system hacking, OS detection, network scanning, packet sniffing, steganography and virus identification. Candidates who pass both the CEH (ANSI) and the CEH (Practical) exams earn the CEH (Master) designation.
CEH facts and figures
|Certification name||Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) (ANSI)|
|Prerequisites and required courses||Training is highly recommended. Without formal training, candidates must have at least two years of information security-related experience and an educational background in information security, pay a nonrefundable eligibility application fee of $100 and submit an exam eligibility form before purchasing an exam voucher.|
|Number of exams||One: 312-50 (ECC Exam)/312-50 (VUE) (125 multiple-choice questions, four hours)|
|Cost of exam||$950 (ECC exam voucher) Note: An ECC exam voucher allows candidates to test via computer at a location of their choice. Pearson VUE exam vouchers allow candidates to test in a Pearson VUE facility and cost $1,199.|
|Self-study materials||EC-Council instructor-led courses, computer-based training, online courses and more are available at ECCouncil.org. A CEH skills assessment is also available for credential seekers. Additionally, Udemy offers CEH practice exams. CEH-approved educational materials are available for $850 from EC-Council.|
Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) training
While EC-Council offers both instructor-led and online training for its CEH certification, IT professionals have plenty of other options for self-study materials, including video training, practice exams and books.
Pluralsight currently offers an ethical-hacking learning path geared toward the 312-50 exam. With a monthly subscription, you get access to all of these courses, plus everything else in Pluralsight’s training library. Through Pluralsight’s learning path, students can prepare for all of the domains covered in the CEH exam.
CyberVista offers a practice exam for the CEH 312-50 certification that includes several sets of exam-like questions, custom quizzes, flash cards and more. An exam prep subscription for 180 days costs $149 and gives candidates access to online study materials, as well as the ability to download the materials for offline study. Backed by its “pass guarantee,” CyberVista is so confident its practice exam will prepare you for the CEH exam that the company will refund its practice test costs if you don’t pass.
FYI: Besides certifications in information security and cybersecurity, the best IT certifications cover areas such as disaster recovery, virtualization and telecommunications.
2. CISM: Certified Information Security Manager
The CISM certification is a top credential for IT professionals who are responsible for managing, developing and overseeing information security systems in enterprise-level applications or for developing organizational security best practices. The CISM credential was introduced to security professionals in 2003 by the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA).
ISACA’s organizational goals are specifically geared toward IT professionals who are interested in the highest-quality standards with respect to the auditing, control and security of information systems. The CISM credential targets the needs of IT security professionals with enterprise-level security management responsibilities. Credential holders possess advanced and proven skills in security risk management, program development and management, governance, and incident management and response.
Holders of the CISM credential, which is designed for experienced security professionals, must agree to ISACA’s code of ethics, pass a comprehensive examination, possess at least five years of experience in information security management, comply with the organization’s continuing education policy and submit a written application. Some combinations of education and experience may be substituted for the full experience requirement.
The CISM credential is valid for three years, and credential holders must pay an annual maintenance fee of $45 (ISACA members) or $85 (nonmembers). Credential holders are also required to obtain a minimum of 120 continuing professional education (CPE) credits over the three-year term to maintain the credential. At least 20 CPE credits must be earned every year.
CISM facts and figures
Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)
Prerequisites and required courses
To obtain the CISM credential, candidates must do the following:
Number of exams
One: 150 questions, four hours
Cost of exam
Exam fees: $575 (members), $760 (nonmembers)
Exam fees are nontransferable and nonrefundable.
Training and study materials in various languages, information on job practice areas, primary references, publications, articles, the ISACA Journal, review courses, an exam prep community, terminology lists, a glossary and more are available at ISACA.org. Additionally, Udemy offers comprehensive training for the certification exam.
Other ISACA certification program elements
In addition to CISM, ISACA offers numerous certifications for those interested in information security and best practices. Other credentials worth considering include the following:
- Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)
- Certified in the Governance of Enterprise IT (CGEIT)
- Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC)
The CISA designation was created for professionals working with information systems auditing, control or security and is popular enough with employers to earn it a place on the leaderboard. The CGEIT credential targets IT professionals working in enterprise IT management, governance, strategic alignment, value delivery, and risk and resource performance management. IT professionals who are seeking careers in all aspects of risk management will find that the CRISC credential nicely meets their needs.
Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) training
Pluralsight offers a CISM learning path containing five courses and 17 hours of instruction. The courses cover the domains addressed in the exam, but the learning path is aimed at the CISM job practice areas.
CyberVista offers a CISM online training course in both live and on-demand formats. The course includes more than 16 hours of training videos, supplementary lessons, custom quizzes, practice exam questions and access to experts through the instructor. As with other CyberVista courses, the CISM training course comes with a “pass guarantee.”
Did you know?: According to CyberSeek, there are enough workers to fill only 68% of the cybersecurity job openings in the U.S. A cybersecurity certification is an important way to demonstrate the knowledge and ability to succeed in these job roles.
3. CompTIA Security+
CompTIA’s Security+ is a well-respected, vendor-neutral security certification. Security+ credential holders are recognized as possessing superior technical skills, broad knowledge and expertise in multiple security-related disciplines.
Although Security+ is an entry-level certification, the ideal candidates possess at least two years of experience working in network security and should consider first obtaining the Network+ certification. IT pros who obtain this certification have expertise in areas such as threat management, cryptography, identity management, security systems, security risk identification and mitigation, network access control, and security infrastructure. The CompTIA Security+ credential is approved by the U.S. Department of Defense to meet Directive 8140/8570.01-M requirements. In addition, the Security+ credential complies with the standards for ISO 17024.
The Security+ credential requires a single exam, currently priced at $381. (Discounts may apply to employees of CompTIA member companies and full-time students.) Training is available but not required.
IT professionals who earned the Security+ certification prior to Jan. 1, 2011, remain certified for life. Those who certify after that date must renew the certification every three years to stay current. To renew, candidates must obtain 50 continuing-education units (CEUs) or complete the CertMaster CE online course prior to the expiration of the three-year period. CEUs can be obtained by engaging in activities such as teaching, blogging, publishing articles or whitepapers, and participating in professional conferences and similar activities.
CompTIA Security+ facts and figures
Prerequisites and required courses
None. CompTIA recommends at least two years of experience in IT administration (with a security focus) and the Network+ credential before the Security+ exam. Udemy offers a complete and comprehensive course for the certification.
Number of exams
One: SY0-601 (maximum of 90 questions, 90 minutes to complete; 750 on a scale of 100-900 required to pass)
Cost of exam
$381 (discounts may apply; search for “SY0-601 voucher”)
Exam objectives, sample questions, the CertMaster online training tool, training kits, computer-based training and a comprehensive study guide are available at CompTIA.org.
CompTIA Security+ training
You’ll find several companies offering online training, instructor-led and self-study courses, practice exams and books to help you prepare for and pass the Security+ exam.
Pluralsight offers a Security+ learning path as a part of its monthly subscription plan for the latest SY0-601 exam. Split into six sections, the training series is more than 24 hours long and covers attacks, threats and vulnerabilities; architecture and design; implementation of secure solutions; operations and incident response; and governance, risk and compliance.
CyberVista offers a Security+ practice exam so you can test your security knowledge before attempting the SY0-601 exam. The test comes with a 180-day access period and includes multiple sets of exam questions, key concept flash cards, access to InstructorLink experts, a performance tracker and more. As with CyberVista’s other offerings, this practice exam comes with a “pass guarantee.”
4. CISSP: Certified Information Systems Security Professional
CISSP is an advanced-level certification for IT pros who are serious about careers in information security. Offered by the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium, known as (ISC)2 (pronounced “ISC squared”), this vendor-neutral credential is recognized worldwide for its standards of excellence.
CISSP credential holders are decision-makers who possess the expert knowledge and technical skills necessary to develop, guide and manage security standards, policies and procedures within their organizations. The CISSP certification continues to be highly sought after by IT professionals and is well recognized by IT organizations. It is a regular fixture on most-wanted and must-have security certification surveys.
CISSP is designed for experienced security professionals. A minimum of five years of experience in at least two of (ISC)2’s eight common body of knowledge (CBK) domains, or four years of experience in at least two of (ISC)2’s CBK domains and a college degree or an approved credential, is required for this certification. The CBK domains are security and risk management, asset security, security architecture and engineering, communications and network security, identity and access management, security assessment and testing, security operations, and software development security.
(ISC)2 also offers three CISSP concentrations targeting specific areas of interest in IT security:
- Architecture (CISSP-ISSAP)
- Engineering (CISSP-ISSEP)
- Management (CISSP-ISSMP)
Each CISSP concentration exam is $599, and credential seekers must currently possess a valid CISSP.
An annual fee of $125 is required to maintain the CISSP credential. Recertification is required every three years. To recertify, candidates must earn 40 CPE credits each year, for a total of 120 CPE credits within the three-year cycle.
CISSP facts and figures
Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
Optional CISSP concentrations:
Prerequisites and required courses
At least five years of paid, full-time experience in at least two of the eight (ISC)2 domains or four years of paid, full-time experience in at least two of the eight (ISC)2 domains and a college degree or an approved credential are required. Candidates must also do the following:
Number of exams
One for CISSP (English CAT exam: 100-150 questions, three hours to complete; non-English exam: 250 questions, six hours)
One for each concentration area
Cost of exam
CISSP is $749; each CISSP concentration is $599.
Training materials include instructor-led, live online, on-demand and private training. There is an exam outline available for review, as well as study guides, a study app, interactive flash cards and practice tests.
Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) training
Given the popularity of the CISSP certification, there is no shortage of available training options. These include classroom-based training offered by (ISC)2, as well as online video courses, practice exams and books from third-party companies.
Pluralsight’s CISSP learning path includes 12 courses and 25 hours of e-learning covering the security concepts required for the certification exam. Available for a low monthly fee, the CISSP courses are part of a subscription plan that gives IT professionals access to Pluralsight’s complete library of video training courses.
When you’re ready to test your security knowledge, you can take a simulated exam that mimics the format and content of the real CISSP exam. Udemy offers CISSP practice tests to help you prepare for this challenging exam.
5. CISA: Certified Information Systems Auditor
ISACA’s globally recognized CISA certification is the gold standard for IT workers seeking to practice in information security, audit control and assurance. Ideal candidates can identify and assess organizational threats and vulnerabilities, assess compliance, and provide guidance and organizational security controls. CISA-certified professionals demonstrate knowledge and skill across the CISA job practice areas of auditing, governance and management, acquisition, development and implementation, maintenance and service management, and asset protection.
To earn the CISA certification, candidates must pass one exam, submit an application, agree to the code of professional ethics, agree to the CPE requirements and agree to the organization’s information systems auditing standards. In addition, candidates must possess at least five years of experience working with information systems. Some substitutions for education and experience with auditing are permitted.
To maintain the CISA certification, candidates must earn 120 CPE credits over a three-year period, with a minimum of 20 CPE credits earned annually. Candidates must also pay an annual maintenance fee ($45 for members; $85 for nonmembers).
CISA facts and figures
Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)
Prerequisites and required courses
To obtain the CISA credential, candidates must do the following:
Number of exams
One: 150 questions, four hours
Cost of exam
$575 (members); $760 (nonmembers)
ISACA offers a variety of training options, including virtual instructor-led courses, online and on-demand training, review manuals and question databases. Numerous books and self-study materials are also available on Amazon.
Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) training
Training opportunities for the CISA certification are plentiful. Udemy offers more than 160 CISA-related courses, lectures, practice exams, question sets and more. On Pluralsight, you’ll find 12 courses with 27 hours of information systems auditor training covering all CISA job practice domains for the CISA job practice areas.
Beyond the top 5: More cybersecurity certifications
In addition to these must-have credentials, many other certifications are available to fit the career needs of any IT professional interested in information security. Business owners should consider employing workers with these credentials as well.
- The SANS GIAC Security Essentials (GSEC) certification remains an excellent entry-level credential for IT professionals seeking to demonstrate that they not only understand information security terminology and concepts but also possess the skills and technical expertise necessary to occupy “hands-on” security roles.
- If you find incident response and investigation intriguing, check out the Logical Operations CyberSec First Responder (CFR) certification. This ANSI-accredited and U.S. DoD-8570-compliant credential recognizes security professionals who can design secure IT environments, perform threat analysis, and respond appropriately and effectively to cyberattacks. Logical Operations also offers other certifications, including Master Mobile Application Developer (MMAD), Certified Virtualization Professional (CVP), Cyber Secure Coder and CloudMASTER.
- The associate-level Cisco Certified CyberOps Associate certification is aimed at analysts in security operations centers at large companies and organizations. Candidates who qualify through Cisco’s global scholarship program may receive free training, mentoring and testing to help them achieve a range of entry-level to expert certifications that the company offers. CompTIA Cybersecurity Analyst (CySA+), which launched in 2017, is a vendor-neutral certification designed for professionals with three to four years of security and behavioral analytics experience.
- The Identity Management Institute offers several credentials for identity and access management, data protection, identity protection, identity governance and more. The International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), which focuses on privacy, has a small but growing number of certifications as well.
- The SECO-Institute, in cooperation with the Security Academy Netherlands and APMG, is behind the Cyber Security & Governance Certification Program; SECO-Institute certifications aren’t well known in the United States, but their popularity is growing.
- It also may be worth your time to browse the Chartered Institute of Information Security accreditations, the U.K. equivalent of the U.S. DoD 8570 certifications and the corresponding 8140 framework.
Also, consider these five entry-level cybersecurity certifications for more options.
Tip: Before you decide to purchase training for a certification or an exam voucher, see if your employer will cover the cost. Employers may cover all or part of the cost if you have a continuing education or training allowance, or if the certification is in line with your current or potential job duties.
Information security and cybersecurity jobs
According to CyberSeek, the number of cybersecurity job openings in the U.S. stands at almost 598,000, with about 1.05 million cybersecurity professionals employed in today’s workforce. Projections continue to be robust: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects 33% growth in information security analyst positions between 2020 and 2030; in comparison, the average rate of growth for all occupations is about 8%.
Security-related job roles include information security specialist, security analyst, network security administrator, system administrator (with security as a responsibility) and security engineer, as well as specialized roles, like malware engineer, intrusion analyst and penetration tester.
Average salaries for information security specialists and security engineers – two of the most common job roles – vary depending on the source. For example, SimplyHired reports about $74,000 for specialist positions, whereas Glassdoor‘s national average is about $108,000. For security engineers, SimplyHired reports almost $112,000, while Glassdoor’s average is more than $111,000, with salaries on the high end reported at $261,000. Note that these numbers frequently change as the sources regularly update their data. [Meet the man who kept Microsoft safe and secure for more than a decade.]
Our informal job board survey from April 2022 reports the number of job posts nationwide in which our featured certifications were mentioned on a given day. This should give you an idea of the relative popularity of each certification.
Job board search results (in alphabetical order by cybersecurity certification)
Did you know?: Cybersecurity matters even when you’re traveling. Find out how to keep your computer secure when you’re on the road for business or pleasure.
The importance of hiring information security and cybersecurity professionals
According to Risk Based Security‘s 2021 Year End Data Breach Quickview Report, there were 4,145 publicly disclosed breaches throughout 2021, containing over 22 billion records. This is the second-highest number of breached records, after an all-time high the year before. The U.S. was particularly affected, with the number of breaches increasing 10% compared with the previous year. More than 80% of the records exposed throughout 2021 were due to human error, highlighting an ever-increasing need for cybersecurity education, as well as for highly skilled and trained cybersecurity professionals. [Learn how to recover from a data breach.]
If you’re serious about advancing your career in the IT field and are interested in specializing in security, certification is a great choice. It’s an effective way to validate your skills and show a current or prospective employer that you’re qualified and properly trained. If you’re a business owner, hiring certified professionals and skilled IT managers can help prevent cyberattacks and provide confidence that your company’s security is in the right hands. In the meantime, review our quick cybersecurity tips to improve your company’s protection.
Jeremy Bender contributed to the writing and research in this article.