How To Become a Penetration Tester (With Salary and Skills)

Updated March 16, 2023

As the information technology (IT) field continues to grow, the industry remains a viable choice for individuals who want to earn an attractive income and have job security. A critical position in the field to consider is that of a penetration tester, which helps organizations by finding and exposing cybersecurity threats and fixing the weaknesses in their networks that affect their digital resources. Understanding their job duties and career requirements can help you determine whether you want to pursue this career.

In this article, we explain how to become a penetration tester, share a list of skills to develop to be successful in the role and provide information on the average salary and job outlook for the position.

What is a penetration tester?

A penetration tester is an individual in information security who works to discover potential security threats to an organization's networks. Especially for some industries, the potential for cybersecurity hacks is high, and these threats to networks are common, so penetration testers are an essential addition to any IT team. Due to the nature of their work, penetration testers may work for a company, provide freelance services for business clients or find employment with a firm specializing in penetration testing for enterprise-level organizations.

It's common for penetration testers to work in an office on-site, but they may also find that they can work remotely from their own home or an off-site location. While some penetration testers may work a standard workweek with traditional business hours, it's also common for these testers to work overtime, longer hours, overnight, weekends and holidays depending on the requirements of the project, client or organization they're working on and with. A penetration tester has several responsibilities, including:

  • Conducting threat analyses for an organization and writing a report for stakeholders and other people who work in IT

  • Evaluating current security operations and providing recommendations to improve systems

  • Performing penetration tests on software, networks and other parts of the IT team's equipment and programs

  • Testing networks specifically to understand current vulnerabilities

  • Providing support to network administrators to help eliminate threats

  • Keeping updated on various ways hackers get into exposed systems

  • Forming incident response teams to address any breaches

  • Creating potential loss reports to display the effects of security issues to other departments

Related: FAQ: Why Is Penetration Testing Important? (With 7 Reasons)

How to become a penetration tester

If you want to become a penetration tester, follow these steps to begin your career:

1. Earn a high school diploma

Because a minimum of a bachelor's degree is usually required for the role, the first step to becoming a penetration tester is to earn your high school diploma or equivalent. Consider taking courses in computer science, calculus and other subjects that can support your chosen career path. You may even want to sign up to work for your school's technology lab or take advanced placement (AP) courses so you can earn college credit while you're in school. These steps can help you gain experience in the field and assist you with feeling more prepared to begin your college courses.

Related: How To Start a Career in IT

2. Obtain a bachelor's degree in a related field

Most employers require a minimum of a bachelor's degree to begin working as a penetration tester. Explore the different bachelor's degree programs that are available at the school of your choice. Consider majoring in computer science, cybersecurity, information technology or another field that can help secure your entry into the field so you can begin working as a penetration tester. While in school, try to do well in your required courses and sign up for electives that can further your understanding of the industry. For example, you may take classes in programming, application development, network administration or computer security.

Related: What Is a Cybersecurity Degree? (With Courses and Benefits)

3. Gain experience

After graduation, you can start working in an entry-level position in information technology so you can gain the experience you may require to qualify for a role as a penetration tester. Post-graduation, search for jobs in software development, programming, help desk supportcoding or other entry-level jobs where you can work alongside other individuals in your field, be responsible for IT projects and potentially earn promotions toward becoming a penetration tester.

Related: How To Get an Entry-Level IT Job (With Jobs List)

4. Earn professional certifications

Many employers prefer that the penetration testers they hire have both a bachelor's degree in a related field and professional certifications that prove their knowledge of the industry and commitment to their career. There are several certifications available that can appeal to a hiring manager who's reviewing candidates for penetration tester positions, all of which can show that you have the core competencies you require to excel in the role.

Related: 17 Penetration Testing Certifications To Benefit Your Career

5. Join peer groups

Peer groups and professional associations can give you access to other people in the industry who may be able to assist you with finding a position as a penetration tester. You can also learn from others, attend workshops and conferences, find a mentor and get involved with freelance projects you can include on your resume and later discuss with a hiring manager. These groups are also a great way to ensure you remain current with trends and news in the field of penetration testing or IT as a discipline.

Related: How To Find a Mentor in 8 Steps (Plus Mentorship Tips)

Foundational skills for a penetration tester

Review this list of the best skills to develop or improve upon to find success as a penetration tester:

  • Problem-solving: Cybersecurity threats are a problem for any organization, and there may be a variety of potential threats lurking at any time. Problem-solving skills can help penetration testers address potential network security breaches.

  • Communication: As a penetration tester, it's important to be able to work alongside other people who work in IT and communicate what you discover or what support you require from them to finish a project.

  • System administration: Your job as a penetration tester involves knowing how the different components, like servers and networks, work together. Then you're better able to look for existing or potential threats and other issues.

  • Computer languages: Having a knowledge of computer languages can help you navigate various programs, tools and online software to make sure the threat of security breaches remains small.

  • Security tools: There are also plenty of security tools that are important to know how to complete your duties as a penetration tester. The more familiar you are with the various tools, the more appealing your resume may be to a hiring manager or human resources associate.

To become an even better penetration tester, it's important to know about these topics:

  • Password cracking

  • Social engineering

  • Mobile hacking

  • Cryptography

  • Malware

  • SQL injection

Related: 14 SQL Interview Questions for Testers With Example Answers

Penetration tester salary and job outlook

The national average salary for penetration testers in the United States is $123,330 per year, although where you live can affect your earnings. Your education, certifications and overall experience can also affect how much an employer pays you for this role. Penetration testers also report these common benefits, which may be a part of your overall compensation package:

  • Health, dental and vision insurance

  • Paid time off

  • On-site gym

  • Parental leave

  • Flexible spending account

  • Tuition reimbursement

  • 401(k) with matching

  • Employee referral program

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for information security analysts, which is the classification penetration testers fall under, may grow by 35% from 2021 to 2031, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.

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