5 Cybersecurity Career Paths (and How to Get Started)

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

A career in cybersecurity can go in many directions. Learn about five popular career paths.

[Featured image] A cybersecurity engineer in a blue long-sleeve shirt stands in an open office space holding their tablet.

Pursuing a career in cybersecurity means joining a booming industry where available jobs outnumber qualified candidates. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of cybersecurity jobs is expected to increase by 32 percent between 2022 and 2032 [1]. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this demand. 

As cybersecurity continues to grow in importance, more specialized roles are emerging. Starting as a cybersecurity analyst creates opportunities to follow your interests within the world of information security and create a career path that’s right for you. Learn about five common career paths within this high-demand field. 

Getting started: Entry-level cybersecurity jobs

If you’re new to cybersecurity, you may start out in an entry-level IT role, such as a help desk technician, network administrator, or software developer. Many cybersecurity professionals enter the field as a junior information security analyst after gaining some experience in IT.

Before you apply for your first cybersecurity role, take some time to develop core IT skills, including programming, networks and systems administration, and cloud computing. While you don’t necessarily need a degree to get a job in cybersecurity, having some form of structured training might accelerate your path toward a job.

The Microsoft Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate is designed to introduce the skills and knowledge you’ll need for an entry-level role as a cybersecurity analyst.

Read more: Cybersecurity Degrees and Alternatives

5 career paths for an information security analyst

As a cybersecurity analyst, you can decide to take your career in a few different directions, depending on your interests and goals. 

If you enjoy planning and building, you may choose to pursue security engineering and architecture. Maybe you enjoy the thrill of incident response, or perhaps you’d prefer to hone your hacking skills to stay one step ahead of bad actors. 

Let’s take a closer look at five ways you could specialize within security as you advance through your career.

1. Engineering and architecture

Black and blue text on a blue and white background that reads: "You enjoy tinkering with technology. Security engineers build defense systems against a range of security concerns."

As a security engineer, you’ll use your knowledge of threats and vulnerabilities to build and implement defense systems against a range of security concerns. You may advance to become a security architect, responsible for your organization's entire security infrastructure. 

Security engineering and architecture could be a good fit if you enjoy tinkering with technology and like to take a big picture approach to cybersecurity.

Skills to develop:

  • Critical thinking

  • IT networking

  • System administration

  • Risk assessment

Common certifications: CompTIA Security+, Systems Security Certified Practitioner (SSCP), Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), Google Professional Cloud Security Engineer

Read more: What Is a Security Engineer?

2. Incident response

Black and blue text on a blue and white background that says "You work well under pressure. Incident responders work to fix vulnerabilities and minimize loss when breaches occur."

Despite a company’s best security efforts, security incidents still happen. The field of incident response involves the next steps after a security incident. As an incident responder, you’ll monitor your company’s network and work to fix vulnerabilities and minimize loss when breaches occur. 

Another area of incident response involves digital forensics and cybercrime. Digital forensic investigators work with law enforcement to retrieve data from digital devices and investigate cybercrimes. 

Incident response could be a good fit if you work well under pressure and love a good mystery. 

Skills to develop:

  • Attention to detail

  • Technical writing and documentation

  • Intrusion detection tools

  • Forensics software

Common certifications: GIAC Certified Incident Handler (GCIH), EC-Council Certified Incident Handler (ECIH), Certified Computer Examiner (CCE), Certified Computer Forensics Examiner (CCFE)

3. Management and administration

Black and blue text on a white and blue background that says "You're an excellent communicator. Cybersecurity managers coordinate between teams to ensure security compliance."

As you gain experience in cybersecurity, you may choose to advance toward a leadership position within your organization. Cybersecurity managers oversee an organization’s network and computer security systems. In this role, you might manage security teams, coordinate between teams, and ensure security compliance. Typically, the highest security role in an organization is that of chief information security officer (CISO). Working in security at the executive level often means managing operations, policies, and budgets across the company’s security infrastructure.

Management and administration could be a good fit if you’re organized, an excellent communicator, and enjoy working with people.

Skills to develop:

  • Project management

  • Risk management

  • Leadership

  • Collaboration

Common certifications: Certified Information Security Manager (CISM), GIAC Certified Project Manager (GCPM), CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional)

4. Consulting

Black and blue text on a white and blue background that says "You like to help others. Security consultants test network systems for vulnerabilities and security risks."

Companies hire security consultants to test their computer and network systems for any vulnerabilities or security risks. In this role, you get to practice cybersecurity offense and defense by testing systems for vulnerabilities and making recommendations on how to strengthen those systems.

Consulting could be a good fit if you enjoy variety and want to make an impact by helping others manage their security.

Skills to develop:

  • Penetration and vulnerability testing

  • Threat management

  • Operating systems

  • Encryption

Common certifications: CompTIA Security+, Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP), Systems Security Certified Practitioner (SSCP), Certified Security Consultant (CSC)

5. Testing and hacking

Black and blue text on a white and blue background that says "You like a challenge. Ethical hackers get paid to (legally) hack into networks and computer systems."

This field of cybersecurity goes by many names, offensive security, red team, white hat hacking, and ethical hacking among them. If you work in offensive security, you’ll take a proactive approach to cybersecurity. You’ll do this by playing the part of the intruder, trying to find vulnerabilities before the bad guys do. 

As a penetration tester, you’ll seek to identify and exploit system weaknesses to help companies build more secure systems. As an ethical hacker, you can try out even more attack vectors (like social engineering) to reveal security weaknesses.

Testing and hacking could be a good fit if you want to outsmart the bad guys and get paid to (legally) hack into networks and computer systems.

Skills to develop:

  • Cryptography

  • Penetration testing

  • Computer networking

  • Scripting

Common certifications: Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH), CompTIA PenTest+, GIAC Penetration Tester (GPEN), Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP)

Read more: How to Become a Penetration Tester

How much can you make? Cybersecurity salaries by role

Cybersecurity professionals tend to get paid well for their skills, even at the entry level. As you gain experience and move into more advanced roles, salaries often go up as well. To give you an idea of what’s possible, here’s a look at the average total pay of several cybersecurity jobs in the US in October 2023, according to Glassdoor.

Get started in cybersecurity

If you’re interested in starting a career in cybersecurity, consider the Microsoft Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate on Coursera. This program is designed ​​to help individuals with no previous experience learn in-demand skills, and prepare for Microsoft’s SC-900 exam and a first job in cybersecurity, all at their own pace.

Article sources

  1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Information Security Analysts, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/information-security-analysts.htm." Accessed October 2, 2023.

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