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Critical Certifications for Your Cybersecurity Career – A Guide

bestpractices career ccl chronicle sydneywilliams Apr 11, 2024
group of young professionals feeling successful, walking down the stairs, after finishing getting industry relevant certifications and growing their careers

Cybersecurity certifications are more than just badges, they are a display of expertise and commitment to development. Certifications serve to advance cybersecurity careers through structured frameworks for acquiring specialized information and skills. They are the catalysts for continuous learning, professional development, and enable cybersecurity professionals to do their jobs as effectively as possible.  

From the Certified Chief Information Security Officer to the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH), the cybersecurity certification landscape holds many credentials tailored to different sectors and levels of expertise. Navigating this landscape can be difficult, especially for those just entering the field. When choosing certifications, it’s essential to methodically plan out what certifications will be essential or not, figuring out what an individual’s advanced career goals are years down the line, before starting any courses or classes. It is also important to have a solid understanding of the industry’s ever-evolving demands for potential hires, the ability to recognize the relevance of certain certifications, and the knowledge of the cybersecurity sector that an individual wants to pursue a career in.   

In the process of the strategic planning that’s needed to begin taking certification courses, one must know the “what” and “why” of certifications, the impact certifications have on varying career goals, subsequent salaries, and which certifications are best for each level of cybersecurity competence. Through this strategic planning process professionals should choose the certifications that will align with their goals and provide them with the knowledge and skills needed to advance their position and pay.  


An Introduction to Certifications and How They Function 

The Cambridge dictionary defines a certification as, “the process of earning an official document... as proof that something has happened or been done.” Cybersecurity certifications serve as a professional endorsement and the official documentation of a person’s knowledge and skills within a particular domain. They are tailored for individuals who work in the cybersecurity field, or similarly aligned fields like IT, and offer specialized training with the most updated information, tools, and software available. Cyber security certification training teaches professionals to effectively identify, preempt, and mitigate a spectrum of cybersecurity threats and challenges through hands-on education and certified instructors.   

Cybersecurity professionals use certifications as the foundations of their expertise, falling back on that knowledge when faced with unexpected challenges. They are also necessary when applying for jobs. When a professional successfully passes an exam or completes a course, they receive a certification that becomes a physical indicator of their skills and advanced knowledge to potential employers. Obtaining certifications is in high demand from employers, based on a study made by Microsoft, “Of the 82,000 job postings for limited experience cybersecurity professionals, 54% of those jobs are looking for at least one certification in their job postings.” Having at least one certification, in addition to relevant experience, is crucial due to the effect it has on job opportunities and salaries. Certifications are also non-negotiable for some specialized cybersecurity jobs because of the niche knowledge and skills required to fulfill the role.  

Since certain cybersecurity roles require specialized knowledge, and not just anybody can fill these roles, the smaller few with certifications are in high demand. This means that the pay for some cybersecurity jobs is higher than others. Infosec reports an upward trend of compensation for certification holders, revealing that the average base salary for those with a Security+ certification went up 11.4%, from $78,000 to about $86,885, between 2022 and 2023. This data shows clear indications that having certifications and knowledge that are outside the abilities of general professionals leads to those professionals being paid significantly well by employers. The combination of certifications and the knowledge and experience they provide, along with general skills like communication and organization, become part of a certain standard of excellence that employers look for in cybersecurity professionals. The trend of having a set of skills that are specialized and not easily found, in addition to broader skillsets, is referred to as having “T-shaped skills”. Obtaining certain certifications over others, along with sharpening cross-disciplinary skills, can make professionals stand out even more to employers against other professionals that also have certifications.   

Understanding which certifications to choose out of the plethora of options available can be compared to finding a single fish in a vast ocean. One must look through all options thoroughly before choosing. Certifications are classified by both level and specialization. The certification levels align with a professional's general skillset and knowledge, starting at the entry-level and moving up to the advanced and executive level. This is similar to having a bachelor's level of education versus having a doctorate. Certification specializations refer to the specific sectors of cybersecurity such as IT, architecture and engineering, or penetration testing.  

Foundational level certifications, like CompTIA Security+, cover a broad scope of information on cybersecurity that are made for entry-level professionals. Mid-level certifications, like Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA), cover more specific topics and information within the different cybersecurity sectors and are made for people a few years into their careers. High-level certifications, like GIAC Security Expert (GSE), are certifications that cover highly specific technical information and are made for senior professionals and those looking to become executives. Specialized certifications can be categorized into any of the previously mentioned levels, but they are specific to the different cybersecurity sectors. It’s important to understand the distinctions between the varying levels and specializations, along with the overall importance of obtaining certifications, because of the impact they have on the job market. When building up skills through certifications, the most important part of the process is knowing what certifications to get and where they will lead in career development.   


Impact of Certifications on Career Choices 

By choosing the right certification for their career path, professionals open doors for coveted job roles and other opportunities. Currently, the top cybersecurity certifications in demand are:  

  • CompTIA Security+ 
  • Certified Chief Information Security Officer (CCISO) 
  • Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) 
  • Certified Information Systems Security Manager (CISSP) 
  • Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC) 
  • Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) 

But where do these certifications lead? 

There are 8 different sectors of work that security certifications fall under:  

  • Communication and Network Security 
  • Identity and Access Management (IAM) 
  • Security Architecture and Engineering 
  • Asset Security 
  • Security and Risk Management 
  • Security Assessment and Testing 
  • Software Security 
  • Security Operations   

Some certifications only fall under one sector, while others fall under multiple. For example, Security+ is an entry-level certification that falls under 5 different sectors, asset security, security and risk management, security assessment and testing, software security, and security operations. Each sector offers distinct career paths with corresponding certifications on every level, entry to advanced, that provide specialized knowledge tailored to specific roles and responsibilities.  

There are multiple different certifications to choose from in every sector, and there is no set path for one person to pursue. It is up to the individual to do careful research and choose the ones that best suit their needs. Below are some examples of potential certifications that can be obtained in each sector for each experience level, along with an overview of what each sector encompasses. 

Communication and Network Security 

The communication and network security sector oversees the policies, procedures, and practices created to protect and monitor communication and information systems from unauthorized access. Those looking to work in this sector would be focused on areas like internet protocol (IP) networking, wireless and cellular networks, operation of hardware, network access control (NAC) devices, and endpoint security. CompTIA Network+ is one of the best starting certifications for this sector, as it gives the best foundation to effectively manage today’s networks. This is followed by Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) at the intermediate level, and Cisco Certified Implementation Expert – Security (CCIE Sec) or Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert – Enterprise Infrastructure (CCIE Ent) at the high level. These certifications all cover the specialized topics of communication and network security, moving from generalized to niche as the experience levels progress.  

Identity and Access Management 

The identity and access management sector covers the management of user roles and user access to enterprise information. People working in this sector ensure that only the right people have complete access to the right information, and they protect that information against unauthorized access. Those looking to work in this sector would be focused on areas like single sign-on authentication, data encryption, rule and risk-based access control, and security frameworks. IMI Certified Access Management Specialist is one of the entry-level certifications to start with in this sector, followed by IDPro Certified Identity Professional (CIDPRO) or higher-level IMI certifications (i.e. IMI Certified Identity Governance Expert) at the intermediate level, and Cisco Certified Implementation Expert – Security (CCIE Sec) or Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert – Enterprise Infrastructure (CCIE Ent) at the high level. These two high-level Cisco certifications are applicable across both the IAM and communication and network security sectors. These certifications all cover the specialized topics of identity and access management, moving from generalized to niche as the experience levels progress. 

Security Architecture and Engineering 

The security architecture and engineering sector encompasses the design and implementation of tools, systems, policies, and technologies to protect IT and business assets from threats. The architecture side of this sector designs these protection elements, and the engineering side implements them, ensuring they function as intended. Those looking to work in this sector would be focusing on areas like assessment, access control, cloud systems, security frameworks and infrastructure, and system infiltrations. Mosse Institute System Administration Fundamentals (MSAF) is one good example of an entry-level certification to start with, followed by (ISC)2 Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP) at the intermediate level, and VMware Certified Design Expert in Datacenter Virtualization (VCDX DCV) or VMware Certified Implementation Expert in Datacenter Virtualization (VCIX DVC) at the high level. These certifications all cover the specialized topics of security architecture and engineering, moving from generalized to niche as the experience levels progress.   

Asset Security 

The asset security sector covers an organization’s data and its collection, storage, maintenance, retention, and destruction. The data of an organization includes employee information, an organization's business partners, lists of equipment belonging to the organization, client information, and more.  Those looking to work in this sector would be focused on areas like data handling and protection, asset classification, malware detection and protection, access control management, and security policies. IAPP Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) is one entry-level certification to start with, followed by Certified Identity Management Professional (CIMP) or IMI Certified in Data Protection (CDP) at the intermediate level, and Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) at the high level. These certifications all cover the specialized topics of asset security, moving from generalized to niche as the experience levels progress.  

Security and Risk Management 

The security and risk management sector involves the identification, assessment, and control of security risks within an organization. A major part of this sector is the identification of security risks and the creation and implementation of policies and procedures to mitigate and respond to the risks. Those looking to work in this sector would be focused on areas like risk assessment and analysis, security governance and policy, change management, supply chain, and training and awareness. Security+ is one of the best certifications to start with at the entry-level, as it provides a solid foundation on how to recommend and implement security solutions. This is followed by Certified CMMC Professional (CCP) or Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC) at the intermediate level, and Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) at the high level. These certifications all cover the specialized topics of security and risk management, moving from generalized to niche as the experience levels progress.  

Security Assessment and Testing 

The security assessment and testing sector deals with the assessment of security controls and the identification of system vulnerabilities not addressed by security procedures and policies. This sector is responsible for ensuring that the correct security controls are implemented and that the controls are fully functioning and producing the desired outcomes. Those looking to work in this sector would be focused on areas like network scanning, treat modeling, compliance checks, and vulnerability assessment. Security+ can be a good choice of certification at the entry level, as it relates to the implementation of security solutions, along with Systems Security Certified Practitioner (SSCP). This is followed by GIAC Certified Intrusion Analyst (GCIA) at the intermediate level, and the GIAC Security Expert (GSE) at the high level. These certifications all cover the specialized topics of security assessment and testing, moving from generalized to niche as the experience levels progress.    

Software Security 

The software security sector encompasses the implementation of software-based security protocols to protect computer programs and their sensitive information from malicious attacks. Those looking to work in this sector would be focused on areas like risk analysis, auditing, maturity models, and software-designed security. SECO Secure Programming Foundation (S-SPF) is an example of an entry-level certification for this sector, followed by Certified Application Security Engineer (CASE) at the intermediate level, and the GIAC Security Expert (GSE) at the high level. These certifications all cover the specialized topics of software security, moving from generalized to niche as the experience levels progress.    

Security Operations 

The security operations sector covers the ongoing monitoring, detection, and response to security threats and incidents within an IT environment. This sector is meant to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of data and systems. Those looking to work in this sector would be focused on areas like intrusion detection and prevention, firewalls, penetration testing, and threat intelligence. There are some sub-sections of this sector, which include forensics, incident handling, penetration testing, and exploitation. EC Council Certified Network Defender (CND) is one example of an entry-level certification, followed by the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) or GIAC Certified Incident Handler (GCIH) at the intermediate level, and OffSec Experienced Pentester (OSEP) or GIAC Reverse Engineering Malware Certification (GREM) at the high level. These certifications all cover the specialized topics of security operations, moving from generalized to niche as the experience levels progress.    

To see more examples of certifications and the sectors they fall under, check here.  

These certifications serve as valuable guides for professionals looking to pursue career paths in cybersecurity. By strategically selecting certifications that align with an individual’s interest and career goals, professionals can chart a course towards success.   


Navigating the Certification Journey 

There are clear distinctions between the certifications that are based on experience level. Many certifications are built upon the knowledge gained from previous courses and programs, so it is important to understand the differences between experience levels, what is expected within these varying levels, and the kinds of certifications that should be pursued at each level.  

Beginning Level Certifications 

Starting at the entry-level, aspiring cybersecurity professionals should seek out foundational certifications to provide the necessary fundamental knowledge and skills in cybersecurity. The beginner and entry-level positions serve as a steppingstone into the field of cyber security, focusing mainly on building up the basic knowledge and skills needed. CompTIA Security+ and Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) are the popular choices for entry-level professionals, as they offer comprehensive training in core cybersecurity concepts like ethical hacking, cybersecurity operations, and network security. Security+ is good for beginner level professionals because it helps set up a solid foundation of knowledge by going into general cybersecurity concepts, common security operations and management, security architecture models, and common threats, vulnerabilities and mitigations. CEH programs are also a good choice for beginner-level professionals because they cover the basics of incident handling and penetration testing that are major parts of cybersecurity operations. These certifications serve as the first step in getting roles such as security analyst, network administrator, or incident responder.  

Mid-Level Certifications 

Mid-level professionals are those who lead teams of others or are otherwise in charge of different areas within a company. The difference between an entry-level employee and a mid-level employee is level of experience, pay, and responsibility. For example, a security manager would be mid-level, while a risk analyst would be entry-level. Beginner and mid-level professionals looking to specialize in a specific field or advance their careers in general should move toward intermediate certifications that delve deeper into the specific domains of cybersecurity.  Certified Information Systems Security Officer (CISSO), Certified Information Security Manager (CISM), and Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP) are some intermediate certifications highly valued in the industry. They all offer more advanced training and knowledge in areas like risk management, governance, and cloud security. CISSO is a popular choice for intermediate certifications because the program teaches professionals to work with organizations' IT security systems, run security audits, create security reports, and more. This certification is also a preliminary one to the more advanced CISSP certifications. CISM is another good choice for intermediate certification because it leads to positions in management through lessons on risk assessment, implementation, and the development and management of information security programs. CCSP provides professionals with more in-depth information on cloud-based cybersecurity, which is becoming more and more prominent in the field. These certifications lead to roles such as varying cybersecurity project manager positions, security architect, or compliance officer.  

High-Level Certifications 

Finally, high-level professionals are those that have a large role in the operations of a company or organization. They are the big decision makers, vice presidents, and executives that have the most experience and a complete understanding of how the company operates and relates to other businesses and the community. Those looking to rise to this position as a seasoned professional should pursue certifications that demonstrate mastery, leadership, and forward-thinking within the cybersecurity field. Certified Information Systems Security Engineering Professional (CISSP-ISSEP), Certified Information Systems Security Architecture Professional (CISSP-ISSAP), Certified Information Systems Security Management Professional (CISSP-ISSMP), Certified Chief Information Security Officer (CCISO) are esteemed certifications that represent expertise in specialized areas like security engineering, architecture, and management. All three CISSP certifications go into depth about specific cybersecurity subjects and teach professionals how to lead cybersecurity programs within the specific subjects, and how to design, implement, and manage these programs at an enterprise level. The CCISO certification focuses on the application of information security management principles from an executive management point of view, not just technical knowledge. This certification is essential for those looking to rise to the executive level. Obtaining the CCISO certification prepares professionals for the life of an executive through leadership training, lessons on board readiness, case-studies that work through cybersecurity concerns at all levels of an organization, and more critical instruction on practical applications of in-depth security concepts. These certifications will lead to coveted roles such as senior security engineer or architect, Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), operational cybersecurity executive, and senior consultant.  



In cybersecurity, certifications serve as a pillar of professional excellence by guiding professionals toward their career goals and aspirations and empowering them to gain new knowledge. It is important to note that while certifications provide professionals with a solid foundation to work from, cybersecurity is a dynamic and ever-evolving space. All cybersecurity professionals must embrace the pursuit of continuous learning and adaptation to stay ahead within this landscape by using certifications as strategic tools for career advancement. There must be a culture of lifelong learning, using resources like online courses, workshops, and conferences, to deepen expertise and adapt to industry trends.   

Hard skills like coding, scripting, and a level of familiarity with cybersecurity tools and technologies add to the knowledge gained from certification training, allowing professionals to tackle complex challenges and adapt quickly to threats. Soft skills like communication, problem-solving, leadership, and teamwork are equally crucial for effective collaboration, but not many certification programs focus on building them. At CLASS-LLC our CEM course, along with our other classes and services, ensures that professionals are prepared on all levels. From hard to soft skills and professional development, CLASS-LLC prides itself on fully equipping professionals with everything they need to advance in their careers. 

In addition to soft and hard skills, experience and hands-on practice play a pivotal role in maintaining and sharpening cybersecurity skills. Hands-on experience through internships, lab exercises, and real-world projects provide valuable insights and practical knowledge that can’t be replicated through certification exams alone. Employers increasingly value candidates with a combination of certifications and relevant and practical experience. 

The journey may be challenging, but with dedication, perseverance, and a commitment to lifelong learning, the possibilities for success are limitless. The way forward starts with accredited programs that are made with professionals’ interest in mind. Here at CLASS-LLC we are here to help foster the education and continuous education of cybersecurity professionals through our custom-tailored courses like our Cyber Executive Masterclass, which is made for aspiring executives looking to gain a CCISO certification. CLASS-LLC also offers corporate training options for certification that are made for whole teams to be certified with instructors that are fully certified with the same certifications they will be teaching. The rates for both individual and group certifications are highly competitive against others offering the same certification.  

Visit us at CLASS-LLC to learn more about our programs and experience our values of competence, company, and community. In this ever-evolving world of cybersecurity don’t allow yourself to fall behind; choose excellence over stagnation, bettering yourself as you take strides in continuous education toward the top. We wish you well in your certification research and journey through the cyber world. 

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