A security specialist, also known as an IT security specialist or a cyber security specialist, is responsible for developing and implementing security measures for an organization. As a security specialist, your overarching goal is to analyze current security procedures and suggest changes to upper management for improving efficiency and overall security.
Security specialists can find employment in a broad range of commercial, governmental, and not-for-profit organizations. To qualify for this position, you tend to need a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree in a related subject. However, employers may also ask for the attainment of certain certificates. Even if these extra qualifications aren’t required, they can still give you a leg up when it comes to applying for jobs.
We have compiled all the relevant information about the security specialist role, so you can decide whether this is the ideal career path for you. We reveal the essential aspects of the position, how to get hired, data on salary expectations, and the best companies that are hiring.
What does a security specialist do?
In today’s era of ever-escalating cyber attacks, organizations need to have security measures in place that will protect their sensitive data and systems. The fact that more and more businesses are relying on cloud computing, technology, and remote work presents further reasons to prioritize security infrastructure. There is simply more sensitive information that needs safeguarding.
This is where IT security specialists come in. These cyber security experts use their in-depth understanding of security threats, technologies, and countermeasures to ensure that an organization has robust computer security systems. A security specialist will run regular checks on network and computer systems and suggest improvements where necessary. This makes them responsible for staying up to date with existing best practices and responses to novel threats.
Organizations hire security specialists to prevent security breaches, which involves identifying any system weaknesses that a cyber criminal might exploit. A security specialist should also research evolving risks (new methods that cyber criminals employ) and implement changes that take all known risks into account.
As a security specialist, you will spend your days studying the devices in use and testing security measures like firewalls and other software. This role also involves reporting to more senior members of the IT team and presenting any findings and recommendations. Security specialists also collaborate with other departments to ensure that colleagues are aware of how to practice good IT security.
Security specialists are vital members of any cyber security team. Without them, there would be an increased risk of cyberattacks, which can lead to the loss of consumer confidence, leaks of private information, network failures, stalled production, and compliance violations. For this reason, security specialists are necessary to maintain the overall operations and credibility of a company.
The exact role of a security specialist will vary, of course. These differing responsibilities will depend on factors like:
- Whether you work for a governmental or non-governmental organization
- The industry you work in (some industries might have more demanding security needs than others)
- The size of the organization and/or the size of its IT team
- Your level of IT and cyber security experience
- Your level of education
- Any additional qualifications you have
Nonetheless, as a security specialist, you will likely be expected to carry out the following essential tasks:
- Developing plans to protect computer files against unauthorized changes, destruction, or disclosure
- Penetration testing, or performing a simulated cyberattack to identify vulnerabilities in a system and gain insights on how to correct for these
- Selecting, implementing, monitoring, and upgrading antivirus and malware software
- Encrypting data transmissions and putting up firewalls to conceal private information during transmission
- Implementing password authentication to stop unauthorized users from accessing sensitive information
- Modifying security files to accommodate new software, resolve errors, and alter user access status
- Carrying out risk assessments and tests on data processing activities and security programs
- Educating workers about IT security and promoting awareness about cyber security protocols and throughout the organization
- Keeping accurate backup files of all crucial data on the shared corporate network
Security specialists will also use a range of tools to assess the level of security in an organization’s computer and network systems. As mentioned in the list of daily responsibilities, you might be expected to carry out penetration testing. Software that can assist you in this task includes Kali Linux, nmap, Metasploit, Wireshark, and John the Ripper. All of these will help you to identify weaknesses in a system, ideally before a cyber criminal finds them.
The automated nature of these programs means they can be a great time-saver. However, you will also be expected to engage in manual checks and tests to ensure that you don’t miss any issues.
What skills are required to become a security specialist?
A security specialist is a fairly broad role, encompassing a range of activities. This means you need to be well-versed in many areas of cyber security. With the general job description of a security specialist in mind, as well as the possibility of additional duties, you should possess the following hard and soft skills:
- In-depth understanding of technical aspects of IT, including user authentication methods, firewall configuration, vulnerability testing, security administration, cloud security, cryptography, network security, and database security
- Project management experience
- Leadership skills
- Strong interpersonal skills
- Risk management
- Awareness of the latest technology and tools
- An understanding of the ever-evolving nature of cyberattacks
- The motivation to continuously learn about cyber security developments
- Excellent communication skills (both verbal and written)
- Analytical skills
- Critical thinking skills
- Threat assessment skills
- Vulnerability assessment skills
- Intelligence gathering
- An ability to wisely choose, implement, test, and monitor software
- A high level of ethical integrity (given that you will be trusted with large amounts of sensitive data)
How to become a security specialist
If the above description of a security specialist’s role and skill set appeals to you, what steps should you take to get started on this career path? Below is a five-stage process that will take you from a point of being inexperienced in cyber security to getting hired as a security specialist.
Here’s how to get hired as a security specialist:
- Create a strategic career plan with well-defined goals
- Study for a relevant degree
- Research useful certificates
- Begin your job search
- Deepen your knowledge and refine your skills
We will now explore each of these five steps in more depth below.
1. Create a strategic career plan with well-defined goals
You should begin by creating a clear career plan, one that details your strategy for getting hired, as well as your short-term, medium-term, and long-term career goals. Your plan should include the following information:
- The qualifications and certificates you need for your desired security specialist position
- The type of organization you want to work for (governmental, non-profit, or private)
- The type of industry you want to work in (for example, energy, transport, food, media, education, finance, marketing, tech)
- Your preferred organization and team size
- How advanced you want your security specialist position to be (specialists can differ in their level of seniority)
- Whether you have any specific goals for your salary (this could influence the industry and organization you work for, as well as your intended career progression)
- How many years’ experience in IT or cyber security you need to be considered for a security specialist vacancy
We recommend that you align these goals with your personality, interests, and values, as this will ensure your career choice will be rewarding and fulfilling. If you have any uncertainties about the education, experience, knowledge, or skills you need for a security specialist role, be sure to get in touch with the recruiter directly. They will be able to clarify which items a company deems necessary, preferred, or desirable.
2. Study for a relevant degree
To reiterate, you will most likely need at least a Bachelor’s degree in cyber security or a relevant subject to land a role as a security specialist. With a high-quality degree and a sufficient amount of experience in cyber security, you will be in a good position to start applying for jobs. Given the level of responsibility involved in the role, an employer may also require, prefer, or desire that you have a Master’s degree. This is because this further degree can help to expand your knowledge and skill set, making you more capable of performing well in the role. Relevant subjects to study include:
- Cyber security
- Computer programming
- Software development
- Computer science
- Computer engineering
Here are a few examples of top Bachelor’s degrees to consider:
- Colorado State University’s Bachelor of Science in Computer Science (B.S.) (online)
- Western Governors University’s Bachelor of Science in Software Development (online)
- Southwestern College’s Bachelor’s in Computer Programming (online)
- Bellevue University’s Bachelor of Science Cybersecurity Degree (online)
Already have a Bachelor’s degree under your belt? Contact recruiters directly to double-check that your qualification will be right for the specific job you’re aiming for.
3. Research useful certificates
While a degree may be necessary to get hired, sometimes it’s not sufficient. An employer might want candidates to have gained specific certificates, as these can teach you particular essential skills. Also, even if one of these certificates isn’t required for a role, it may still be preferable, or at least beneficial. To get hired as a security specialist, you always want to develop your skills and knowledge as much as possible, and certificates help you to do exactly that.
However, check beforehand whether an employer does want you to have a cyber security certificate, and which specific one they have in mind. After all, you don’t want to waste your time, effort, and money on a qualification you don’t need or that won’t come in handy for your chosen career path.
Here are some of the most important certificates that any hopeful security specialist should keep in mind:
- EC-Council’s Certified Network Defense Architect (CNDA)
- GIAC Defensible Security Architecture (GDSA)
- IACRB’s Certified SCADA Security Architect (CSSA)
- (ISC)²’s CISSP – ISSAP (Information Systems Security Architecture Professional)
- GIAC’s (Global Information Assurance Certification) GPEN certification
- CISM – Certified Information Security Manager
- CompTIA Security+
- CISSP – Certified Information Systems Security Professional
- CEH – Certified Ethical Hacker Certification
- IACRB’s CPT – Certified Penetration Tester
- IARCB’s CEPT – Certified Expert Penetration Tester
- CompTIA’s PenTest+
- EC-Council’s Certified Encryption Specialist (ECES)
4. Begin your job search
Once you’ve gained the necessary education, you can start applying for roles. Without much experience working in the cyber security field, you’ll probably need to apply for entry-level IT or cyber security positions. These will give you the relevant experience you need before you can be considered for a security specialist job. On the other hand, if you already have relevant experience working in a cyber security team, then you will stand a much better chance of getting hired as a security specialist.
If you are part of an existing IT team, make sure you’re aware of the internal recruitment process and any openings for security specialist roles. It’s often easier to attain a job this way than applying externally.
That said, there are plenty of places to look for a role as a security specialist. If you want to work for a government agency, take a look at the following resources:
If you’d prefer to work in the private sector, consider some of the top companies hiring security specialists, such as:
You can also find plenty of vacancies for security specialist roles on the major job sites like Indeed, LinkedIn, Monster, Glassdoor, and ZipRecruiter, as well as on more niche job sites, such as CyberSecJobs.com.
Refer to the salary section below to find out which companies pay particularly well for security specialist roles.
5. Deepen your knowledge, refine your skills
Once you’ve gained a security specialist position, you can then start to think about the rest of your career development. If your career goals include obtaining a more senior role in a cyber security team, then you’ll need to deepen your knowledge and refine your skills. Over the next few years, you can continue your education, such as by studying for an online Master’s degree in cyber security or one or more of the above certificates.
Both Master’s degrees and certificates can often be completed fully online, in the evenings, on the weekends, or on a part-time basis. This level of convenience and flexibility means many students manage to complete their studies while holding down a full-time job.
It’s a good idea to let your employer know about your plans to study, as they might be willing to help with the funding. After all, the knowledge and skills you gain will benefit your career and, in turn, the organization.
A few online Master’s degrees to look into include:
- University of Illinois Springfield’s Master of Science in Computer Science
- Boston University’s Master of Science in Software Development
- Western Governors University’s M.S. Cyber Security and Information Assurance
However, you might feel more drawn to other areas of cyber security. Fortunately, being an adept security specialist makes you a prime candidate for roles in computer forensics, penetration testing, security consulting, security management, and security architecture.
Security specialist salary
The last aspect of the security specialist role we will examine is the salary you can expect to earn. If you visit a number of sites that list the average salaries of security specialists, you’ll no doubt discover different results. We recommend using PayScale since it’s a salary aggregator that uses salary averages from several sites when making its calculations. According to PayScale:
- The average salary for a security specialist is $74,580.
- The range of pay for security specialists is $48,000–$110,000.
Do you intend to aim for the top-paying jobs? Here are a few examples of what some companies are paying security specialists, supplied by SimplyHired:
- Tierpoint – Information Security Specialist ($58,000–$73,000)
- Zachary Piper Solutions – Cleared Cyber Security Specialist ($80,000–$90,000)
- SBG Technology Solutions – DevSecOps Engineer/Security Specialist ($93,000–$120,000)