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11 top cybersecurity certifications: entry level, pen tester, & advanced

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Cybersecurity certifications are a must to start and advance your cybersecurity career. According to Forbes, 96% of IT leaders  believe cybersecurity certifications add value. But with hundreds of certifications on the market, choosing the one that fits your career goals, budget, and schedule can be challenging. 

The best cybersecurity certifications are offered by reputable cybersecurity organizations and accredited by organizations like the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). In this article, you’ll find roundups of top cybersecurity certifications, along with relevant learning opportunities to help you prepare for exams, for:

Entry-level cybersecurity professionals: get your foot in the door and strengthen your knowledge in a specific domain such as security operations or encryption.

Aspiring penetration testers: prepare to defend against cyber attacks and threats by developing key skills to identify and document weaknesses in an organizations’ infrastructure and networks.

Senior-level security experts: move up to a management level by demonstrating that you have what it takes to run an organization’s security program.

The best entry-level cybersecurity certificates

For aspiring cybersecurity analysts, an entry-level cybersecurity certificate can add credibility to your resume and help strengthen your knowledge in a specific domain such as security operations or encryption. The following certifications are designed to help you learn key cybersecurity concepts and skills needed to earn an entry-level cybersecurity position. 

1. CompTIA Security+

The CompTIA Security+ certification is one of the most well-known entry-level cybersecurity certifications in the industry and is often a requirement or highly recommended for entry-level jobs. Developed by organizations such as Netflix and John Hopkins University and approved by the United States Department of Defense, the Security+ certification covers many topics such as network security and IT risk management. To pass the exam, here are some skills you’ll need to demonstrate: 

  • Apply risk mitigation techniques

  • Conduct threat analyses

  • Install applications

  • Be familiar with cybersecurity laws and regulations

Who Should Take Security+?

The Security+ certification requires no prerequisites, which makes it truly ideal for early-career cybersecurity professionals or security administrators who are looking to transition into the cybersecurity field. 

2. (ISC)2 SSCP (Systems Security Certified Practitioner)

The (ISC)2  is an internationally recognized cybersecurity association and well known in the cybersecurity industry. They offer several cybersecurity certifications, but one of their best-known entry-level certifications is the Systems Security Certified Practitioner (SSCP). The SSCP teaches cybersecurity professionals best practices and skills needed to implement and manage their organization’s critical assets and infrastructure. 

Who Should Take the SSCP? 

The SSCP focuses on IT infrastructure security, which makes it ideal for aspiring IT administrators or network security specialists. Those who earn a SSCP certification often continue on to take the CISSP. The CISSP certification is considered the gold standard of cybersecurity certifications and meant for cybersecurity professionals who want to secure senior-level security positions. 

 3. GIAC Security Essentials (GSEC)

The GSEC is a well-known certification for entry-level and mid-career security professionals because it covers a broad range of cybersecurity topics and domains, from penetration testing to forensics.  

Who Should Take The GSEC?

The GSEC is probably the most expensive entry-level cybersecurity certification on this list, costing $2,499 to take the exam. Additionally, SANS, a company that specializes in cybersecurity training, offers courses and training material. However, SANS training tends to be pricey—a single training course can cost you over $5,000. 


The CSX-P is a relatively new certification from the ISACA, a global cybersecurity association. The CSX-P is designed to test the framework set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and is a performance-based certification. Exam takers are expected to solve incidents across the network in real-time. 

Who Should Take The CSX-P? 

Those working in a network operations center (NOC) and IT professionals interested in transferring to incident response or security operations center (SOC) should take the CSX-P. 

The Best Penetration Testing Cybersecurity Certificates

To become a penetration tester, or ethical hacker, you need to prove you have a variety of skill sets and can think like a cyber criminal. Below are some of the best pen testing certifications that can help your job prospects and demonstrate that you can defend security frameworks against cyberattacks.

1. CompTIA PenTest+

The CompTIA PenTest+ certification is one of the most affordable and valuable certifications for IT professionals looking to get into ethical hacking. With the PenTest+ certification exam, you learn how to identify vulnerabilities, attack applications, and how to use scripting languages to automate your work. There is no prerequisite required to take the PenTest+, but it is highly recommended that you have other CompTIA certifications such as A+, Security+, and Linux+. 

Who Should Take The CompTIA PenTest+?

The CompTIA PenTest+ is a good first step for complete cybersecurity beginners. Additionally, this certification is compliant with the Department of Defense (DoD), which means you are eligible to work for the U.S. government if you have it. 

2. OSCP (Offensive Security Certified Professional)

The Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) certificate is arguably the best penetration testing certificate today. Offered by Offensive Security, which created Kali Linux, the OSCP is a hands-on certificate that uses a virtual environment to test your knowledge of networks, scripting, cryptography, and Linux. You’ll also be required to write a report to document what you did. 



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Who Should Take The OSCP? 

The OSCP exam is considered an advanced certification and designed for professionals already in the information security field. Cybersecurity beginners may find it challenging to prepare for the exam if they do not already have a few years of experience in the industry. 

3. Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) 

Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) is another well-known penetration testing certification from the EC-Council. In terms of the exam material, CEH is a more general certification. It focuses on many critical concepts to pen testing, including scanning, reconnaissance, web hacking, and network security. 

Who Should Take The CEH Certification?

The CEH certification is valid for three years and is considered quite expensive (the exam costs $1,199 for non-members plus an annual $80 renewal fee) compared to other pen testing certifications on the market. While it’s highly polarizing within the cybersecurity community, this certification is widely recognized and sought after by companies looking for pen testers. Taking this certificate may be an effective gateway to a new role if you have the funds and a limited amount of time to study.



Discover what it takes to become a penetration tester, and the many career paths for this exciting role.

The Best Senior-Level Cybersecurity Certificates:

If you’re currently working in information security management or are seeking to advance your cybersecurity career, the certifications listed below can prove your ability to manage and oversee an organization’s information security. 

1. (ISC)2 CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional) 

The CISSP certification is considered one of the best cybersecurity certifications on the market. However, it is not a technical certification. The CISSP is a managerial certification designed for senior cybersecurity professionals who want to design and implement a cybersecurity program at their organizations. 

Who Should Take The CISSP?

Cybersecurity professionals who have at least a few years of work experience and want to move up to management roles such as security architect, security manager, or even chief information security officer are highly encouraged to take the CISSP. The CISSP is also great for those who want to work in defense, as the U.S. military requires the CISSP for certain jobs.

2. (ISC)2 CCSP (Certified Cloud Security Professional)

Cloud security is one of the fastest-growing skills  in cybersecurity and IT. One of the best cloud security certifications is the CCSP, which is a vendor-neutral certification. The CCSP certificate proves that you know how to build applications and secure assets in the cloud and is targeted towards security architects or network security engineers. 

Who Should Take The CCSP?

Established IT professionals with at least five years of IT experience (three years in information security and at least one year in one of the six CCSP domains) or individuals who have a CISSP certificate are eligible to take the CCSP. However, it’s worth noting that much of the material on the CCSP is covered on the CISSP.



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3. CISM (Certified Information Security Manager)

Another ISACA certificate, the Certified Information Security Manager (CISM), focuses on testing whether you have what it takes to take on a managerial position and run a security program. The CISM tests four domains:

  • Information security governance

  • Information risk management

  • Information security program development and management

  • Information security incident management

Who Should Take The CISM? 

The CISM certification is geared towards management level cybersecurity professionals or those in a more tactical role such as risk management or compliance. It’s not suited for those who are interested in a technical cybersecurity job. 

4. CompTIA CASP+ (CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner)

The CompTIA CASP+ is an advanced cybersecurity certification. Exam takers are tested on cryptographic techniques, cloud technologies, software vulnerabilities, risk analysis, and operations and security concepts. Like other cybersecurity certificates from CompTIA, CASP+ is compliant with the DoD. 

Who Should Take The CASP+?

The CASP+ is perhaps the second most popular cybersecurity certificate after the CISSP for senior security professionals who want to demonstrate their technical ability. If you’ve taken the CompTIA Security+ and have a few years of work experience under your belt, the CASP+ can open many doors for you. 

How to Choose the Right Cybersecurity Certification For You:

The best cybersecurity certification depends on your career goals, willingness to devote time and money, and current skill level. Cybersecurity certifications are generally more necessary for beginners in cybersecurity than established IT professionals.  

Choose Your Cybersecurity Career Path

If you’re new to the field, you need to learn the core domains of cybersecurity. As you advance in your career and choose a specialty , you’ll want to look into less general and more technically focused certifications that will demonstrate your expertise.

For more established cybersecurity professionals, acquiring certifications is less relevant. As you master your technical skills and gain more experience, you’ll want to prove your management ability. Certificates like the CISSP can indicate that you know how to run and assess security programs. However, they do not necessarily help you develop leadership qualities and soft skills.

Consider Cost and Time

Cybersecurity certification exams are not cheap. They can cost you a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, excluding exam preparation materials and other training courses. These exams also require many hours of study, so if you have a busy schedule, you may want to look into certifications that offer some flexibility with scheduling. However, if your goal is simply learning more about cybersecurity, you may want to consider a cybersecurity boot camp.

Pass Cybersecurity Certifications With edX Cybersecurity Programs and Courses

When it comes to cybersecurity certifications, it helps to be prepared. Upskill yourself today with edX cybersecurity courses and programs

Last updated: September 2021