Becoming a digital forensic analyst is not an easy task. It requires an education that provides hands-on experience, not just theory. However, with the right steps, anyone can become a digital forensic analyst. It is no secret that digital forensics is a rapidly growing field. With cybercrime on the rise, businesses, state and federal government, and law enforcement agencies need qualified digital forensic analysts to help them recover data and track down the source of a breach. But what does it take to become a digital forensic analyst?
To become a digital forensic analyst, you will need to have completed a hands-on certificate program and/or bachelor's degree in digital forensics, cybersecurity, or another computer science-related field. You will also need to gain experience, preferably through capture the flag (CTF) competitions, an internship, or an entry-level role. Once you have your certificate or degree and some experience under your belt, you may want to consider earning a graduate certificate or master's degree. And finally, if you want to be truly competitive in this field, there are many highly regarded and fascinating digital forensics certification programs to pursue.
What is a Digital Forensic Analyst’s Salary?
The salary of digital forensic analysts varies widely depending on level of experience, education, and location. Statistics show the national average salary for a digital forensic analyst is around $70,000 per year, however, senior-level roles nationally can average upward of $170,000 per year and above.
The entry-level salary of a digital forensic analyst with a bachelor’s degree in digital forensics or another related field is typically around $50,000 per year.
A digital forensic analyst with a master's degree can earn an average salary of $80,000 per year. However, students who completed the SANS Technology Institute’s undergraduate certificate or bachelor’s degree programs in applied cybersecurity report an average starting salary of more than $94,000.
While education and experience are critically important in determining proper compensation, location is important as well. It is worth noting that metropolitan areas command higher paying positions: Three of the top five cities for top paying digital forensic analyst jobs are in New York.
What Does a Digital Forensic Analyst Do?
A digital forensic analyst must possess knowledge across many fields of study including digital forensics, cybersecurity, coding, network security, and many other aspects of computer science. They use their technical knowledge to figure out how a cybercrime was committed, what data was compromised, and who did it, and ensure the digital evidence is preserved in a forensically sound manner. They also help investigate other electronic crimes like computer fraud.
A digital forensic analyst may investigate a hacker getting into a company's secure network and stealing customers' credit card information. It would be the job of the digital forensic analyst to recover the data that was stolen and try to find out who took it.
Digital forensic analysts are key in helping to recover crucial data from computers and mobile devices. This can include anything from documents and photos to emails that have been deleted, damaged, or manipulated in some way. They need to be extremely careful when handling this evidence and always follow the chain of custody rules so that it can be used legally.
One of the most important tasks of a digital forensic analyst is to maintain a chain of custody. If done correctly, any evidence collected can be used as court-admissible proof. In other words, the analyst presents in court the same evidence from the crime scene that was always accounted for and secured by an authorized individual to prevent tampering.
Steps To Become a Digital Forensic Analyst
If you want to become a digital forensic analyst, it will take some dedicated training and experience. Below are the four steps recommended to get started in this exciting and rewarding field.
Step 1: Complete A Degree or Hands-On Certificate Program
The traditional path to become a digital forensic analyst is to complete a bachelor’s degree in digital forensics, cybersecurity, or another computer science-related field of study. However, if an undergraduate degree does not fit into your life, you are completing a bachelor’s degree but need hands-on training to gain required skills, or you already have a bachelor’s degree or higher in another field, a great solution is to complete a hands-on certificate program that gives you certifications employers recognize. Certificate programs do not require the same time or financial commitment as a four-year college program and are the fastest pathway to a cybersecurity career.
The SANS Technology Institute’s undergraduate certificate in applied cybersecurity program is available to anyone with two years of college credits. The program provides four courses in which you will earn four of the most highly regarded cybersecurity certifications to jumpstart your digital forensics career. “If you are looking for a program that has a clear roadmap and can help you quickly jump into an industry that is exploding, I would say that SANS.edu is a must do,” said Tin Ngyen, a student who had a master’s degree and worked for the FBI before completing the undergraduate certificate program.
SANS’s undergraduate certificate in applied cybersecurity will teach you the foundations of cybersecurity, cyberattack prevention, incident response, how to detect adversaries, and a range of topics including penetration testing, digital forensics, and cloud security.
Step 2: Gain Experience
As you are completing a bachelor’s degree or undergraduate certificate program, an important step is to gain experience. Applying for an internship is a great way to get real-world work experience with the job requirements of a digital forensic analyst. Students in the bachelor’s degree program in applied cybersecurity at the SANS Technology Institute complete an internship as part of their program. “I was surprised by how many attacks/port scans I encountered so soon after setting up the honeypot,” said Josh Levine, a student who completed the SANS bachelor’s degree program internship. “Doing research on them has given me a deeper understanding of a variety of attacks."
Loveana Jones was accepted for internships with the US Department of State and a Fortune 500 company after she finished the SANS.edu undergraduate certificate in applied cybersecurity, which she earned while completing a bachelor’s degree at different college. For Loveana, the hands-on labs were the most valuable part of the SANS.edu undergraduate certificate program. “The labs provided comprehensive hands-on experience,” said Loveana. “The real-world situations presented to us — they felt so real.”
However, an internship just does not work for everyone. If an internship isn’t for you, another great way to gain experience is to take part in a SANS capture the flag (CTF) event, their Netwars program, or other CTF events.
During a capture the flag event, you will gain crucial hands-on experience in a controlled environment, learn from senior leaders in your profession, and make friendships and connections that may also provide you access to your first job.
Capture the flag events and internships look great on your resume and give you the experience you need to land a job. If you're looking to get a head start on your digital forensics career, taking part in capture the flag events or finding an internship is a great way to do it.
Step 3: Gain Credentials with Certification
One way to increase your chances of getting a job in digital forensics is to get certified. This means you will need to pass an exam that tests your knowledge in the field of study. Certifications show employers that you have the skills needed for the job, and many certifications require regular recertification.
Although the expense and time required to get certified may seem daunting at first, in the long run, it is worth it. It is a significant investment, but security certifications help differentiate you from other job seekers, which usually leads to negotiating a higher salary. Accredited colleges, like the SANS Technology Institute, offer academic pricing on courses and certification exams and funding options that can help make the expense manageable.
Many employers are willing to cover the cost of their employees' further education through yearly tuition reimbursement programs. If your company does not have a program like this, you can ask your employer to subsidize the cost of the digital forensics certification as a way to increase your skillset and prove to you and your employer that you are ready to take the next step in your career. Military veterans may be able to fund their education at accredited colleges using VA Education Benefits.
Furthermore, it is critical to stay current with industry trends. The threat landscape of cybercrime is ever evolving, and it is in the best interest of employers to ensure that their first line of defense, their employees, have all the info they need to do their job well. So, you may not even have to ask for your employer to pay for certifications. You may find that your employer is eager to provide you resources or will even require that you get new certifications every so often.
Some of the certifications available for digital forensics analysts are:
- GIAC Battlefield Forensics and Acquisition (GBFA)
- GIAC Certified Forensic Examiner (GCFE)
- GIAC Certified Forensic Analyst (GCFA)
- GIAC Network Forensic Analyst (GNFA)
- GIAC Reverse Engineering Malware (GREM)
Step 4: Pursue an Entry-Level Position
With a certificate or degree program complete, real-world experience through CTF events or an internship secured, and certifications in hand, it’s finally time to find that first job as a digital forensic analyst.
The SANS Technology Institute provides lifetime career services for everyone who completes the undergraduate certificate or bachelor’s degree program in applied cybersecurity. Career services will work with you to find a career focus, draft your resume, conduct mock interviews, and help you in every step of pursuing your first job in digital forensics or another cybersecurity related field.
Complete a Graduate Certificate Program
Accredited graduate certificate programs can help you gain skills to advance your career once you are working in the field. The SANS Technology Institute's graduate certificate programs in cybersecurity, for example, offer short, technically focused sets of courses that sharpen job-specific skills and keep your knowledge current. Focus areas range from incident response and penetration testing to cloud security and cybersecurity management. “I have my master’s in computer science,” said Jeff Sass, Director of Application Security for Adobe, “But I completed three graduate certificate programs with SANS so I could truly dive deep into technical areas of cybersecurity and learn from instructors who are leading the industry.”
Earn a Master’s Degree
If you want to maintain a competitive edge, improve your earning potential, and prepare for leadership roles, continuing your education can help you get to the next level. Some employers offer tuition assistance as an incentive because employees with higher levels of education will be more beneficial to the company.
“Understand your motivation and think about what will benefit your career five to ten years from now,” said Jamy Casteel, a senior security consultant at Kroll, who completed a master’s degree in Information Security Engineering from the SANS Technology Institute. Jamy already had an MBA when a colleague recommended that he take a SANS course. “I knew I wanted to continue with my SANS education – not because I wanted another degree, that was just icing on the cake. I wanted to increase my technical knowledge and both hands-on and soft skillsets. I wanted to give myself a competitive advantage in my career.”
Getting a computer-science related master's degree usually takes one to two years if you already have an undergraduate degree. A program designed for working professionals, such as the cybersecurity master’s degree at the SANS Technology Institute, will take three to five years to complete.
What Is the Career Path for a Digital Forensic Analyst?
The career path of a digital forensic analyst can vary depending on level of experience and education.
An entry-level digital forensic analyst can expect to shadow other more experienced analysts, learning the day-to-day activities of the role, the tools that are used to conduct analyses, and common scenarios in which a digital forensic analyst’s skills are required. Someone in an entry-level role can expect to gain more responsibility over the next one to three years, developing information security skills while working in general forensics roles, before moving to an intermediate-level digital forensics role.
Digital forensic analysts at the intermediate level can be expected to have three to seven years of experience and be building a collection of certifications. An intermediate-level analyst will possess the knowledge to excel at all normal functions of a digital forensics role as well as the ability to think outside of the box when confronted with new and novel threats.
Senior-level positions as a digital forensic analyst can require seven to fifteen years of experience and a wide array of specialized knowledge. They will possess a deep understanding of all things forensics as well as many other security domains. They are often members of subject matter organizations and boards that deal with very sophisticated issues of digital forensics and cybersecurity. They will, at this point in their career, have earned many certifications and actively update and maintain them as required. These senior-level positions require leadership skills and lead a large team or teams of cybersecurity experts. Digital forensic analysts may find a senior-level role as a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) or any other number of senior roles in the information security industry.
To become a digital forensic analyst, you will need to complete a hands-on certificate program or pursue a bachelor's degree in a computer-related field, build real-world experience through capture the flag events or an internship, and pass certifications specific to your focus in digital forensics. You can then pursue an entry-level position in the field of forensics or another computer science-related field. Earning a master's degree or graduate certificate in cybersecurity and continuing your education by pursuing and renewing certifications across multiple subject areas will help you move up the career ladder.