How to Become a Cryptographer
March 18, 2021
Encryption and decryption require the work of expert mathematicians and computer scientists. Enter cryptographers, whose mastery of theory is applied to the real-world problems of cybersecurity.
Part spy. Part security guard. All-knowing. All-seeing. Ultimate defender and protector of data. The first line of defense against any outside attack on internal technology systems. The person everyone at the office depends on when hackers find a way in, or competitors attempt corporate espionage. When foreign governments or subversive groups attempt to shut down the power grid or breach our secure systems, government agencies turn to them to repel the attacks. Cue the Mission Impossible theme song.
No, this isn't a description of the star of this season's top box-office thriller. It is, simply, what cryptographers do for a living.
Cryptographers deal in weighty matters. They keep key internal information secure and break ciphers to gather and analyze external intelligence. While the job may sound modern—even futuristic—it actually dates back to ancient times. Even before the internet (there was such a time, kids), there were secrets to keep and uncover. Today's cryptographers, who are responsible for information encryption and code-breaking, make skilled use of cutting-edge technology but also rely on tried-and-true techniques. Some of the fundamentals from the founding of American cryptology—dating to the 1920s—are still critical to the work today. They include:
- Statistical analysis and mathematics
- Use of the scientific method
If you love solving high-stakes puzzles, becoming a cryptographer may be the career path for you. In this guide, we'll cover:
- The education needed to become a cryptographer
- Skills needed to become a cryptographer
- Kinds of careers in cryptography
- What are some entry-level positions in cryptography?
- Resources for cryptographers
Education needed to become a cryptographer
What is the highest level of education required to become a cryptographer? What should you study to become a cryptographer?
Aspiring cryptographers should plan on obtaining a bachelor's degree in mathematics or computer science to meet the minimum education requirements for most entry-level positions. Business News Daily rates cryptography among the best jobs you can get with a mathematics degree.
Cryptography courses are usually offered within computer science and mathematics programs. Another option is to pursue an information security major programs, which teaches such skills as homomorphic encryption, digital forensics, and ethical hacking.
How long does it take to become a cryptographer? Where can you learn the skills you need to become a cryptographer?
While a four-year degree may be sufficient for entry-level positions, an advanced degree, such as a master's degree or PhD, will open more opportunities to better, and better-paying, jobs. A master's degree takes one to two years to earn as a full-time student; a PhD can take anywhere from two to six years.
A master's in computer science or mathematics can bolster your cryptology credentials. Check out Noodle's articles discussing whether:
Skills needed to become a cryptographer
What skills are essential for a cryptographer? How can you strengthen your resume as a cryptographer?
According to Tulane University, cryptography requires the following skills:
- Analytical skills: The ability to apply principles of linear algebra, combinatorics, and number theory are essential to succeed. You'll need monster problem-solving skills in this role.
- Technical skills: The ability to write complex algorithms requires well-developed computer programming skills. You'll need mastery of multiple programming languages (e.g., Java, Python).
- Communication skills: You'll usually be working as part of a team. You'll need to be able to convey complicated concepts to team members and to listen carefully to them. If you're multilingual, so much the better—the more languages you know, the more valuable you will be.
Kinds of careers in cryptography
Some of the top sectors cryptographers include the following:
- The U.S. military : Cryptography positions include: cryptologic cyberspace intelligence collector/analyst, who performs "initial cryptologic digital analysis to establish target identification and operational patterns," and cryptologic linguist, whose language and tech skills help them gather and assess non-English language communications.
- Private businesses: Companies have to defend against corporate spies; cryptographers help maintain essential cyberdefenses.
- U.S. government agencies: Intelligence agencies, including the National Security Administration (NSA), hire top talent to protect against the next frontier in terrorism: technology threats. The NSA is reportedly the largest employer of mathemeticians in the United States.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field of information security analysts is expected to grow at a 32 percent rate from 2018 to 2028, more than four times faster than the average for all jobs. The median pay was $98,350 in 2018, with the top industries hiring in the field including:
- Computer systems design and related services: $102,620
- Finance and insurance: $101,130
- Information: $96,580
- Management of companies and enterprises: $94,180
- Administrative and support services: $94,120
What are some entry-level positions in cryptography?
On career websites like Indeed.com and Glassdoor.com, employers like the NSA, Mozilla, financial institutions, and others offer such entry-level positions for cybersecurity professionals as:
- Associate cybersecurity engineers
- Security analysts
- Security specialists
- Cryptographic engineers
Within the U.S. armed forces, there are several types of jobs for candidates who do not need to have four-year degrees, including:
- Role: Cryptologic language analyst
- Educational requirements: High school, GED, or GED with 15 college credits
- Other qualifications: Non-English language proficiency, completion of a specific cryptologic language analyst initial skills course, completion of 8.5 weeks of basic military training.
- Role: Cryptologic technician
- Educational requirements: A four-year degree is not required; a high school diploma or equivalent is required
- Other qualifications: Must be a U.S. citizen who can meet Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information security clearance. Also, the agency is seeking candidates who are interested in advanced electronics and technology, who can write, speak, keep records well, are strong at math, are detail-oriented, and can handle highly classified work. Cryptologic technicians report into information warfare officers and cyber warfare engineers, both positions which require four-year degrees.
- Role: Cryptologic linguist, cryptologic cyberspace intelligence collector/analyst, and more
- Educational requirements: High school diploma or GED
- Other qualifications: Must first take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a collection of tests to determine a candidate's abilities and identify the best career fit. In addition, the Army is looking for candidates who can gather information and think and communicate clearly.
Resources for cryptographers
Looking to learn more about the field before pursuing cryptography as a career? Here are some handy links to help you out as you explore the profession.
- The International Association for Cryptologic Research, a nonprofit dedicated to furthering the study of cryptography. Their website posts cryptography events and cryptography jobs
- Online education platform Udacity offers a free two-month nano-degree in Applied Cryptography
- Interested in seeing what materials are used in a cryptography course? See the syllabus, readings and assignments for MIT's Cryptography and Cryptanalysis course at MITOpenCourseware.
- Not to be outdone, Stanford University has posted its 818-page Graduate Course in Applied Cryptography. Spoiler alert: there are lots of Greek characters in this book.
- How to Become a Cyber Security Consultant, Noodle.com
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