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Computer Forensics Examiner Job Outlook & Salary Info

Computer forensic specialists have been making headlines in recent years, largely due to the high-profile computer security breaches. Computer forensic specialists and their unique skill set are able to investigate the causes of data breaches when they happen and work with companies and government agencies to protect against them before they ever occur. For every Equifax leak, there are hundreds more that will never make the front page, but still need to be investigated, which means plenty of work for these specialists.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) categorizes the work computer forensics examiners do under the information security analyst category. According to 2017 data, the demand for this job is expected to grow by 28 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is extraordinarily fast. At this rate of growth, more than 28,000 jobs are expected to be added during that time period (BLS 2017). Now is an opportune time to start training for work in this field.

Those who are employed as computer forensics examiners may work with law enforcement or with private firms. The main duties of this job are to retrieve information from computers and other types of electronic devices that store data in order to determine where crimes have been committed and how. Today, specialists could work on laptops, digital cameras, tablets, smart phones, flash drives, and more. Computer forensics examiners use specialized tools to help them with this job, and they need to be able to stay on top of all of the tools and technologies that available to the criminals they are chasing.

Another part of the computer forensics job description could be to testify in court and to relate the evidence found during investigations. Often, those who are in the field will work with members of law enforcement, attorneys, and other forensic specialists to see how the evidence fits together in the case.

Career Outlook for Computer Forensic Examiner

The job outlook for those who decide to follow this career path is quite bright. Because the world increasingly uses computers, it means that the world may need to have more specialists with the knowledge and know-how to handle the crimes that follow. As noted above, growth is expected to be quite fast in the information security analyst field. The BLS also collects data for the computer system analyst job description, which has some overlap with computer forensic examiners as well. According to the BLS, the computer system analyst field is expected to grow by only 9 percent between 2016 and 2026 (BLS 2017). While not nearly as impressive as the information security analyst position, this rate is still faster than the expected rate of growth for all positions, on average, which is just 7 percent.

As with any career, the job prospects for a computer forensic examiner will depend largely on the experience and education that person brings to the table. Those that have gained at least some experience working with computers, such as experience as a database administrator, will have better luck than those with a less technological background.

People who have an interest in the outlook for the career and who want to know more about the possibilities that it can offer will find a number of professional organizations that offer resources and information. The International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners (ISFCE), and the International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS) are two organizations that can offer unique insights about this growing career.

Computer Forensics Salary

The median salary for information security analysts was around $95,510 in 2016, according to the BLS. Those in the lowest 10 percent earned as little as $55,560, while those in the highest 10 percent earned as much as $153,090 annually.

However, when considering salary, it is always important to remember that a number of disparate facts go into determining the pay for a job. The amount of experience and time in the field working as a specialist, as well as the type of work, and the geographic location are all important contributing factors. Having certifications can help as well when it comes to negotiating for a larger salary, as is evidenced later in this article.

Becuase the BLS does not collect data specific to the computer forensic examiner specialty, it is worth examining other sources of data. According to salary aggregator Payscale.com, a computer forensic analyst in the U.S. earns a median salary of $68,965 per year with the bottom 10th percentile earning $42,968 and the top 10th percentile earning $115,364. The Payscale data is based on 409 computer forensic analysts reporting directly to the site. The fairly small sample size, as compared to the more than 100,000 computer security experts employed across the country, is one way to account for the discrepancy between Payscale and BLS data. Further, those that do computer forensics work may have titles that are somewhat different, including cybersecurity specialist, digital forensics examiner, or others.

How to Become a Computer Forensics Examiner

Not every computer forensics expert will take the same path towards the career, but the following is one of the most common ways that someone enters the career:

  • Step 1: Earn a high school diploma or GED (4 years to complete): According to Career One Stop, 99 percent of information security analysts have a high school diploma (CareerOneStop.org). If available, high school students should avail themselves of computer courses at this point.
  • Step 2: Earn a bachelor’s degree (4 years to complete): A bachelor’s degree is not specifically required for all computer forensics jobs, but the experience can be both professionally preparatory and personally rewarding. Students who want to pursue this career should strongly consider a degree in computer science.
  • Step 3: Gain entry-level experience (timeline varies): With the speed at which technology changes, professional experience in the field is the best way to learn computer forensics. While it may be difficult to get an entry-level position in the field, the closer to the career one can get, the more likely they are to gain relevant, valuable experience.
  • Step 4: Consider professional certification: There is no legal requirement for computer forensic examiners to be certified in the field. However, professional certification such as the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) credential from ISC2 can be quite helpful in advancing one’s career. There are also forensic specific certifications available to experienced professionals, which are outlined further along in this article.
  • Step 5: Pursue an advanced education (1 to 2 years to complete): Career One Stop indicates the 24 percent of all information security analysts have a master’s or doctoral level degree. It is common for security or forensics professionals to pursue this level of education while still working in a professional capacity.

While there are many factors that can influence how long it will take someone to pursue a career as a computer forensics examiner, on average a high school graduate who decides to complete a bachelor’s degree can start in an entry-level position in as little as four years, with an established career in six to eight years after high school.

Computer Forensics Examiner Tasks and Responsbilities

So far, this article has alluded to the daily responsibilities of a computer forensics examiner. But what are the specific tasks that someone in this profession can expect to do each day?

  • recover data from devices used in the commission of a crime
  • collect digital evidence and maintain the chain of custody
  • determine how someone gained unlawful access to a computer system
  • put security measures into place to prevent data breaches
  • train users on proper security processes
  • protect law enforcement computer systems from data breaches
  • analyze data found in a criminal investigation
  • create reports on data recovery and analysis
  • provide expert testimony in court

The specific tasks that a computer forensics examiner will need to complete also depend on the work environment. Those that work for a law enforcement or government agency will likely have different daily tasks and requirements from those that work in the private sector.

Computer Forensics Examiner Professional Certification

Individuals that intend to stay in the field and want to grow in their career will want to pursue professional certification. As mentioned, there is no legal requirement for professional certification in this career, but it can be used as evidence of expertise and ultimately can be essential to career growth.

There are a few different certifications that one can pursue. The right choice for anyone pursuing this career will depend on that person’s specific career goals. Following are a few of the most commonly requested by employers in the field.

  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP): Although not specific to forensics, this certification from ISC2 is considered the “gold standard” in certification for computer security and could be valuable for job seekers. To qualify for the CISSP exam, applicants must have at least five years of experience or a relevant four-year degree.
  • Certified Computer Examiner: Offered by the International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners (ISFCE), the CCE certification is available to those with at least 18 months of verifiable computer forensics experience, or the equivalent.
  • Global Certified Forensic Analyst: Sponsored by the Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC), the GCFA exam is open to all with no educational or experience prerequisites. Applicants must pass the 115-question exam with at least 71 percent in order to become certified.
  • Certified Computer Forensics Examiner: From the Information Assurance Certification Review Board, the CCFE credential requires both a traditional exam and a practical, take-home portion.
  • Certified Digital Forensics Examiner: The National Initiative for Cybersecurity Careers and Studies (NICCS) is a government program that offers the CDFE course. This comprehensive course can be completed in a five-day in-person training or an online self-study option.

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