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Computer Forensics Examiner Job Outlook & Salary Info

Computer forensic specialists have been making headlines recently due to high-profile computer security breaches. Computer forensic specialists and their unique skill set can 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, hundreds more 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 computer forensics examiners’ work under the “information security analyst” category. According to data from May 2021, the demand for this job is expected to grow by 33 percent from 2020 to 2030, which is extraordinarily fast. At this growth rate, more than 47,100 jobs are expected to be added during that period (BLS 2021). Now is an opportune time to start training for work in this field.

Those employed as computer forensics examiners may work with law enforcement or private firms. The main duties of this job are to retrieve information from computers and other electronic devices that store data to determine where crimes have been committed and how. Today, specialists can work on laptops, digital cameras, tablets, smartphones, 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 the tools and technologies available to the criminals they are chasing.

Another part of the computer forensics job description could be to testify in court and 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 if the collected evidence fits together in a legal 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, there is rrising demand for 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 overlaps with computer forensic examiners.

According to the BLS, the computer system analyst field is expected to grow only 7 percent between 2020 and 2030 (BLS 2021). While not nearly as impressive as the information security analyst position, this rate is almost as fast as the expected rate of growth for all positions, on average, which is 8 percent.

As with any career, the job prospects for a computer forensic examiner will depend largely on the experience and education that a 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 are interested in the outlook for the computer forensic examiner career and want to know more about the possibilities it can offer will find several 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 into this growing career.

Computer Forensics Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2021), the mean salary for information security analysts was $113,270 in 2021. In more detailed terms, here are the salary percentiles in this occupation in the US:

  • Number of professionals employed: 157,220
  • Mean annual wage: $113,270
  • 10th percentile: $61,520
  • 25th percentile: $79,400
  • 50th percentile (median): $102,600
  • 75th percentile: $131,340
  • 90th percentile: $165,920

However, when considering salary, it is always important to remember that several 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.

Because the BLS does not collect data specific to the computer forensic examiner’s specialty, it is worth examining other data sources. According to salary aggregator PayScale.com (2022), a forensic computer analyst in the U.S. earns a median salary of $74,798 per year. In more detailed terms, here were the salary percentiles for this occupation in the US according to PayScale.com:

  • 10th percentile: $52,000
  • 50th percentile (median): $74,798
  • 90th percentile: $120,000

The PayScale data is based on 197 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 who do computer forensics work may have somewhat different titles, including cybersecurity specialists, digital forensics examiners, or others.

How to Become a Computer Forensics Examiner

Not every computer forensics expert will take the same path towards a 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 (four years): A high school diploma is required for any path into this career. If available, high school students should take computer science and programming courses.
  • Step 2: Earn a bachelor’s degree (four years): According to O*NET OnLine, 53 percent of information security analysts have a bachelor’s degree. The experience earned in a bachelor’s degree program 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 in the section below.
  • Step 5: Pursue an advanced education (one to two years to complete): CareerOneStop (2022) indicates that 24 percent of all information security analysts have a master’s degree. It is common for security or forensics professionals to pursue this level of education while still working in a professional capacity.

While many factors 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 Responsibilities

So far, this article has alluded to the generalities of a computer forensics examiner. But what specific tasks can someone in this profession expect to do each day? Here’s a list of a typical list of tasks and responsibilities for a computer forensics examiner:

  • 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

Those that work for law enforcement or a government agency will likely have different daily tasks and requirements from those that work in the private sector.

Computer Forensics Examiner Professional Certification

Individuals who intend to stay in the field and 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. The following are a few of the most commonly requested by employers of computer forensic examiners 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 82 to 115-question exam with at least 72 percent to become certified.
  • Certified Computer Forensics Examiner: From the Information Assurance Certification Review Board (IACRB), the CCFE credential requires both a traditional exam and a practical, take-home exam in which test-takers are given a mock forensics case to analyze, write up a legal report, and submit the findings within 60 days.
  • 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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Writer

Rachel Drummond

Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).