How to Become a Digital Forensic Investigator
Digital forensics is a growing field, offering excellent career opportunities, as well as meaningful work. As such, many aspiring forensics professionals are now considering a career in digital forensics, and in this guide, we will outline exactly how you too can break into this exciting field.
Before we get into that, however, let’s first go over exactly what the job of a digital forensics investigator entails. We will also be discussing the required skills you need to have, as well as the outlook for this career going forward and the average salary you can expect to have.
If you are already familiar with the role and are simply here for some guidance on how to break into the field, feel free to skip ahead. Alternatively, if you are completely new to the world of digital forensics, we recommend reading over the next few sections to get a better understanding of what it is all about.
Digital Forensics Investigators are required to carry out a variety of different tasks, including, but not limited to the following.
- identifying devices and systems to be examined
- Gaining access to necessary devices and systems
- Retrieving data
- Analyzing data, network traces and storage devices
- Compiling and securing evidence
- Writing detailed reports of your findings
- Providing testimony when required
- Providing an audit trail
- Advising and training law enforcement
As you can see, the role of a digital forensics investigator is very complex, requiring you to have competency with many different technologies. The job can also be demanding and stressful at times, especially when the stakes are high.
You should also be aware of the fact that as a forensics investigator, you will likely be exposed to highly sensitive material from time to time. For this reason, you should consider how you are likely to react to this material, as it could seriously affect your mental health over time.
The list of skills required to work effectively as digital forensics is extensive, covering a number of different technologies. Despite some variance depending on the exact field of work, a forensics investigator will need usually need to be familiar with:
- Hard drives and solid-state drives
- File systems
- Computer networks
- Honeypots, firewalls, and intrusion detection systems
- Password cracking
- Operating systems and registries
- Live forensics
- Malware forensics
- Reverse engineering
- Cell site analysis
As you can see, the list of skills required to be a competent digital forensics investigator is rather comprehensive. It also highlights how diverse the job role is and how much your tasks are likely to vary day by day. This makes it a very exciting job for the right person. However, having to stay on top of so many technologies and techniques can also create a lot of pressure, making it difficult at times to keep up.
On top of this, a good forensics investigator will also need to have several useful soft skills. The role of a digital forensics investigator isn’t solely a technical one either. This is especially true if you are working with law enforcement as you will need to be very familiar with cyber laws and other policies. Good communication and literary skills are also a must, due to the number of reports that need to be written.
The outlook for digital forensics investigators is rather decent, with employment rates set to increase by 9% over the next few years. This isn’t bad, considering how niche the role is. However, it is lower than the average for other cybersecurity-related jobs, which is something worth thinking about before you invest your time and money into this career.
There is also little information about the projection for this job past 2030. This is partly due to the fact that we can only predict so far ahead, but also because the technology industry is rapidly evolving all the time. For this reason, there is a good chance the role of a digital forensics investigator could change considerably in the future, which could affect its later outlook.
Digital forensics investigators command an average salary of around $93,000, which is pretty good compared to the average for most professions in the cybersecurity industry. There is also the potential to earn slightly more at the highest level, with figures closer to six digits up for grabs in certain organizations.
At entry-level, however, most digital forensics investigators pull in around $61,000 per annum. This isn’t bad considering many of these positions are taken by college graduates, but if you are looking for a career change and are considering leaving an already well-paying job, it might not be enough.
How to Become a Digital Forensics Investigator
Now that we have discussed the main aspects of the role, let’s look at the steps you need to take to become a digital forensics investigator.
1. Earn a bachelor’s degree
If you are serious about becoming a digital forensics investigator, the first thing you are going to need to do is obtain at least a bachelor’s degree in forensic computing or cybersecurity. Without a degree, very few employers are likely to consider you for a position, much less hire you. You will also struggle to learn the skills necessary to perform the role, as there are only limited resources online at this time.
A degree in forensic computing should be your first point of call when looking for a degree program. However, if you find one in your area, cybersecurity or even computer science are good alternatives to go with. Be sure to check the syllabus of any degree before you enroll though, as you will want to make sure they teach at least some of the required skills mentioned above.
It is also a good idea to check what facilities and resources are available at the university or college, as these two factors can have a massive impact on your time there. For example, a university may provide a decent degree program on paper. However, its lab facilities could be lacking.
In this scenario, you will likely find yourself doing a lot of theoretical pieces rather than practical work, which could seriously impact the skill level you eventually leave with. This would not only put you in a difficult position when it comes to finding work, but it could also cause you to struggle with the next step in this guide, as you would lack practical experience.
2. Obtain professional certifications
Once you have earned a degree, your next step should be to obtain some professional certifications. These are useful not only for bolstering your resume but also for learning industry-standard skills that you might not have picked up on your degree program.
These certifications aren’t cheap but they are highly-regarded by most employers. They can also put you in a position to request a higher salary in some cases, especially if you have a few of them.
When it comes to digital forensics specifically, there are a few certifications that stand out; notably those offered by organizations such as EC-Council and GIAC. Below we have included some of the most popular certifications for your viewing, as well as a brief overview of what each of them includes.
The CHFI certification is a fairly advanced certification designed to teach you a variety of different skills, making you a competent all-round investigator. Its topics include learning about the investigation process, as well as how to perform various forensics techniques. The certification also teaches a few penetration testing skills, giving you knowledge of other areas of cybersecurity, such as ethical hacking.
The GCFE certification also teaches you about the essentials of digital forensics, although, a large part of its focus is on Windows and browser forensics, two of the most used technologies in the world today. This makes it slightly more specialized than the likes of CHFI. However, you will still learn plenty of useful techniques to become a general practitioner.
Despite being titled as an analyst certification, CHFA teaches plenty of useful techniques needed to become a digital forensics investigator, including how to acquire data, use forensics software, analyze data from various sources, and recover key files. CHFA is also considered an advanced certification, making it an excellent addition to your arsenal of qualifications.
3. Get some work experience
Once you have obtained all of the necessary qualifications, you will want to get some work experience under your belt. This doesn’t necessarily need to be in the field you intend to finally work in, but if you can get a job doing something within the same industry, it will drastically improve your chances of becoming an investigator in the future.
Obviously, this is somewhat of a catch-22, as in most cases, you need experience to get a job, but also a job to get experience. For this reason, we recommend looking for entry-level positions at first, as employers tend to be more lenient with these roles when asking for experience. If you have already worked in another field, an entry-level job might not be a necessary step for you. However, some employers will still request that you have experience in a similar role, which could be an issue.
Another way to obtain work experience is by working as a contractor or by becoming self-employed. This method will require a lot of work on your part, especially to initially set up. However, if you do things properly, you should be able to find work, as companies will be taking less of a financial risk hiring you.
The last step in this guide is more of a habit than a step, as it is something you are going to want to do alongside the steps mentioned above. Digital forensics is a constantly changing and evolving field, and because of this, there are going to be certain skills and technologies that aren’t covered on a degree or certification program. This isn’t because these skills aren’t relevant; it’s simply that these programs aren’t always updated regularly.
Because of this, it is imperative that you develop a habit of self-learning, as it will not only allow you to keep up to date with the latest trends in digital forensics but also stand out as a candidate when looking for employment. A good self-learning habit can also allow you to build a strong work ethic, which is crucial in a job that often involves long hours and focused attention.
A quick google search will likely yield plenty of results to help supplement your forensics skills. However, we have also included some of our favorite resources below for your convenience.
Udemy is a platform full of courses designed to teach a wide variety of different skills. One of the more popular categories on the site is Network & Security, with digital forensics courses enjoying a reasonable charge of the courses in this section. There are also a number of other useful cybersecurity courses on the platform that you could enroll in to broaden your skillset within the field.
eForensics Magazine is a site dedicated to teaching both forensics and other cybersecurity skills. The platform includes plenty of different courses, as well as various magazines designed to keep you updated on new trends and technologies within the forensics niche.
Cybrary is another platform centered around teaching cybersecurity skills, providing an extensive library of courses and other information. The site includes a number of digital forensics courses as well, making it somewhat of an online hub for cybersecurity and forensic computing enthusiasts. Many of its courses are also free, which is beneficial if you are working with a tight budget.