How to Become a Penetration Tester – Step-by Step Instructions

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Penetration Testers work to identify vulnerabilities in networks, systems, and computers. Also known as ethical hackers, these individuals are employed by various companies essentially to attempt to break into their systems. Often, the Penetration Tester will then be tasked with reporting their findings and providing solutions to any weaknesses they discover.

The role is among the most popular within cybersecurity, popularized by the fact that so many movies and TV series are now glamorizing the profession. This makes the job market a rather competitive, compared to some of the other roles within the industry. However, due to the fact that demand for Penetration Testers is only set to rise, there are still plenty of vacant job roles available.

Job Duties

Penetration Testers are expected to perform a number of duties, which can make the job rather enjoyable, due to the lack of repetition you are likely to face on a day-to-day basis. On the flip side, however, having so many responsibilities can also bring with it a lot of stress, which can make the job more difficult, especially if you are made to work to strict deadlines.

The main duties of a penetration tester usually include:

  • Performing penetration tests on applications, networks, and systems.
  • Probing for vulnerabilities
  • Designing and creating various penetration testing tools
  • Conducting physical security assessments
  • Documenting findings and reporting results
  • Using social engineering to test employees security practices
  • Designing and implementing security strategies

Required Skills

Penetration testing is a highly skilled profession, requiring you to know a variety of both hard skills and soft skills. This can make penetration testing a rather daunting career to pursue. However, there are a number of ways to gain the necessary skills and experience.

The main hard skills employers will be looking for include:

  • Proficiency with various security tools
  • Knowledge of web-based applications
  • Ability to use forensics tools
  • Knowledge of cryptography principles
  • Proficiency with the Metasploit framework
  • Knowledge of various security frameworks
  • Proficiency with both Windows and Unix systems
  • Extensive knowledge of computer hardware and software systems
  • Proficiency with Python, Java, C++, and other programming languages
  • Knowledge of network servers and networking tools

As for soft skills, employers are going to expect you to possess:

  • Excellent communication skills
  • The ability to work to deadlines
  • The ability to write comprehensive reports
  • Comfortable public speaking skills
  • The ability to work as part of a team


Penetration Testers are able to command a reasonably high salary for the work they do, and this is due to the skill the role requires, as well the importance it serves to a business. On average, a Penetration Tester earns around $81,000 per annum, with many at the top of the field earning closer to $134,000.

Entry-level roles are, of course, likely to pay less, but this is the case in pretty much every industry. The good news is that the money is there if you go after it, which is a nice incentive on top of the other perks that come with the job.

Job Outlook


With companies becoming increasingly reliant on the internet and other technologies, more and more emphasis is being placed on making sure systems and networks are secure. This is great news for Penetration Testers, as it means the demand for their services is only set to grow in the coming years.

In fact, it is estimated that over the next ten years, the job market for Penetration Testers will increase by 28%, making it a fantastic option in terms of job security. This increase is also pretty significant when you consider how many careers are now considered to be dying professions because of technological advancements.

How to Become a Penetration Tester

1. Earn a minimum of a bachelor’s degree

To work as a Penetration Tester, you are going to need to earn a bachelor’s degree in Cybersecurity, Computer Science, or another related field. This is because an employer needs to see that you have a competent level of knowledge relating to the job, and one of the easiest ways to check this is by demanding that you hold a degree.

A degree also shows that you are driven and dedicated to achieving your goals, qualities which are greatly admired by employers. You are also likely to be rewarded with a higher salary if you hold a degree, which is especially useful if you are going to have to rely on student loans to get you through your studies.

2. Obtain some professional certifications

Once you have earned a bachelor’s degree, you can either choose to continue studying to earn a master’s, or you can opt to obtain some professional certifications. For cybersecurity professions, the latter is generally the preferred option, as they teach a variety of on-the-job skills, something which isn’t always the case with master’s programs.

Professional certifications aren’t cheap, but if you can afford them, they are an excellent way of boosting your chances of landing a better job. Fortunately, a lot of graduate programs offer to subsidize some or all of the cost when it comes to earning certifications, so this is definitely something worth looking into when the time comes.

For Penetration Testers, there are a few highly sought after certifications that employers look out for. These certifications include:

  • CEH (Certified Ethical Hacker)
  • ECSA (Certified Security Analyst)
  • GXPN (GIAC Exploit Researcher & Advanced Penetration Tester)

The CEH certification is arguably the number one certification you should look to obtain, as it is widely recognized by many employers. It also has the added benefit of being slightly easier to complete than many others. This makes it a fantastic option to start with, as you can use it to develop a foundation of skills that you can then build on.

The ECSA Certification is intended more for Security Analysts, rather than Penetration Testers. However, due to its inclusion of a number of penetration testing modules, as well as the fact that it has been designed as a follow on from CEH, ECSA also works well as a great certification for Penetration Testers and Ethical Hackers.

The GXPN certification is an advanced certification intended for those who have already completed the likes of CEH and ECSA. This certification isn’t as necessary as the other two, but it’s a good option to have if you plan on applying for jobs in the upper tier of the job market, due to the more advanced topics it covers.

3. Get some relevant work experience

Almost every job you apply for is going to ask that you have a certain amount of relevant work experience. The reason for this is because employers want to see that you are used to working in the field and can do so in a professional manner.

If you are fresh out of college, this can make finding a job rather difficult, as you may have never worked a day in your life. Fortunately, however, there are ways to obtain work experience as a Penetration Tester that doesn’t require conventional employment.

Many Penetration Testers, for example, choose to work on a freelance basis as a contractor. This allows them to do paid work for a number of clients, allowing them to build a portfolio of experience that can then be shown to potential employers later down the line.

You could also choose to work voluntarily at first, teaching your skills to others, or simply doing the work of a Penetration Tester for free. Voluntary work in this field isn’t very common, due to potential security risks, but if you are able to find some, it could be a great way to bolster your resume.

4. Self-learn

To make it as a Penetration Tester, you will need to maintain a strong work ethic and willingness to self-learn, whether it be on the job or in your free time. This step isn’t as linear as the other ones we’ve mentioned, but it is equally important. The reason for this is because, without this initiative, the chances are that your skills will become obsolete.

As this one is more of a habit, we recommend trying to develop it as quickly as possible. Doing so will not only make things easier further down the line, but it will also improve your learning process as well, allowing you to perform better on your coursework and in exams.

One way to develop this habit is by making a point of setting aside some time each week to keep yourself informed on the latest cybersecurity news and predictions. You could also choose to take on personal projects such as setting up penetration testing simulations to hone your skills even further.