Cybersecurity Careers Guide: Read This Before Getting Started

19/09/2021

If you want to launch a successful career in cybersecurity but are not entirely sure where to start, you’ve come to the right place.

Topics you will find in this guide:

  • What do cybersecurity professionals do?
  • What kind of skills do you need to be a cybersecurity professional?
  • Where should you start your cybersecurity career? 
  • What are entry-level cybersecurity jobs?
  • How much do entry-level cybersecurity jobs pay?
  • Major industries for cybersecurity jobs around Washington DC

The demand for skilled cybersecurity professionals has been skyrocketing, with some analysts boasting a 0% unemployment rate for the whole sector and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting a 33% growth rate between 2020-2030 for Information Security Analysts jobs. 

With over 460,000 job openings in cybersecurity nationwide and nearly 70,000 roles available in the Washington DC metro area, there’s never been a better time to become a cybersecurity professional! 

What Do Cybersecurity Professionals Do?

Cybersecurity is the protection of computers and networks from outside threats. That means that as a cybersecurity professional, your days will be spent protecting individuals and organizations against cyberattacks of all kinds.

Remember the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack? It caused days of fuel shortages and panic, and cost the company $5 million just to pay the ransom demand. That’s the type of cyberattacks that cybersecurity professionals work to prevent.

Online threats are getting more and more frequent, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the rate of adoption of new technologies and shifted a majority of the workforce to operate remotely.

As a cybersecurity professional, you will be the line of defense between the privacy and integrity of an organization’s online data and malicious hackers trying to steal or compromise that data.

If you are brand-new to cybersecurity, we’ve also put together a brief and easy introduction to essential cybersecurity terms to get you familiarized with industry jargon.

What Kind of Skills Do You Need to Be a Cybersecurity Professional?

cybersecurity professionals collaborating in office

Whether you are transitioning from a technical background or not, there are plenty of skills that you have already fine-tuned and can be transferred to a cybersecurity role, from working in a team environment to collaborating with colleagues towards a common goal. And any skills you don’t have, you can learn!

As varied as your specific job function can be, there are a few common soft skills that are a good predictor of success:

Soft Skills

  • Attention to Detail. Detecting vulnerabilities and assessing risks are activities that will involve a great deal of precision and attention to detail. As a cybersecurity professional, you need to be highly vigilant in monitoring networks, and your detail-oriented nature will enable you to identify possible threats.
  • Creative Problem Solving. While it is true that cybersecurity professionals follow established tried-and-true processes, new tech and evolving hacking strategies emerge every day. So your ability to creatively solve one-of-a-kind security challenges will play an important role in your everyday work. 
  • Clear Communication. Whether with your internal team or external clients, your ability to communicate findings and concerns, as well as to translate complex technical issues into approachable language will be a definite advantage for your success in this career.

Hard Skills

  • Computer Science Basics. Computer science is a complex discipline that encompasses everything from data structures and algorithms to programming languages and operating systems. As an IT security professional, you will need a thorough understanding of all the fundamentals.
  • Programming Know-How. Programming is the bread and butter of It security professionals, especially when it comes to creating one-of-a-kind security measures. Knowledge of C, C++, Python, and Java lets cybersecurity professionals better understand, and therefore efficiently protect, the backend of any system. 
  • Think Like a Hacker. Anticipating your opponents’ strategy is the key to winning, so understanding how black-hat hackers think lets cybersecurity professionals see the vulnerabilities in the system before they can be exploited. Instead of doing damage-control after an attack, it is far preferable to run some penetration testing and fortify the system ahead of time.

Where Should You Start Your Cybersecurity Career? 

Even though cybersecurity might seem like an intimidating industry to pivot to, in reality, the barriers to entry are not so steep as you might think. And if you are a first-generation college student, there are plenty of resources to make sure you succeed in your studies!

If you are currently working in a related field, such as technology or IT, chances are you already have many of the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in the cybersecurity field. There are many industry-specific certifications you can attain by self-studying or taking quick refresher courses online.

If you are completely new to the tech field, you can gain in-depth knowledge and hands-on skills by training with structured career-prep programs like the American University Cybersecurity Professional Program.

With 100% live and online classes, our part-time cybersecurity program will take you from novice to cybersecurity professional in just 10 months. You will be taught by experts working in the field, and train on a state-of-the-art virtual platform that includes cyber labs and threat simulations that mimick real-world scenarios.

Whether you come from a tech background or an unrelated field, the American University Cybersecurity Professional Program is designed to help you gain the in-demand skills that IT security recruiters look for in candidates.

discover a new career in cybersecurity with American University

What Are Entry-Level Cybersecurity Jobs?

Cybersecurity jobs are commonly divided into defensive and offensive cybersecurity.

The mission of defensive cybersecurity is to build, maintain, and monitor IT security systems that prove resilient against cyberattacks. 

Also referred to as the Blue Team, defensive cybersecurity holds an incredibly important role in the overall IT security ecosystem, because every company, in every industry, everywhere in the world, needs to implement security measures that prevent unwanted intrusions.

Entry-level roles in defensive cybersecurity include:

  • Network Security Administrators create an organization’s security infrastructure and policies, and they monitor company-wide systems for suspicious activity.
  • Security Operations Center (SOC) Analysts monitor an organization’s security systems for malicious activity. 
  • Information Security Researchers analyze different types of malware, sometimes reverse-engineer them, and create appropriate security responses. 
  • Network Operations Center (NOC) Technicians maintain network infrastructure, monitor network performance, and resolve any network issues. 
  • Digital Forensics Examiners recover, analyze, and compile data evidence from digital media and computers related to security incidents. 

The mission of offensive cybersecurity is to test how secure an organization’s defenses are by simulating a real cyberattack.

Also referred to as the Red Team, offensive cybersecurity professionals are incredibly skilled at assessing a company’s defenses and finding any vulnerabilities they can exploit, just like malicious hackers would.

Entry-level roles in offensive cybersecurity include:

  • Penetration Testers try to break into an organization’s secure network to uncover any vulnerabilities and report them. 
  • Offensive Cybersecurity Analysts evaluate the security of a company’s digital infrastructure and applications by running vulnerability assessments.
  • Red Team Operators stay updated on new types of cyberattacks and collaborate on penetration testing exercises.
  • Ethical Hackers carry out attacks just like black hat hackers would, document any weaknesses, and help make security systems more resilient.
  • Vulnerability Assessment Analysts scan applications and networks to find vulnerabilities and advise organizations on security improvements. 

If you are particularly interested in becoming an ethical hacker, you can find more specific career guidance here.

How Much Do Entry-Level Cybersecurity Jobs Pay?

Cybersecurity jobs can vary quite a bit depending on what you decide to specialize in. However, because of the scarcity of cybersecurity professionals, new entrants in the field can normally make much higher entry-level salaries when compared to other industries. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for information security analysts was $103,590 in May 2020. That, however, is just one type of position.

For comparison, you might want to look up cybersecurity jobs on websites like ZipRecruiter which, at the time this guide was written, shows the national average income for cybersecurity jobs is $120,317.

You can also explore tools like Salary.com, that break down not just the national averages, but go in-depth on local data. For example, the average salary for entry-level cybersecurity analysts in Washington, DC was $79,119 as of August 27, 2021, with the typical salary range between $72,111 and $86,717. 

It’s a good idea to use these websites as you start negotiating your employment contract with future employers, but always keep in mind that salary ranges always depend on a lot of other factors, such as certifications and education, years of work experience, and any other important skills you might have.

Major Local Industries for Cybersecurity Jobs

American University campus

It is no surprise that federal government agencies are some of the largest employers in our nation’s capital. However, the Washington-Baltimore-Arlington metropolitan area is also home to HQs of international organizations, tech startups, and a wide array of other industries.

Whichever sector attracts your interest the most, you are likely to find opportunities for cybersecurity positions there, because every company and organization, in every industry, needs skilled cybersecurity professionals.

Federal Government

Accounting for over 30% of DC’s GDP, the federal government is the biggest employer in the District—and cybersecurity has become a priority in this industry, trying to protect sensitive, private data from malicious actors. Not only has the IT spending for cloud systems steadily increased—accompanied by higher cybersecurity budgets—but the adoption of data analytics and digital services has also accelerated.

Professional Services

Did you know that DC has nine times more lawyers per capita than New York City? Legal services are just an example of the vibrant ecosystem of professional services agencies in the District. This sector is the largest employer, after the federal government, of course, and encompasses a range of subsectors, including: administrative and support services; consulting and research; legal services; accounting, architecture & design. 

Hospitality and Tourism

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic halted the majority of recreational travel, the hospitality and tourism sector is a major industry in DC’s economy. Not only is the District home to the headquarters for many hospitality and hotel companies, but medical and education-related travel, along with city-wide conventions, also attracts millions of visitors every year. New technologies have been integrated across this sector in the form of online bookings, mobile check-ins, on-demand transportation, and smart en-suite devices. Each and every one of those technologies needs to be protected by cybersecurity strategies that won’t let guest data be stolen or held for ransom.

Healthcare and Biotechnology

Along with the National Institutes of Health, the world’s largest funder of biomedical research, many pharmaceutical and biotech companies also have research facilities and headquarters in the Washington, DC metro area. Plus, because of the presence of the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services, the District holds significant influence on healthcare policy.


While the above are the four major employers of the Washington-Baltimore-Arlington metropolitan area, the full picture of the region’s economy shows a thriving ecosystem of tech, media & communication, retail, real estate, construction, and non-profit organizations.

As data analytics, e-commerce, automation, and AI keep transforming every aspect of our economy, the need to keep sensitive data protected from hackers has become more vital. And the demand for cybersecurity professionals who can set up, monitor, and maintain the security of their networks grows accordingly. 

Get Started

If you are serious about pursuing a career in cybersecurity, the American University Cybersecurity Professional Program can help you gain the practical skills you need to become a cybersecurity professional in less than a year.

All classes are 100% live & online and are designed to fit with busy schedules, with two sessions on weeknights and one on Saturdays. 

From beginning to completion, the program is a total of 400 hours of in-depth cybersecurity instruction, taught by professionals working in the field.

You will have access to our exclusive virtual learning ecosystem, where you can hone cybersecurity skills through practical simulations and cyber labs that mimic real-world cybersecurity scenarios. 

Plus, our dedicated career services department will work with you throughout the program to make sure that by the time you are ready to join the workforce, your resume, online profiles, and portfolio are in perfect shape to get your foot in the door with our industry partners. 

You can also hear about the experiences of other learners right from the source:

David Orta:

Tamarra Richardson:

To learn more, you can download our course catalog and explore our syllabus.

download american university course catalog
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