How to Become a Cryptanalyst

A cryptanalyst does not have the same job responsibilities as a cryptographer. Cryptographers, which are described in a separate career profile, are usually the code makers. Cryptanalysts, however, are the code breakers. Cryptanalysts most often find work within government and intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies, such as the National Security Agency (NSA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Their jobs revolve around combing through data transmitted around the world by criminal organizations, and breaking the codes to decipher the data.

Code crackers, or cryptanalysts, make sure that encrypted data is accessible and readable. It involves the disciplines of computer science, mathematics and cryptography. In addition to the employers listed above, cryptanalysts can also find work within academia, financial institutions, insurance companies, research agencies, scientific institutions, telecommunications companies, computer design firms, consulting firms, and science and engineering firms.

Does working as a cryptanalyst sound like your idea of fun? If so, keep reading to learn more about how you can become a cryptanalyst.

Education and Experience Required to Become a Cryptanalyst

A minimum of a bachelor’s degree in computer science or mathematics is usually necessary in order to become a cryptanalyst. Consult our Cybersecurity Bachelor’s Degree guide to find an applicable bachelor’s degree program in your state. You should make sure to take mathematics courses if you don’t major in math. Coursework that will be helpful to cryptanalysts includes linear algebra, trigonometry, number theory, methods of complex analysis, and calculus.

Many cryptanalyst jobs, however, require a graduate degree. If you want to work as a cryptanalyst in research, you will likely need a doctoral degree.

Graduate level degrees that apply to cryptanalysts include:

  • Master of Science in Cybersecurity – Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA
  • Master of Science in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
  • Master of Science in Mathematics – Wright State University, Dayton, OH
  • Master of Science in Mathematics of Information Security – American University, Washington, DC

Experience is usually necessary for cryptanalysts, as it is not considered an entry-level position. Depending upon your degree level, you might need from five to 10 years of experience in the field before you can be hired as a cryptanalyst.

Internships can help you to gain experience in the field, which is highly necessary in order to get a job as a cryptanalyst. Our Guide to Cybersecurity Internships lists many opportunities that can apply to potential cryptanalysts.

Joining professional organizations can also help you to boost your career as a cryptanalyst. The International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR) is one of the most well-known in cryptanalysis. Another helpful organization is the American Crypto Association (ACA). The International Financial Cryptography Association (IFCA) can also be a place to find networking opportunities.

Professional certifications can be vital to your success as a cryptanalyst. Microsoft Networking Fundamentals Certification is an essential professional certification for cryptanalysts to have. Another valuable certification is the EC-Council’s Certified Encryption Specialist (CES).

Job Description & Skills Required for a Cryptanalyst

Cryptanalysts combine the disciplines of computer science, mathematics and engineering in performing their job responsibilities. Depending upon your employer, the job description of a cryptanalyst can vary. Normally, duties include (but are not limited to):

  • Collecting, processing and disseminating intelligence information from foreign signals for intelligence and counterintelligence purposes
  • Preventing adversaries from accessing sensitive classified national security information
  • Monitor and detect problems in data flow or collection
  • Analyze garbled intercepts using processing skills and techniques
  • Analyze secret coding systems and decode messages
  • Examine secret messages for characteristics that reveal coding system employed in the message
  • Analyze messages using formulas, code books, chemicals, mechanical devices, computers, and knowledge of coding keys
  • Decode messages, consulting books, magazines, government publications and files to obtain corroborative evidence
  • Develop codes or new coding methods
  • Conduct analysis of signals and cryptographic data
  • Diagnose and exploit encrypted material
  • Debug and test software programs
  • Analyze various types of data
  • Formulate questions and hypotheses about the data
  • Test hypotheses via computer programs
  • Draw conclusions from test results

Skills and know-how that cryptanalysts should possess include:

  • Knowledge of programming languages like C, Python, C++, Java
  • Knowledge of computer data structures
  • Knowledge of computer algorithms
  • Knowledge of computer architecture
  • Excellent communication skills, interpersonal and in writing
  • Knowledge of key exchange and digital systems
  • Collaborate well working as part of a team
  • Using innovative approaches and new solutions
  • Strong problem-solving skills, solving complex problems

How do cryptanalysts use mathematics?

  • To study and test alternative theories and ideas
  • In following mathematical formulas and theorems
  • In encoding and encrypting systems and databases
  • In performing cryptic computations and applying methods of numerical analysis

How do cryptanalysts use computer science and/or engineering?

  • In devising systems for companies to keep hackers out
  • In providing security measures to protect companies and consumers
  • In making tables, graphs, and data charts

Cryptanalyst Salary & Job Outlook

According to the Economic Research Institute (ERI), the average annual salary for a cryptanalyst in the United States is $75,932. The range of salary is typically between $54,227 and $93,855. ERI estimates that, by 2025, the salary for cryptanalysts will rise to $83,794, representing a 10 percent increase in salary in just five years. ERI also notes the following average cryptanalyst salaries in various US cities:

  • Storrs, CT: $82,000
  • Manchester, MD: $80,000
  • Ashton, ID: $71,000
  • Oceana, WV: $70,000

Information security jobs, on the whole, are expected to increase by 31 percent from 2019 to 2029, per the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This includes job opportunities for cryptanalysts. It is clear that obtaining a graduate degree and working as a cryptanalyst could spell a bright future for those who enjoy solving complex puzzles and contributing to the security of organizations and, ultimately, of our nation.