How to Become a Malware Analyst

Does the word “malware” strike fear in your heart? If so, you’re not alone. According to antivirus company McAfee, malware, which has been around for at least 30 years, can be defined as any type of malicious software that is designed to exploit or harm any programmable device, network or service. Malware is used by cybercriminals every day in order to steal sensitive data that they can leverage against victims for financial gain.

Malware is insidious and can spread easily through email attachments, malicious advertisements on websites, infected USB drivers, fake software installations, phishing emails, text messages, and infected applications. Types of malware include, but are not limited to, viruses, ransomware, scareware, worms, Trojans, spyware, adware, and fileless malware.

It is easy to see why the job of a malware analyst is so important, when you take into account the many, many types of exploitative malware that exist in cyberspace. Malware analysts work in digital forensics, security engineering and programming to analyze intelligence after a cyberattack has occurred. Only by analyzing malware can a malware analyst prevent such occurrences from happening again.

Malware analysts’ jobs revolve around answering the following questions during an incident:

  • Who is behind the attack?
  • How did the attacker penetrate the organization’s systems?
  • What is the attack vector?
  • Can this attack spread through the network?
  • How much control does this malware give the attacker?
  • How much data, and what type of data, has been exfiltrated?

If you would like to explore the world of a malware analyst and learn if you have what it takes to become one, keep reading.

Education and Experience Required to Become a Malware Analyst

Malware analysts need a bachelor’s degree in computer science, cybersecurity or a related field. A graduate degree is usually not necessary. Use our Cybersecurity Bachelor’s Degree guide to find an accredited bachelor’s degree program in your state, such as:

  • Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering – University of Maryland
  • Bachelor of Science in Computer Science – Wilmington University, Delaware
  • Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity – Western Governor’s University
  • Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, Concentration in Cybersecurity – University of Texas at San Antonio.

Experience in programming and/or developing can be helpful to aspiring malware analysts too. It helps malware analysts to determine how malicious software has been created.

Industry certifications designed for malware analysts are also encouraged, showing potential employers that you are knowledgeable of the highest standards of the profession. Helpful certifications for malware analysts include, but are not limited to:

  • Certified Penetration Tester (CPT)
  • Certified Expert Penetration Tester (CEPT)
  • Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)-EC-Council
  • Certified Web Application Penetration Tester (CWAPT)
  • Certified Reverse Engineering Analyst (CREA)
  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)

Additionally, continuing education is very important for malware analysts, as malware is constantly changing and evolving. It is imperative that a malware analyst keeps on top of all of these day-to-day changes.

Job Description & Skills Required for a Malware Analyst

Malware analysts are an important part of an organization’s cybersecurity team. They work closely with security administrators, architects and analysts to design software to protect software and hardware assets. They help protect the organization’s computers and data from cyber threats as well as malware. While they mainly work with software threats, they can also help to strengthen the overall security of an organization’s network. Duties may include:

  • Documenting malware threats
  • Identifying procedures and techniques to avoid malware threats
  • Classifying malware by threats and commonalities
  • Keeping updated on the latest malware threats
  • Keeping an organization’s software updated to defend against the latest malware threats
  • Helping to create documentation for corporate security policies
  • Training company personnel on best security practices
  • Understanding tools that identify zero-day cyber threats and working to protect from them
  • Participating in research and development of malware protection tools

Skills and personality traits that the best malware analysts have are:

  • Have a thorough knowledge of operating systems and concepts
  • Knowledge of both high- and low-level programming
  • Knowledge of the fundamentals of networking
  • Know how to use the internet effectively in research
  • Enjoy solving puzzles
  • Likes learning new things
  • Loves a challenge
  • Likes to think outside of the box
  • Good writing skills (for writing technical reports, security policies, etc.)
  • Willing to frequently use the scientific method
  • Resourceful
  • Works well as part of a team
  • Strong knowledge of Windows API, Windows OS and C and C++
  • Can work well under stress

Tools that malware analysts frequently use in performing their jobs include (but are not limited to):

  • Debuggers (such as OllyDbg, WinDbg)
  • Disassembler (IDA Pro)
  • System Monitors (like Process Monitor, RegShot, Process Explorer)
  • Network Monitors (like TCP View, Wireshark)
  • Packer Identifier (PEID)
  • Binary Analysis Tools (like PE Explorer, Malcode Analysts Pack)
  • Unpacking Tools (like Ounpack, GUNPacker)
  • Code Analysis Tools (like LordPE, ImpRec)

Malware Analyst Salary & Job Outlook

Although the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not list an average annual salary for malware analysts, lists it at $92,880. Some companies that recently advertised vacancies for malware analysts include:

  • Booz Allen Hamilton, Maryland
  • Fortego, LLC, Maryland
  • Government of the District of Columbia
  • Innovation Associates, Inc., Johnson City, NY
  • Graton Resort & Casino, Rohnert Park, CA
  • Avanade, Boston, MA
  • Gordon Flesch Company, Madison, WI
  • VERSA Integrated Solutions, Austin, TX
  • Vagaro, Dublin, CA
  • Reyes Holdings, Rosemont, IL

Because malicious code is being generated worldwide every day, jobs for malware analysts will not disappear. Rather, they are expected to increase greatly. The BLS projects that jobs within the information security analyst field (including jobs for malware analysts) will increase by 31 percent from 2019 to 2029. This projected growth is much faster than the average projected growth for all other occupations that the BLS tracks. If you enjoy solving puzzles, love a challenge, and want to help fight cyber threats, becoming a malware analyst could be the perfect position for you!