When you’re in the early stages of a career in IT, the alphabet soup of credentials can often feel overwhelming. With so many options to choose from, how do you know which certification — or certifications — are the best for you? Which will get you the best jobs, and once you land a job, help you do it well? Which will help you move forward?
Some people opt to go all in, earning as many certifications as possible, as a way of covering their bases. Others choose one or two major certifications and focus their energy on building expertise in a certain area.
While there is some disagreement over which route is better, there is one thing that many IT managers and recruiters agree on: The best certification for an IT security newbie is the CompTIA Security+.
What is the CompTIA Security+?
Security is one of the fastest growing specializations in IT and arguably the most important. Employers are desperate to hire individuals who have knowledge and experience in IT security, and the CompTIA Security+ certification is proof that you have the basic knowledge necessary to protect networks and sensitive data.
The CompTIA Security+ is a vendor-neutral certification that deals with several key concepts in IT security, including networks, data and host security, threats and vulnerabilities, compliance, access and identity control, and cryptography. With these credentials, you can demonstrate that you know how to respond to security incidents and you can identify and mitigate risks before security problems occur. The CompTIA Security+ certification is a natural complement to other CompTIA certifications, including CompTIA CySA+ and CompTIA Network+.
While not necessarily a requirement for a job in IT security in most cases, most employers prefer applicants to have the CompTIA Security+ certification or something similar before they will even consider hiring them. Most employers use the certification as a benchmark of who to interview for a position, prioritizing candidates who have the certification above others. Additionally, education, work experience, and skills are still valuable and important, with the certification serving as evidence of your knowledge and abilities.
However, even as most employers use the CompTIA Security+ certification as a screening tool, some don’t value it as highly. They see the certification as a sign of your initiative and commitment to the field, but usually, do not use the certification as a determining factor in a job interview or offer. Still, even among employers who don’t place a premium on it, there is no doubt that it shows how serious you are about both security and your career.
The major exception to all of this? The government. If you want to work in a government IT job, you must meet certain federal guidelines, including DoD 8570 requirements that dictate that government employees and contractors hold specific certifications related to security and information protection. CompTIA Security+ meets the requirements of this directive, making it vital for anyone who wishes to work for the government.
In any case, earning a CompTIA Security + certificate is good for your earnings potential. Based on 2014 salary reports, an IT professional with this certification can expect to earn between $75,000-$80,000 per year. Your location, industry, and experience influence that amount, of course, but that tends to be the average salary.
Earning the Certification
So, given that the CompTIA Security+ can help you land a job — and a high paying one at that — how do you go about earning it?
It requires passing an exam. Exams are offered at multiple locations around the world and you’ll need to schedule an appointment at the testing center that’s closest to you. To take the exam, it’s recommended that you already hold the CompTIA Network+ certification as well as have two years of experience in network administration with a focus on security. The exam itself is a 90-question test combining both multiple choice and performance tasks; to pass, you must earn a score of at least 750 out of 900 possible points. Once you pass the test, which costs $339 to take, you must earn at least 50 continuing education credits every three years to maintain your certification.
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While your existing work experience and knowledge can help you prepare for the exam, there are also a wealth of training materials available, through CompTIA and independent organizations. ITPro.TV offers a number of online IT training video courses that can help you prepare for the certification test, with in-depth, easy-to-understand content. Once you pass, this will show you that you have the skills that employers want, which can change the course of your career and significantly increase your earning potential.