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November 25, 2020

Information Technology

What is a cryptographer?

Cryptographer coding

Cryptography is one of the most important tools for building secure digital systems. And this makes cryptographers some of the most well-paid, highly valued workers within the booming world of cybersecurity. Consider these impressive stats:

  • The worldwide information security market will soon reach $170.4 billion (Gartner).

  • Around $6 trillion will be spent on cybersecurity in the next year (Forbes).

  • There will soon be 4 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs globally (Netsparker).

So what is cryptography and how did it begin? Cryptography dates back 5,600 years when the Sumerians and the Egyptians invented cuneiform and hieroglyphics (the oldest forms of writing) to record transactions. The Romans evolved cryptography into an encryption technique using ciphers to protect private messages. Then in the 19th and 20th centuries, electromechanical machines began performing complex encryptions used for sending telegraph messages and even spy communications during WWII.

But it wasn’t until the invention of computers and the internet that cryptography really took off. Computer-encrypted data uses exceptionally long, advanced encryption algorithms that are incredibly hard and time-consuming for people to break. Which is why today, online encryption governs the data exchange between web servers and web browsers and is critical to stable online transactions, secure communications, and safe data exchanges.

Because—at a certain level—cryptography is cybersecurity, the need for cryptographers will only continue to grow. Read on to learn more about cryptography jobs, the median cryptography salary, and how to become a cryptographer so you can secure your future in this exciting field!

What does a cryptographer do?

As a cryptographer, you’ll help develop complex security systems using ciphers and algorithms to encrypt sensitive data from hackers, misuse, and cybercrime. This protected information can include financial, personal, business, or military data. Cryptographers use many different private key or secret key ciphers to help with encryption. They can use RSA public keys, digital signatures, and other encryption techniques to help ensure their work is secure.

Your typical duties will be many and vary depending on what type of organization you work for.  Most center on protecting data from being intercepted, decrypted, copied, altered, or deleted by unauthorized actors. Thus, you’ll need a solid understanding of cryptographic security systems and their related algorithms. You’ll also develop and apply various statistical and mathematical models to help find and thwart potential systems threats.

Your day-to-day responsibilities can include:

  • Identifying and securing weaknesses in existing cryptography systems.

  • Testing cryptology theories in practice per your organization’s needs.

  • Enhancing data security through the implementation of more secure and encrypted solutions.

  • Using public key cryptography with RSA or other cipher types.

  • Utilizing secret key, private key, and public key cryptography to aid in encryption goals.

  • Developing and managing your organization’s encryption technology, including its code, software, and third-party product adoption.

  • Prototyping new security solutions with advanced programming encryption techniques and practices.

  • Training other staff that handles encryption data and helping them develop safe and secure systems.

  • Working to decrypt information if needed to find vulnerabilities that hackers could find.

Typically, cryptographers work for technology, financial, and government entities. For example, the National Security Agency and the Department of Defense employ cryptographers to protect our country’s military, national security, and cybersecurity systems and data. They use RSA and other private key systems to create solid encryption cryptographic systems. Tech companies, like Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, use cryptographers to secure both their and their customers’ data. Again, encryption, ciphers, public key, RSA, secret key, and other strategies are key for success. And investment firms, banks, and accounting businesses depend on cryptographers to keep confidential financial information safe. If a hacker is able to decrypt this information, it can be dangerous for an organization and their data. Cryptographers need to encrypt data carefully and use every strategy possible—symmetric ciphers, public keys, digital signatures, and any other means needed to ensure that data is safe.

However, as more public and private organizations rely on data to drive their performance, you can find cryptographic jobs in nearly any industry that interests you. Some of the hard skills you’ll need for a successful career are:

  • Knowledge of IT security hardware, software, and solutions.

  • Fluency in source code programming languages such as C#, C++, .NET, Java, Perl, PHP, Python, or Ruby on Rails.

  • Experience within IT support and using computer operating systems like UNIX, Linux, and MS Windows.

  • Ability to create source code.

  • Skills in symmetric cryptography—message authentication codes, hash functions, and symmetric encryption.

  • Basic understanding of complexity, information, and number theories.

  • Knowledge in public key and private key encryption, key exchange, and digital signatures.

  • Ability to use decryption methods to add even more security to your organization.

  • Strong math skills in discrete mathematics, and linear or matrix algebra.

  • Proficiency in data structures and cryptographic algorithms.

You should also have excellent written and verbal communication skills since you’ll need to help senior IT management—including security staff and project managers—better understand and implement more secure platforms. Other soft skills of good cryptographers include being:

  • Organized, efficient, and self-motivated.

  • A good team player.

  • Able to explain technical concepts to non-technical professionals.

  • Capable of handling multiple projects simultaneously.

  • Trustworthy with good judgment.

  • Interested in solving problems and puzzles.

  • Inclined towards analytical and critical thinking.

Of course, to keep progressing in your career, you’ll need to stay up-to-date on new data security technologies and trends. Cipher strategies, decryption methods, symmetric cryptographic standards, public key creation, and more are all subject to regular change. You may also consider earning an advanced IT degree to move into senior-level roles, such as becoming the manager of your cryptology team or a VP or C-level leader in your organization’s IT department.  

Computer forensics code

Cryptographer job outlook.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in computer and information technology are projected to grow by 11% over the next 10 years, which is much faster than the average for all other U.S. occupations. And positions related to cybersecurity have predicted job growth rates of up to 31%! So a career in cryptography is a fantastic choice with a lot of potential.

Another perk of being a cryptographer is the ability to work remotely as a consultant, contractor, or freelancer. Even more traditional full-time, in-person roles are now offering the option to work from home. And you can earn your bachelor’s in cybersecurity from home, too.

How much does a cryptographer make?

ZipRecruiter reports that the average cryptographer salary is $145,356 per year with a high of $195,500 and a low of $102,000. Other sites put the average at $74,478 ( and $99,157 ( Since cryptography is a newer field and is growing rapidly, it’s hard to give a definitive cryptographer salary. However, based on the ranges currently provided, it’s more than likely that you’ll have a highly lucrative career in this profession.

Most jobs today are in government and tech, and they pay about the same. However, where your employer is located can greatly impact your salary. New York boasts the highest annual salary for cryptographers, averaging at $151,229, followed by:

  • Massachusetts—$150,434

  • Maryland—$142,308

  • Nebraska—$139,476

  • California—$139,436

Of course, you should also weigh the cost of living for each state. The dollars you earn in Nebraska go a lot further than in New York or California. And your education and position level both go a long way in affecting your take-home pay. Cryptography engineers, for example, average $135,000, while cryptography jobs in research yield $104,000 each year. Global Knowledge also reports that:

  • IT professionals take certifications seriously as 87% of them have at least one certification.

  • Learning new skills or earning a certification can result in a raise upwards of $12,000 a year.

How to become a cryptographer.

You must first earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information technology, cybersecurity, or mathematics. All of these disciplines teach the technical, quantitative, and logic skills needed for making and breaking complex computerized codes.

If you’re considering working for the military or Department of Defense, you may also want to study linguistics or a foreign language since your role may interact with foreign communication signals. Additionally, advanced degrees such as a Master of Science in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance help to give you an edge in securing higher-paying, more competitive jobs. And many of these preferred roles require at least five years of experience.  

Whatever role you choose, cryptologists must maintain subject matter expertise and relevance through continuous learning. Strategies and technologies are constantly changing. So to keep up, you can join professional organizations like the International Association for Cryptologic Research or earn a job-specific certification like the ECES.

If you’d like to speed your path to becoming a cryptographer, enrolling in a competency-based university, like WGU, is a terrific option. At WGU you can graduate as fast as you learn by applying your experience or knowledge to rapidly progress through familiar coursework. This will also lower the cost for your degree.

Overall, the field of cryptology is on the rise with excellent pay and interesting work. If you love information technology and want to make a real difference in fighting cybercrime, this is definitely the job for you!

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