A complete guide to becoming an ethical hacker (2022)

This guide is all about how to become an ethical hacker. It includes detailed information on the role an ethical hacker plays, some of the skills and experience necessary to become an ethical hacker, and strategies for landing a job as an ethical hacker.


  • Role of ethical hacker
  • Skills needed
  • Certifications and education
  • How to get experience
  • Typical assignments
  • The recap

Historically, defensive and offensivecybersecurity pursuits have been described using the monikers of whitehathackers and blackhat hackers respectively. These nicknames were used todistinguish the good guys from the bad guys. While both of these terms arestill commonly used, at least one of them may not be adequately descriptive ofthe various roles found in today’s modern cybersecurity ecosystem.

Although a blackhat hacker is still just the bad guy, the good guys are now better described using expressions such as red team, blue team, purple team, ethical hacker, and penetration tester. More specifically, red teams provide offensive security services and blue teams provide defensive services. Purple, being the combination of red and blue, identifies those teams that provide some of each flavor of security service.

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The term ethical hacker includes all security professionals that provide offensive services, whether red team, pentester, or freelance offensive consultant. Security analysts or engineers are also job titles that may include offensive elements. Often these offensive security services will be rolled up under a threat and vulnerability management group within a company.

While there are some subtle technical differences, say between the services provided by an independent offensive cybersecurity consultant and an in-house pentester, for this guide these various names for ethical hackers are used interchangeably.

An ethical hacker’s primary purpose is to view security from the adversary’s perspective in an effort to find vulnerabilities that could be exploited by bad actors. This provides defensive teams the opportunity to mitigate by devising a patch before a real attack can occur. This objective is served by executing simulated cyberattacks in a controlled environment. While much of the value that an ethical hacker provides is related to testing security controls and devices for perimeter penetration vulnerabilities, they also look more broadly for weaknesses that can be exploited deep within a network or application such as data exfiltration vulnerabilities.

Role of an ethical hacker

Ethical hackers can be independent freelance consultants, employed by a firm that specializes in simulated offensive cybersecurity services, or they can be an in-house employee protecting a company’s website or apps. Knowledge of current attack methods and tools is a requirement across these employment options, however, the in-house ethical hacker may be required to have an intimate knowledge of only a single software or digital asset type.

While relatively new to the security industry, one advantage that an in-house red team may provide is that the team will necessarily have a more intimate understanding of how their own systems and applications are constructed than would an independent consultant. This insider knowledge provides the red team an advantage, as long as they can avoid becoming myopic in their view. It would take real attackers years to replicate this advantage. In-house teams are largely thought to be less expensive than the continuous use of a consulting firm as well.

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Conversely, a benefit that an external ethical hacker may provide is a fresh set of eyes to identify vulnerabilities that may be overlooked by the internal team. Even organizations that employ an internal red team may occasionally contract an external ethical hacker to provide this fresh look at their defenses.

For any external offensive security service provider, it is especially important to obtain written permission from the client before beginning any offensive activities. This permission should detail the systems, networks, applications, and web sites that will be included in the simulated attack. Do not increase the scope of the service without additional written permission to do so.

In keeping with the industry’s use of colors to delineate between various cybersecurity roles and functions, there are white-box, black-box, and gray-box ethical hacker engagements. A white-box engagement is when the security professional is given as much information about the target system and application as is possible. This allows the simulated attack to go wide and deep very quickly looking for vulnerabilities that it would take a real bad actor a very long time to uncover.

Conversely, a black-box engagement is when no insider information is given to the ethical hacker. This more closely reflects the circumstances of a real attack and can provide valuable insight into what a real attack vector may look like. As the name implies, a gray-box engagement then denotes the simulation of an attack where the attacker has already penetrated the perimeter and may have spent some time inside the system or application.

Many firms enlist the help of all three engagement types in conjunction with both in-house and external ethical hackers. This variation of applied knowledge can provide the best view of what protections must be deployed but is also much more expensive to undertake.

Possessing ethical hacker skills and knowledge is helpful for many other security roles. These skills are vital to network security analysts and network engineers. Purple teams need people with offensive skills. Application security developers benefit from an understanding of offensive methods and tools. Security researchers, commonly known as bug hunters, depend highly on their knowledge of offensive tactics. Many successful bug hunters display an understanding that reaches deeper than the application layer to the network layer and other areas that can be exploited.

The skills required to become an ethical hacker

While there are plenty of anecdotal stories of blackhat hackers being converted to be whitehats in a bygone era, the most important requirement for becoming a successful ethical hacker today is to have, as is found in the name, high ethical standards. Ethics are what separate the good guys from the bad guys. There are plenty of blackhat hackers that have adequate technical skills to be an ethical hacker, but they lack the discipline of character to do the right thing regardless of the perceived benefits of doing otherwise.

A history of cybercrime poses an unacceptable risk for a member of a cybersecurity team. For a large organization with an astute legal team, this type of risk would represent a nonstarter. A word to the wise then is, when looking for work as an ethical hacker, a resume that includes any work that even smells of unauthorized work or unethical behavior is a fast way to be disqualified. While people can certainly change over time, most employers accept that developing a set of ethical life-guiding standards is much more involved than just desiring a career change.

Second to having the “ethical” part of this colloquial nickname covered is the need to have the “hacker” part covered as well. A candidate for an ethical hacker job must be able to demonstrate advanced cybersecurity technical skills. The ability to recommend mitigation and remediation strategies are a part of the desired experience.

To become an ethical hacker a candidate must understand networks, both wired and wireless. They must be proficient with operating systems, especially Windows and Linux. They need to understand firewalls and file systems. They must know how file permissions work and be familiar with servers, workstations, and computer science generally.

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Strong coding skills are essential and direct, manual, and hands-on attack methods must be clearly understood and demonstrated. In short, an ethical hacker should have defended so many assets over their career that imitating and then thinking a few steps ahead of the adversary comes almost as second nature.

Above and beyond good ethics and strong technical skills is a special mix of creative and analytical thinking. Ethica hackers need to be able to think like the adversary. They must understand what motivates the bad actors and be able to estimate how much time and effort the blackhat may be willing to apply toward any specific target. To do this, the pentester must understand the value of the data and systems they protect.

Ethical hacker certifications and education

The two certifications that are specific to ethical hacking are Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) and Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP).

EC-Council describes their CEH certification is these terms: “A Certified Ethical Hacker is a skilled professional who understands and knows how to look for weaknesses and vulnerabilities in target systems and uses the same knowledge and tools as a malicious hacker, but in a lawful and legitimate manner to assess the security posture of a target system(s). The CEH credential certifies individuals in the specific network security discipline of Ethical Hacking from a vendor-neutral perspective.”

Any number of other cybersecurity professional certifications offered by EC-Council will lend themselves toward becoming more hireable as an ethical hacker.

Offensive Security describes their OSCP certification, saying “The OSCP examination consists of a virtual network containing targets of varying configurations and operating systems. At the start of the exam, the student receives the exam and connectivity instructions for an isolated exam network that they have no prior knowledge or exposure to.

The successful examinee will demonstrate their ability to research the network (information gathering), identify any vulnerabilities and successfully execute attacks. This often includes modifying exploit code with the goal to compromise the systems and gain administrative access.

The candidate is expected to submit a comprehensive penetration test report, containing in-depth notes and screenshots detailing their findings. Points are awarded for each compromised host, based on their difficulty and level of access obtained.”

A bachelor’s degree in a computer-related field is a good place to start your career. Computer science or network engineering education provides a recommended foundation for work in the security field. When considering a bachelor’s program in the field of cybersecurity give priority to programs with a strong interdisciplinary focus.

Good programs will emphasize computer engineering, computer science, and business management skills. Look for programs that include courses in technical writing and legal issues surrounding technology and ethics. The best cybersecurity professionals are well-rounded individuals who can see their field through a wide-angle lens.

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Even with a degree and a professional certification or two, self-study is needed to keep up on current attack methods and offensive strategies. A home lab can be very useful. Youtube videos, internet groups and forums, and social media posts and exchanges are all methods used by successful ethical hackers to keep their edge over blackhat hacker.

How to get experience as an ethical hacker

Experience with vulnerability testing tools, such as Metasploit, Netsparker, and OpenVAS, is very helpful for ethical hackers. These tools and there are many more of them, are designed to save time when searching for known vulnerabilities. These or similar tools may provide a useful framework for vulnerability scanning and management but should represent only the starting point for an experienced ethical hacker. Manual simulated attacks must be directed toward the target as well. Knowledge and experience related to how these attacks are performed are essential.

The path to finding work as an ethical hacker will almost invariably pass through many years as a member of a security team providing defensive security services. Assignment to an elite offensive team is most commonly a progression through the ranks of the department. Often beginning with work as a security specialist, security administrator, or security software developer, additional experience and education will qualify a candidate for a place on one of the security specialty teams or work as a freelance consultant.

Helpful experience extends beyond past IT security work. Social engineering and physical penetration tests are also applicable skills. Many attacks begin with intel gathered using an extended social engineering campaign. Knowledge of social engineering strategies and tactics can be very helpful in understanding the entire threatscape.

Physical breaches to a server room or data center will also sometimes precede a digital attack. An understanding of what physical assets are vulnerable will help an ethical hacker identify the types and methods that are likely to be used in a real event.

Cybercriminals must become evermore innovative as security professionals deny them the use of their previous methods and tactics. Physical attacks, including the use of drones to sniff out unprotected networks, are becoming more frequently employed to gather intel and initiate cyberattacks. An ethical hacker must anticipate and simulate the use of traditional and non-traditional attack vectors to provide the most comprehensive threat analysis possible.

Typical ethical hacking assignments

Typical work assignments for an ethical hacker include threat modeling, security assessments, vulnerability threat assessments (VTA), and report writing. Assuredly the responsibilities of this role will vary from company to company but these staples will nearly always be included in the job description.

Threat modeling

Threat modeling is a process used to optimize network security by identifying vulnerabilities and then determining countermeasures to prevent an attack or mitigate the effects of an attack against the system. In the context of threat modeling, a threat is a potential or actual adverse event that may be malicious (such as a denial-of-service attack) or incidental (such as the failure of computer hardware), and that can compromise the assets of the enterprise. An ethical hacker would contribute to this process by providing a comprehensive view of the possible malicious attacks and their resultant consequences for the organization.

The objective of effective threat modeling is to conclude where the greatest focus should be to keep a system secure. This can change as new circumstances develop and become known, applications are added, removed, or improved, and user demands unfold. Threat modeling is an iterative process that consists of defining assets, recognizing what each application does with respect to these assets, creating a security profile for each application, identifying potential threats, prioritizing potential threats, and documenting adverse events and the actions taken in each case.

The ethical hacker’s role is imperative in that it allows the threat modeling to remain theoretical rather than post mortem after an actual attack.

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Security assessment

An ethical hacker, whether a pentester or a red team leader, will often be assigned the task of providing a security assessment. Simply put, an information security assessment is a risk-based measurement of the security posture of a system or enterprise. Security assessments are periodic exercises that test an organization’s security preparedness. They include checks for vulnerabilities related to the IT systems and business processes, as well as recommending steps to lower the risk of future attacks.

Security assessments are also useful for determining how well security-related policies are adhered to. They help to shore up policies designed to prevent social engineering and can identify the need for additional or enhanced security training. Culminating in a report that identifies weaknesses and makes recommendations, the security assessment is an invaluable risk management tool.

Vulnerability threat assessment

A vulnerability threat assessment is a process used to identify, quantify, and rank the vulnerabilities relevant to a system along with the threats that could possibly exploit those vulnerabilities. While closely related to a security assessment, the VTA is conducted to identify and correlate specific threats and vulnerabilities. The basic security assessment, described above, is used to identify vulnerabilities and evaluate the security posture of the enterprise independent of any specific threat. The VTA is a more threat-based assessment.

Examples of systems for which vulnerability threat assessments should be performed include, but are not limited to, information technology systems, energy supply systems, water supply systems, transportation systems, and communication systems. Such assessments may be conducted on behalf of a range of different organizations, from small businesses up to large regional or national infrastructure entities. Each of these system types and/or enterprises will require someone in an ethical hacker role to perform the VTA.

Report writing

A crucial element for carrying out the assignments of an ethical hacker is the ability to write clear and concise professional reports. Gathering data, identifying vulnerabilities, and correlating threats are of little value if the appropriate information can not be articulated to risk management leaders. Reports submitted from the red team are often the impetus for significant security resource expenditures. Risk management professionals need to have total confidence in the findings of ethical hackers in their organization. In some cases, an ethical hacker will be an outside consultant retained by a firm to provide the information needed to justify security expenditures for upper management or board of directors. In the world of security consulting, the report is the primary deliverable and is of the utmost importance.

When considering possible professional certifications and educational opportunities to elevate a career to include ethical hacking, do not underestimate the importance of business writing expertise. The ability to produce a well-written report will boost an individual’s career over an otherwise equally qualified peer.

Ethical hacking in review

Being a member of an in-house red team or working as a freelance whitehat hacker are exciting vocations. As far as operations level positions go, they are highly sought after positions that can engender a level of respect and provide a degree of prestige within the cybersecurity community. Ethical hacker jobs are necessary for the effective protection of networks, systems, and applications. This expertise is required throughout national infrastructure entities and to secure critical or sensitive data across all industries.

For many, the term ethical hacker is an oxymoron. It indicates two opposing notions. One is that of high ethical standards and the other that of “hacking” which is usually associated with nefarious activity. An offensive security professional may be a better description, but ethical hacker is often used to describe this genre of security professionals because let’s face it, ethical hacker is more mysterious sounding.

Regardless of whether or not the word hacker is used in the job description, these jobs are not for the morally questionable and certainly not for anyone who has a history of being a bad actor. Ethical hackers are necessarily privy to sensitive information, the divulging of which could be catastrophic for the enterprise. A security clearance is often required for government employees and government contractors. Obtaining a security clearance will include a background investigation and an examination of financial and social media data.

With the relatively rare exception of the independent freelance offensive cybersecurity consultant, ethical hackers normally work as part of a team. If on a red team the other team members will be like-skilled ethical hackers or pen-testers and the team will be part of the overall security department. In a smaller organization, the ethical hacker may be the only person with an offensive role, but will invariably be a part of a larger security team. The ability to work well with other team members and to communicate effectively is critical to success. An ethical hacker is not the stereotypical hoodie-wearing young person working out of his parent’s basement – that decided to trade their black hat in for a white one. She is more often an educated, experienced, skilled, and articulate professional that is dedicated to making the world a safer place to live and work.

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While history may provide examples of self-taught gritty individualists pulling themselves up by their digital bootstraps to the pinnacle of cybersecurity ops, an education with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, combined with one or more specialized professional certifications, is the standard for ethical hackers. Years of mettle-proving experience in software development and/or more traditional defensive security roles is not at all unusual for successful ethical hackers.


What do I need to study to become a ethical hacker? ›

To become an ethical hacker a candidate must understand networks, both wired and wireless. They must be proficient with operating systems, especially Windows and Linux. They need to understand firewalls and file systems.

Can I teach myself to become a hacker? ›

The short answer: almost anyone can learn to hack. The longer answer is that it's a good fit for people with specific backgrounds and personality types. People who have some knowledge of computer programming and a baseline vocabulary to draw on would thrive in these learning environments.

How many years does it take to become an ethical hacker? ›

It can take anywhere between 18 months to six years to fully develop your ethical hacking skills. If you are starting with no relevant hacking or coding skills, it will likely take you longer. However, if you already know how to code, you can complete the CEH online training and test in as little as five days.

Who is No 1 ethical hacker in world? ›

Kevin Mitnick
Other namesThe Condor, The Darkside Hacker
OccupationInformation technology consultant Author
Organization(s)Mitnick Security Consulting Chief Hacking Officer at KnowBe4, Inc
Board member ofKnowBe4
7 more rows

What code do hackers use? ›

Web Hacking: Currently, JavaScript is one of the best programming languages for hacking web applications. Understanding JavaScript allows hackers to discover vulnerabilities and carry web exploitation since most of the applications on the web use JavaScript or its libraries.

What is salary of ethical hacker? ›

Ethical Hacking Career Opportunities, Salaries, and Progression. The ethical hacker salary in India ranges from INR 1.77 lakh per annum and goes up to INR 40 lakh per annum. Bonus for this role ranges from INR 5,000 to INR 2 lakh, whereas shared profits go up to INR 5.11 lakh.

What do hackers learn first? ›

An individual planning to become a hacker will need to learn about programming, which is considered to be a vital step. A variety of software programs are now available that make hacking easier, however, if you want to know how it is done, you will definitely need to have basic knowledge about programming.

Are hackers better than programmers? ›

Who are “better” programmers? Coders or hackers? I know this statement may cause a lot of controversy, but IMHO, hackers are far more superior than coders when it comes to building softwares. I used to be a coder and I was proud of myself for my “craftsmanship of the code”.

What are the 7 types of hackers? ›

Types Of Hackers
  • White Hat / Ethical Hackers.
  • Black Hat Hackers.
  • Gray Hat Hackers.
  • Script Kiddies.
  • Green Hat Hackers.
  • Blue Hat Hackers.
  • Red Hat Hackers.
  • State/Nation Sponsored Hackers.
26 Aug 2022

Are hackers coders? ›

A hacker is a coder/programmer who creates programs by combining a bunch of existing code (written by other) in a short period of time. Some are self taught, others formally trained but all are considered extremely creative and preferring a lack of structure in the process of building.

How many hours do ethical hackers Work? ›

Work Place

An ethical hacker typically works 8-9 hours a day and 35-40 hours a week. Their work hours may increase amidst deadlines or security threats.

Who hacked NASA? ›

Gary McKinnon
Other namesSolo
CitizenshipUnited Kingdom
Known forComputer hacking
2 more rows

Who is the youngest hacker? ›

Kristoffer von Hassel

Which country pays highest salary to hackers? ›

As I mentioned earlier, the USA, UK, India, Canada, Australia are some top paying countries, where you can relocate to start your ethical hacking career with a good entry-level ethical hacker salary per month.

Do hackers use C++? ›

Is C++ used for hacking? C++ is one of the go-to C languages for hackers because it helps them gain low-level access to hardware and processes. This C expansion language enables hackers to write fast and efficient programs, easily exploiting system vulnerabilities.

Why do hackers love Python? ›

Besides the given reasons, Python is the most loved programming language used by hackers since it's an open-source language which means that hackers can use the stuff that other hackers have previously made. Besides being free and high-level language, it also comes with a bank of genius support.

What do hackers study in college? ›

Any course which gives knowledge of computer languages, software and programming can help to become an ethical hacker. BCA, B. Tech computer science are the preferred courses. Many institutes also offer short term (6 months ethical hacking courses) to master the skills of hacking.

What companies hire ethical hackers? ›

  • CyberArk.
  • Deloitte Cyber.
  • eSentire.
  • Evolution Equity Partners.
  • KnowBe4.
  • Mastercard.
  • Microsoft.
  • Secureworks.
12 Dec 2020

What is the salary of hacker in Google? ›

Google Salary FAQs

The average salary for a Growth Hacker is ₹7,07,631 per year in India, which is 8% higher than the average Google salary of ₹6,54,556 per year for this job.

Can you be an ethical hacker without a degree? ›

A degree is not a matter for ethical hacking but to become an Ethical hacker in computer firms you need a degree for that. To become an ethical hacker, there are a lot of resources and online hacking courses. A degree can never be an obstacle for a technology-loving person.

What are good hackers called? ›

White hat hackers – sometimes also called “ethical hackers” or “good hackers” – are the antithesis of black hats. They exploit computer systems or networks to identify their security flaws so they can make recommendations for improvement.

Why do hackers use Linux? ›

Linux is the most popular choice for hackers due to its flexibility, open source platform, portability and command line interface and compatibility with popular hacking tools.

How many programming languages do hackers know? ›

What programming languages do ethical hackers use? PHP, C, C+, SQL, Python and Ruby are the basic programming languages that ethical hackers use.

Who earns more web developer or ethical hacker? ›

HackerOne found that on average, top earning ethical hackers make up to 2.7 times the median salary of a software engineer in their respective home countries. Also, hackers in India are making as much as 16 times the median.

Which subject is best for hackers? ›

Top 10 Ethical Hacking Online Courses in 2022
  1. LinkedIn Learning- Ethical Hacking Course – Lynda. ...
  2. Cybersecurity For Managers: A Playbook. ...
  3. Penetration Testing and Ethical Hacking Course. ...
  4. Cyber Security Basics: A Hands-on Approach. ...
  5. Learn Ethical Hacking From Scratch. ...
  6. Hacking For Beginners. ...
  7. Cybersecurity Specialization.
13 Jun 2022

Is IT hard to become a ethical hacker? ›

Becoming an ethical hacker is simple but not easy. There are various things you have to learn with a programming language and tools to help you in the field. In addition, hacking is ever-changing, and you need to keep up with the trends and tools being used.

Can I become ethical hacker after 12th? ›

Aspirants can opt for graduate and post-graduate courses in Ethical Hacking after completing their 12th standard. Ethical Hacking diploma and certification courses are also available after 10th standard. Admissions to bachelor and master courses are mostly done through state or national entrance examinations.

Can I become ethical hacker without a degree? ›

A degree is not a matter for ethical hacking but to become an Ethical hacker in computer firms you need a degree for that. To become an ethical hacker, there are a lot of resources and online hacking courses. A degree can never be an obstacle for a technology-loving person.

Can I become ethical hacker after 10th? ›

Well, there are several options after your 10th or 12th completion that can lead you to the path of becoming a professional, ethical hacker. There are mainly three ways you can be a skilled hacker. You can choose a diploma or a B. Tech course in the computer science field.

What does a GREY hat hacker do? ›

Gray hat hackers enact a blend of both black hat and white hat activities. Gray hat hackers often look for vulnerabilities in a system without the owner's permission or knowledge. If issues are found, they report them to the owner, sometimes requesting a small fee to fix the problem.

How many programming languages do hackers know? ›

What programming languages do ethical hackers use? PHP, C, C+, SQL, Python and Ruby are the basic programming languages that ethical hackers use.

Do you have to be a genius to be a hacker? ›

Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of hackers don't have genius-level IQs or superhuman powers, just superior research skills, lots of patience, and a love of problem-solving.

Is ethical hacker a good career? ›

Going by the pay scale and the opportunities in the field, ethical hacking is quite a lucrative career option for all the IT professionals or aspirants out there. However, the amount of preparation and hard work that comes in along with achieving success in the field must also be considered.

Which course is for cyber security? ›

Regular Cybersecurity Courses
BTech/ MTech in Computer Science Engineering with Cyber Security & ForensicsBTech: 4 years, MTech: 2 years
BTech/ MTech in Computer Science Engineering with Certified Cyber Security Investigator
BTech/ MTech in Computer Science Engineering with Networking & Cyber Security
7 more rows
21 Jun 2021

Can I become a hacker with a computer science degree? ›

While there aren't really "hacking degrees," many who want to become hackers go the route of information security analysts or computer programmers. Bachelor's degree programs related to hacking can include one of the following: Computer science degree programs. Computer programming degree programs.

What kind of jobs do ethical hackers get? ›

Ethical Hacking Career Scope
  • Information Security Analyst.
  • Cyber Security Analyst.
  • Security Engineer.
  • Penetration Tester.
  • Security Analyst.
  • Information Security Manager.
  • Cyber Security Engineer.

What are the duties of an ethical hacker? ›

Certified ethical hackers are cybersecurity experts who are employed to verify and improve the security of a company's computer system. Their job is to conduct advanced penetration tests on a company's system and identify any breaches or weaknesses in the security setup.

Who is eligible for CEH certification? ›

You need minimum two years of experience in information security industry,must pay a non-refundable application fee,You have to submit eligibility application form , and you can also purchase official exam voucher from EC-Council store. Once it is approved, you can take the CEH exam.

Which stream is best for hackers? ›

To become Hacker best stream after 10 th standard would be Science Stream with Mathematics. Because to become Hacker some Companies require Bachelor's degree in Cyber Security, IT field, Computer Science, etc. It is better to go for Hacking after 12 th or Undergraduation course.

Which stream to choose after 10th to become a hacker? ›

1 Answer. The best stream to choose after 10th if you are passionate about Ethical Hacking is the Science stream with Maths. Because some employers do have requirements like a bachelor's degree in computer-related fields, like IT, Computer Science, or Cyber Security itself.

Can a arts student become a ethical hacker? ›

Ethical hacking is more of a skill-based job then course or degree. 12th Arts students who know about the Computer and the internet and are interested in learning hacking can pursue the same certification courses. The procedure of becoming an Ethical hacker for Arts, Science and Commerce remain the same.


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3. All about Hacking | What to study, Packages, Job Opporutnities | Simply Explained
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