Security operations center (SOC) analysts, who are typically part of a larger cybersecurity team, play a critical role in dealing with cyberthreats, and maintaining the overall security of an organization. These cybersecurity specialists are often the first responders in detecting and mitigating threats. In today's world, with increasingly complex cyberattacks, the need for SOC analysts—and cybersecurity teams in general—has become all the more essential.

SOC analysts can be broadly classified into three tiers. Each tier differs in terms of the level of experience and role played in handling threats:

  • Tier 1 analysts are the junior-most in the hierarchy, and their primary role is to continually monitor and report any suspicious activities in the systems and network.
  • Tier 2 analysts are responsible for digging deeper into the issues raised by Tier 1 analysts, identifying the source of the threat, and devising a plan to combat the threat.
  • Tier 3 analysts are at the top of the chain and are highly experienced professionals with advanced skills to tackle more complex issues. Moreover, they are responsible for a deeper analysis of threats and vulnerabilities, and performing security assessments to determine and implement more robust cyberdefense strategies and security policies.

While the exact classification of tiers and their corresponding roles might differ from company to company, broadly speaking, these are some of the major responsibilities of SOC analysts. The certifications benefit you in consuming the fundamentals and theoretical aspects of cybersecurity and ensure you understand applications which will eventually enhance the required skills in the domain. These certifications are considered a pathway for excelling professionally in the field of IT security.

Before moving on to certifications for cybersecurity analysts in particular, let's first look at a few that covers basic concepts such as IT, networking, and security. While these certificates may not be a mandatory requirement for most cybersecurity jobs, they can go a long way in helping you understand fundamental concepts associated with cybersecurity.

CompTIA A+ Certificate

This is one of the most basic certifications available for learning core security and networking technologies. This prepares you for an entry-level job in the IT industry. Some of the skills that can be mastered with this certification include identifying, using, and connecting hardware devices; installing and supporting OSs; software troubleshooting; networking basics; network security; and best practices for operational procedures.

CompTIA Network+ Certificate

This is also a certificate that focuses on the basics. Networking is a crucial aspect of cybersecurity and cybersecurity professionals are expected to know the basics of networking like IP addressing, ports, protocols, sub-netting, LAN, and WAN. Some of the skills that can be mastered with this certification include basic networking concepts, routing technologies, networking devices, troubleshooting tools, network monitoring, and security protocols.

An alternative to this is Cisco's Certified Network Analyst (CCNA) certification. This certificate covers more detailed concepts of core networking, but it is primarily focused on Cisco products and solutions. The CompTIA Network+ Certificate, on the other hand, is vendor-neutral and applicable across all vendors and solutions.

Some of the most sought-after beginner level certifications in cybersecurity are discussed below. These are suitable for candidates who are just starting in the field of cybersecurity. Most of these certifications are recommended for those with some background knowledge in IT or networking, with one to two years of experience.

1. CompTIA Security+ Certificate

This is an entry-level security certification and is often considered to be one of the first certifications needed for anyone wanting to pursue a career in IT security. The exam focuses on the core cybersecurity skills required by security and network administrators and gives an overview of the whole cybersecurity domain. Some of the skills that can be mastered with this certification include basic threat detection and risk mitigation strategies, administering identity and access management, basic cryptography, and understanding governance; risk; and compliance.

While there are no prerequisites for this certification, the CompTIA team recommends that a candidate have at least two years of IT experience with a security focus. It is also recommended that candidates gain their Network+ certification prior to the Security+ certification.

2. EC-Council’s Certified SOC Analyst

This is another entry-level certification for cybersecurity professionals. Anyone aspiring to become a cybersecurity or SOC analyst (Tier 1 and Tier 2) will find this useful. According to EC-Council, the education, and training organization that develops and oversees many IT cybersecurity certifications programs, this program is designed to train candidates in identifying, analyzing, and combating intrusion attempts. Some of the skills that can be mastered with this certification include learning how to deploy and use a SIEM solution, as well as integrating threat intelligence to detect threats and potential security incidents. This certification promotes hands-on learning and gives you a thorough understanding of the end-to-end SOC workflow.

To achieve this certification, candidates are required to have at least one year of work experience either as a network administrator or in a relevant IT security role, or should have completed an EC-Council training course on basic cybersecurity courses.

3. Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)

CEH is a career entry-level certificate provided by the EC-Council. Ethical Hacking, also referred to as penetration testing or white hat hacking, is the process of attempting an authorized access into a system or network by bypassing the implemented security measures. The primary purpose of a white hat hacker is to find vulnerabilities and potential threats in a network, which helps an organization prevent data breaches and improve its security posture. This is a knowledge-based exam that tests candidates on attack vectors, detection, prevention; combat procedures; and methodologies. While the other certifications mentioned above focus on defense, the CEH focuses on offense.

There is an additional CEH Practical certification as well, consisting of 20 practical challenges that test a candidate’s skills and proficiency in a performance-based cyber range. Upon completing both CEH and CEH Practical certifications, a candidate is further certified to be a CEH Master.

4. GIAC Security Essentials Certification (GSEC)

Another entry-level certification on the list is the GSEC provided by the Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC). This is suitable for candidates with some background in information systems and networking, looking to expand into cybersecurity. Some of the skills that can be mastered with this certification include active defense, access control, network security, cryptography, incident response, penetration testing, SIEM, and critical controls.

While there are no prerequisites to take the exam, a general background in IT or networking is recommended.

This table summarizes these certifications, provides some details about the exam pattern, and more.

Certifications Test Format, Details & Recommendations
CompTIA A+
  • 2 exams – Core 1 and Core 2, with 90 questions to be completed within 90 minutes for each exam.
  • Includes multiple choice questions (MCQs), drag and drops, and performance-based questions.
  • Cost: ~$246 per exam.
  • Suitable for gaining the required baseline knowledge for any cybersecurity role.

CompTIA Network+
  • 90 questions to be completed within 90 minutes.
  • Includes MCQs and performance-based questions.
  • Cost: ~$358
  • Suitable for gaining the required baseline knowledge for any cybersecurity role.

CompTIA Security+
Certified SOC Analyst
Certified Ethical Hacker
GIAC Security Essentials Certification

Note that the test formats and costs mentioned above are for reference only. Exam patterns are regularly updated and their costs change. Some certifications also adhere to a validity period. Refer to the EC-Council website for the most current information about these certifications.

With so many certifications available, it can be overwhelming for beginners to choose the right certification for them. Most beginner-level certifications are somewhat generic but can give you a helpful push into any cybersecurity role. One thing to keep in mind is the company and job role that you are applying for. If you are eyeing a specific role or a specific organization, you might want to thoroughly review the job description to see if it cites requirements for any specific certifications.

It is also worth noting that certifications alone cannot guarantee expertise in any area but they provide you with distinct advantages. A candidate’s basic knowledge, experience, skills, interest, passion in the field, and their ability to apply knowledge to practical situations, together with certifications to validate these skills, is what makes them succeed in this field.

In this blog, we have focused on beginner-level cybersecurity certifications suitable for candidates with one to two years of experience. In the next blog, we'll look at the top advanced level certifications in cybersecurity, suitable for experienced professionals.

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