Turns out, skill beats experience and an academic degree doesn't guarantee higher compensation for five security positions.
In the rapidly growing cybersecurity industry, some positions don't offer a clear-cut path to a higher salary. An academic degree and years of experience, considered a promising combination in traditional industries, don't guarantee security employees a bigger paycheck.
Cynet researchers polled 1,324 security practitioners this quarter to learn about industry salaries and the factors shaping them. Their data provided sufficient insight to profile five positions: security analyst/threat intelligence specialist, penetration tester, network security engineer, security architect/cloud security architect, and security manager/director.
Some findings validated the team's suspicions. For example, they weren't surprised to learn banking and finance usually lead in security compensation, says Yiftach Keshet, director of product marketing for Cynet. In the financial sector, 4% of respondents reported salaries of $111,000 to $130,000, 2% earn $131,000 to 150,000, and 2% earn $271,000 to $290,000. Healthcare also has salaries on the high end, with 17% who earn $111,000 to 130,000.
Location also had a tremendous impact on salary. Security analysts in North America report a significantly higher salary than in EMEA and APAC: More than 80% earn between $71,000 and $110,000 compared with less than 35% in EMEA and 21% in APAC earning the same. The highest-paid position recorded was security director, with top-tier earners making $290,000 or more.
Still, some findings caught the researchers off-guard. "I was surprised to find out that an academic degree can have a relatively low impact on compensation," Keshet says. "That was surprising, especially in geographies like the United States and Europe."
For some security roles, demonstrable skills are more valuable than academic degrees. Consider a level-one SOC analyst tasked with triaging alerts. The standard SOC is typically flooded with alerts, driving businesses' concern about alert fatigue. A strong SOC analyst will be someone who can address a certain capacity of alerts in a day and can write automated rules to discern between events that have to be escalated and those that can be handled locally.
These skills are easily measurable. When a candidate applies for an entry-level SOC role, it's easy to see what they know how to do and how they do it. The same goes for a pen tester or network security engineer, who are tasked with testing an organization's defenses and maintaining network defenses, respectively. Sixty percent of pen testers with an academic degree made less than $50,000, while 60% of pen testers without an academic degree made the same amount. A larger percentage of pen testers without a degree made between $51,000 to $70,000 and $91,000 to $110,000 compared with their degree-earning counterparts.
The same can be said of network security engineering, where a greater percentage of employees without degrees reported salaries on the higher end of the spectrum than employees with degrees.
"Personally, I think it's good news," Keshet says about prioritizing skills for higher compensation. "If we eliminate degree or specification of experience, basically we're left with skill. Companies care more about what their security personnel can do rather than their formal certification."
Some of these skills may not solely come from security experience. Researchers found employees who pivoted from an IT role into a cybersecurity role tend to earn more than peers who started out in cybersecurity. In his personal experience, Keshet says, a solid background in IT better prepares someone to take a deep dive into security.
While a degree wasn't necessary to increase salaries for the five positions analyzed, he notes it is required for executive positions. "For a CISO, it definitely matters," Keshet says. Most CISOs have a security background but typically have an MBA or other advanced degree, he explains.