Woman working on computer

A cryptographer could...

Develop a new algorithm to encrypt online credit card transactions Credit card purchase Help the government decode secret messages sent by terrorists Data messages
Test existing encryption algorithms for weaknesses Loading files Ensure that electronic messages like emails cannot be intercepted and read by unauthorized parties Rendering of binary code with overlay of icons for email and locks
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Key Facts & Information

Overview Cryptographers, also called cryptologists and cryptanalysts, develop the encryption algorithms that keep our modern online transactions, like emails and credit card purchases, safe from prying eyes. Even if information or a message is stolen, as long as it is encrypted, the person who stole it cannot read it! Cryptographers also work to test and break these algorithms, to check them for weaknesses and vulnerabilities. They even analyze and decipher codes used by terrorists and foreign governments, to provide valuable information to the U.S. military and intelligence agencies.
Key Requirements Analytical skills, attention to detail, problem-solving skills, creative thinking, trustworthiness
Minimum Degree Master's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Computer science, algebra, algebra II, pre-calculus, calculus, statistics, English
Median Salary
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) More Slowly than Average (3% to 6%)
  • Watch this video to see multiple short interviews with security professionals at BlackHat and DEFCON, two major security conferences held in Las Vegas. Nevada.
  • Read this interview with cybersecurity professional Bruce Schneier about his career in cryptography and other areas.
Related Occupations

Education and Training

While you may be able to enter the field of cryptography with extensive work experience and no technical degree, nearly all positions will require at least a bachelor's degree in math, computer science, or a closely related field. Many positions may require a master's degree, and research or academic jobs will require a Ph.D. Advanced degrees may be obtained in more specific fields, like statistics or cryptography.

Many cybersecurity fields have various professional certifications that employers look for, like like Certified Ethical Hacker, Certified Intrusion Analyst, or Certified Forensic Examiner. Since cryptography is a more narrow field within cybersecurity, it does not currently have as many certifications. Some do exist, like the EC-Council Certified Encryption Specialist. These certifications may be helpful when searching for a job in industry. For many government jobs (or private contractors working for the government), a security clearance will be required.

Cryptographers need to be good at math. As a high school student, you should take as many advanced mathematics courses as possible, like AP calculus and AP statistics. You should also take computer science or programming courses if they are available. These courses will help prepare you for an undergraduate program in math or computer science.

Other Qualifications

Cryptographers need to have excellent mathematical, analytical, and problem-solving skills. Depending on who they work for, other skills may be required. For example, a cryptographer working for a large corporation may need to work closely with other cybersecurity professionals or explain the basics of cryptography to non-technical employees. A researcher or university professor may need to have a strong desire to discover new knowledge, inventing new encryption algorithms and breaking the old ones. A cryptanalyst working for the government or military may need a strong sense of dedication and urgency about their work, since peoples' lives can depend on the ability to decrypt enemy communications during wartime.

Since a security clearance may be required, cryptographers should have a clean background with no criminal record.

Nature of the Work

Have you ever bought something online using a credit card, or visited a website that started with "https"? Then even if you did not realize it, you have made use of encryption. Encryption takes a regular, or "plaintext," message, and converts it into an encoded, or "ciphertext," message, using a mathematical algorithm. Encryption keeps many of our online transactions safe from cyber criminals. Even if someone manages to intercept a message, if it is encrypted, then they cannot make any sense of the ciphertext. As cyberattacks continue to rise, more and more companies and websites encrypt even "regular" web traffic, to help protect their users from attacks.

Who do we have to thank for the encryption algorithms that keep all of our data safe? Cryptographers! The practice of cryptography has been around for thousands of years, long before it was considered a profession. Military leaders like Julius Caesar used simple codes to send secret messages to their generals. Cryptography played an important role in the Allied victory of World War II, with the cracking of the German Enigma machine. Electronic communications, and the need to encrypt them, became part of our everyday lives with the development and widespread civilian use of the internet in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This led to the growth of cryptography as a specific profession.

The job of a modern cryptographer or cryptanalyst might vary quite a bit depending on where they work. Cryptographers in the private sector might help large corporations make sure all of their confidential data and communications with customers are properly encrypted and secure. Academic faculty and researchers working in cryptography may attempt to develop new encryption algorithms and find weaknesses in old ones. Cryptographers working for the government may develop secret codes used for military and intelligence agency communications, and attempt to decipher messages intercepted from terrorists or foreign governments. All of these positions will probably require working with abstract mathematical theories and proofs, and a strong understanding of computer science. Modern computers are so fast that they can crack simple "by hand" ciphers in less than a second, so in order to remain secure, modern encryption algorithms are very complicated and involve a lot of math.

Work Environment

Cryptographers typically spend the majority of their time working in an office environment, usually in front of a computer. They may work mostly 9–5 office jobs but there could be exceptions depending on the situation. For example, cryptographers working for the military or intelligence agencies may work longer hours to decode an intercepted message. Cryptographers working in research and academia may travel to conferences around the world to present their work to professional colleagues.

Like other workers who spend long periods typing on a computer, cryptographers are susceptible to eyestrain, back discomfort, and hand and wrist problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome or cumulative trauma disorder, but preventative measures can be taken.

On the Job

  • Make sure sensitive information is properly encrypted and only accessible to authorized parties
  • Help ensure that online credit card transactions are secure
  • Design an app that allows users to send each other encrypted text messages
  • Study existing industry-standard encryption algorithms and probe them for weaknesses or try to crack them
  • Use mathematical theories to design newer, more secure encryption algorithms
  • Decode secret messages intercepted by military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies

Companies That Hire Cryptographers

Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...

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Science Fair Project Idea
When you hear the word "encryption," you might think about modern computers and things like email and online bank accounts. But did you know that encryption has been around for thousands of years? In this project you will learn about the Caesar cipher, a simple type of encryption that replaces each letter of the alphabet with another letter, and demonstrate how a modern computer can crack this ancient code in just a few seconds. Read more
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Science Fair Project Idea
Want to send coded messages to your friends? Can you write a simple letter-substitution encryption program in JavaScript? How easy is it to break the simple code? Can you write a second program that "cracks" the letter-substitution code? Investigate other encryption schemes. What types of encryption are least vulnerable to attack? Read more

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