Is Cryptography Hard To Learn? (Skills, Requirements, Salary, Free Courses)

By SB •  Updated: 03/31/21 •  9 min read

If you are thinking of changing careers or adding to your skill-set, before investing countless hours learning about elliptic curves and game theory and secure protocols, you might ask, is cryptography hard to learn?

Cryptography is easy and complex to learn, depending on your intrinsic motivation, your area of interest, and your affinity for learning computer science and high school level math. If you have the ability to use basic language and understand concepts and have the determination to succeed, you can learn adequate crypto skills in anywhere from 6 months to 2 years. However, if you have zero knowledge of the aforementioned subjects, you may find learning cryptography to be a challenge.

Cryptography is a technique of using code to secure or pass sensitive information and communication across various insecure platforms. The purpose of doing that is to allow only the intended recipient to gain access to the encrypted data and process it. Today, cryptography has become very popular – to the extent that cryptographers are now in great demand both within the public and private sector.

With the advancement in technology, the internet has now become increasingly in use by many organizations to perform a whole lot of activities, including shopping, online payment, and social interaction. While that’s great, the disadvantage is that hackers are also gaining more skills and attacking websites by taking advantage of their vulnerabilities. Here’s where the high demand for cryptographers comes into the scene — to help secure information and communication.

Online transactions are secured using mathematical algorithms that prevent cyber criminals from accessing personal information. The science of creating and implementing these algorithms is known as cryptography, which embodies mathematics, computer science, and information security.

There are tons of reasons why you should learn cryptography. One of them is that it’s very useful in today’s world, where cyber attacks are fast increasing day by day. Let us further explore some of the things that you need to know about learning cryptography, and how you can get started.

Is Cryptography Hard To Learn?

Cryptography is a field that combines three different subjects; mathematics, computer science, and information security. As such, it can be very hard to learn, especially if you have little or no knowledge of the aforementioned subjects.

While cryptographers work with ciphers and algorithms to convert the plain text of something into ciphertext, a process known as encryption, cryptanalysts study the process of converting ciphertext back to plain text, called decryption. Cryptology is the parent field of both. 

As far as computer knowledge is concerned, you need to understand computer programming to some extent, including getting a basic understanding of how a compiler works. 

It’s also important that you get a deep understanding of digital systems. The knowledge of digital systems is required for the creation of a new encryption and decryption algorithm.

You’ll also need a great understanding of mathematical theories and a good understanding of how you can play around with basic mathematical language and concepts.

That said, if you are very interested in starting a career in cryptography, just ensure you know the basics of math and computer science and you’re good to go.

Why Is Cryptography Harder Than It Looks?

The main reason cryptography is harder than it looks is that it looks very much like mathematics, but in the actual sense, there’s more to it than that. In cryptography, there are “algorithms”, classified into three categories: encryption algorithms, signature algorithms, and hashing algorithms.

Asymmetric encryption uses two key types to encrypt and decode a message. Want to learn how to do this?

Algorithms: Encryption, Signature, and Hashing


In cryptography, there’s also another term called “protocols”. For cryptology to work, there’s a need to precisely define both algorithms and protocols — most times, this is pretty hard to do.

Many people think of math when it comes to cryptography, and that’s true. But math isn’t everything about it – cryptography involves securing information, which math alone can’t do. Instead, cryptography also requires a good understanding of computer programming and network security to be written in software. This part is also very difficult and ever-changing.

What Kind Of Mathematics Is Used In Cryptography?

Let’s face it, you’ll surely need a good knowledge of mathematics and computer science in cryptography. In some cases, you’ll need a very deep understanding of some mathematical aspects while learning cryptography. There are also a few cases when you’ll only need to apply the basics of mathematics. The bottom line is, it depends on the aspects of cryptography you are looking to learn.

For instance, if you’re going into asymmetric crypto, you’ll certainly need a good knowledge of number theory – which involves studying integers and integer-valued functions. Furthermore, asymmetric crypto also requires a good understanding of mathematical algorithms: the RSA algorithm, the Diffie-Hellman algorithm, and the Elliptical Wave Theory algorithm.

Speaking of the RSA algorithm, it is the most popular asymmetric encryption algorithm. Apart from that, it relies to a very large extent on the knowledge of prime factorization. As for the Elliptical Wave Theory algorithm, it requires the knowledge of elliptic curve representation and the principle of irreversibility.

The Diffie-Hellman algorithm enables two computer users to generate a shared private key. With the key, they’ll be able to exchange information across an insecure channel. This algorithm depends strongly on the knowledge of modulo operation.

If you’re interested in symmetric crypto, you need a good knowledge of mathematics, such as probability theory, game theory, binary numbers, matrices, polynomials, and algebraic systems consisting of sets.

Symmetric encryption uses a shared key to secure shared data.

Is Cryptography Worth Learning?

If you intend to implement your learnings, then yes, cryptography methods are worth knowing and there are lots of benefits attached to continually learning how things work. The competitive pay and career opportunities also help make learning cryptography worthwhile, if you need an external motivation.

Certainly, you’ll agree with me that we are in a time where the internet is used for virtually everything, from shopping to social interaction. As such, to effectively secure information and communication, there’s a need for cryptography. That said, many organizations are looking to pay a huge amount of money to employ the best cryptographers across the world. Cryptography careers pay nicely.

As a cryptographer, you can also work for the government by helping to secure national interest and secure data. If you work as a cryptanalyst, you can always work in any organization, gaining access to information by encrypting & decrypting data and breaking down algorithms & ciphers.

Job Outlook for Cryptographers

Even with only a Bachelor-level degree, Information Security Analysts (a title the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics likes) are ready to command salaries of around $100,000/yr on average (over twice the median national salary), and the field is growing much faster than average.

According to ZipRecruiter, the average salary of cryptographers in Hawaii and Massachusetts in the US is about $164,000. That said, are you now interested in learning cryptography?

How Long Does It Take to Learn Cryptography?

With well-developed analytical skills and a will to learn coding, you can pick up both the science and the art of cryptography in less than two years.

Creating algorithms and then breaking them to test for vulnerabilities takes time. Luckily for you, there is little need to re-invent the wheel; there are elegant examples of ciphers and encryption techniques already in circulation, you have plenty of models to help you speed up the process. 

Cryptographers understand that information security is one of the most pressing issues of today, so they often make their findings available to the public for free or at a low cost. This means you do not necessarily need to waste precious resources enrolling in degree programs or buying expensive books to learn cryptography.

Learn Cryptography The Hard Way

What better way to learn about something than by doing it? Grab a book, a course, and a mentor and get started today.

No matter where you are right now, the path to becoming an expert in cryptography is made easier by taking these steps:

  1. Know basic math. High school math is just about all you need to be a decent cryptographer. Refresh your basic algebra, prime numbers and probability theory.
  2. Do analytical thought experiments. Cryptography courses usually begin by posing a set of thought experiments featuring an encrypted message and two parties, a sender and receiver. For any given message, cryptographers need to analyze the communication situation and determine which symmetric or asymmetric encryption technique will most efficiently fulfill the minimum requirements to secure the information. Study the obstacles to secure communication and the encryption methods used to overcome them.
  3. Learn python or any programming language. Python is relatively easy to learn and is a popular programming language. Learn the ways of your tool.
  4. Practice implementing cryptographic algorithms to secure your data. Whatever you want to secure, try generating and implementing symmetric keys using algorithms like the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) or Blowfish, or playing around with asymmetric keys using the RSA algorithm. 

Recommended resources for learning cryptography and cryptanalysis:

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I've been practicing OSINT and utilizing Linux as my daily operating system for over twenty years. The tools are always changing and so I'm always learning, but helping you understand the value of protecting your own data remains at the forefront of everything I do.