First let me apologize if this is an ill posed question. Let me also note that I do not in any way seek a comprehensive answer, simply your thoughts on what makes for a valuable asset to a company like the NSA. I am a Maths student in the US, and I realize that a problem-solving mind is at minimum required for said question.

Some other responses I would find helpful include coursework, relevant programming languages, as well as helpful books. I am currently reading Schneier's (sic?) Applied Cryptography.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Not sure I would call NSA a company. $\endgroup$
    – mikeazo
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 1:57
  • $\begingroup$ @mikeazo, He means "corporation". $\endgroup$
    – Pacerier
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 12:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Pacerier No, as that would again indicate a company. According to its definition, a “corporation” is a large company or group of companies authorized to act as a single entity and recognized as such in law. When it comes to 3-letter agencies like the NSA, the correct term would be “governmental agency”; just like – for example – DARPA is one. In case of doubt it might help to remind yourself of the fact that the name already indicates what it is: “National Security Agency. Governmental agencies strongly differ from companies/corporations. #JustSaying $\endgroup$
    – e-sushi
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 16:16

4 Answers 4


It seems we have aligned interests. I'm also a university student (although I am a math/comp sci double major) looking to pursue a career in cryptography. To that end, I have been self-studying it for a while now. So, take what I say with a grain of salt. As a forewarning, this post focuses specifically on what topics cryptographers often encounter and less about what, as a person, makes you useful as an employee to a crypto-agency.

From what I can best tell, the requisite knowledge of computer science is entirely dependent on what you want to do with cryptography exactly. If you are looking to work in an applied area, then you had best had a strong grasp of the basics of computer science. If you are implementing algorithms, then you will likely need to know the basics of modern-day computer architecture.

The reasons for this are many-fold. First, an understanding of computer architecture will allow you to optimize code like no other. For instance, a knowledge of things like instruction-level parallelism and pipelining is incredibly important because taking proper advantage of both can seriously speed code up. Second, you may need to know some basics about architecture in order to ensure security of your scheme. For instance, if you are working with smart cards, you will need to be able to design, or at least verify the security of, tamper-resistant circuitry.

Further, you will need a strong knowledge of C, which sits so close to the hardware that it isn't too far a step away anyways. From what I can tell, the vast majority of "serious" crypto code is written in C, even if it has a language wrapper around it (e.g. PyCrypto). Other languages, especially interpreted ones, simply do not allow the same performance as C, and we do like performant implementations. Another selling point of C is that, in crypto, you are most often working with raw bytes and bits, which is exactly where C shines. It's the de facto language for low-level work.

To that end, I would really recommend you pick up a minor in computer science if you are going to work with applied cryptography at all. Relevant courses include introductory programming, operating systems, assembly language, architecture, and complexity theory. There are lots of computer science resources on the web, though, so don't feel too discourage if a minor is simply not possible! An excellent C resource is Learn C the Hard Way. If you want to know more about operating systems (especially important if the code you write will be run on a real-life computer...) then Operating Systems Design and Implementation is an excellent resource. Unfortunately, I don't know of a good reference on computer architecture because of the extreme fast-paced movement in the field; I recommend trying to understand some of the optimizations current crypto algorithms implement.

Of course, to get very far in crypto, you will have to have a strong understanding of mathematics. The Handbook of Applied Cryptography, an excellent reference for crypto in general (with the entire book free online, by the way, on the linked site), has an entire chapter devoted solely to the mathematical background necessary, and then another entire chapter just for number theoretic problems. Since you are a math student, this is probably where you shine.

The HAC lists probability theory, information theory, complexity theory, number theory, and abstract algebra as being introductory background material, and the rabbit hole just goes deeper and deeper. In that list, I don't think there is any particular area that is neglected; all of them are used frequently in different areas of crypto. I can give specific examples if you would like.

You will also need the tools of theoretical computer science. (Sometimes, you will even see cryptography as a field under theoretical computer science, though I feel this definition is rather restrictive.)

Of course, complexity theory is already on the list, and it is indeed the premier star of the show as far as TCS topics in cryptography go. But you might also need to know a few models of computation, e.g. Boolean circuits, Turing machines, random access machines, and the like, because sometimes they're important to a particular problem. (For instance, Craig Gentry used Boolean circuits as the computational model in his fully homomorphic encryption scheme presented in his thesis.) You might consider these models of computation a part of computational complexity theory, though.

Information theory is also on the list of topics in the HAC, and you might find it sometimes included in theoretical computer science lists. Honestly, the line between theoretical computer science and math is often blurred.

For good references in theoretical computer science, I would first recommend a good text on complexity theory; the one I studied was Computational Complexity by Papadimitriou. The wonderful folks over at cstheory.se recommend two other works on complexity theory, but I can offer no evaluation of either. They also have a post devoted to some good books for crypto, which I just now spotted! There are some on the list there I haven't seen. The full post is, in general, worth checking out, but I thought I would link you to crypto-specific areas.

Of course, there are areas of cryptography that are, shall we say, less often "applied" to the real world than others. An example of such is the idea of a zero-knowledge proof, namely proving you know something without revealing what that something is. These things are applied sometimes, and their applications are fantastic, but they haven't been --- as far as I can tell --- widely adopted as, say, generic "guarantee confidentiality and integrity" areas of crypto (e.g. things like AES+HMAC). At least, not in the public eye. If you are not convinced, take a look at the front page of this StackExchange.

For a good reference on "theoretical" crypto topics, I would highly recommend Foundations of Cryptography by Goldreich. It's a two-volume work and covers the real theoretical material lurking in the background. The second book is more applied than the first. Further, Katz and Lindell's Introduction to Modern Cryptography is also quite good, although I haven't studied it extensively.

Of course, there are also generic crypto references, which is probably what you're most after here. Applied Cryptography and other books by Schneier (et al?) are good. The HAC, which I linked to above, is an excellent tome, touching on tons of topics in applied crypto with a heavy dose of theory too. The post I linked to above (on cstheory.se) has a few recommendations too. For a good history of the subject matter, I would highly recommend (if you want brevity) The Code Book, which is a really nice overview of the history of crypto. Of course, if that interests you, there is always the tome on the subject, Kahn's The Codebreakers. You can also see Thomas Pornin's excellent answer on a question similar to yours on security.se.

In short, this post is a high-level overview of some possible self-study options in crypto. Since I am only a university student, I can't tell you what employers do and don't want you know (especially not the NSA), nor can I tell you what topics are the most important in current-day research. I also make no claims that this post is complete and doesn't make glaring omissions. But I think it has been fairly accurate, at least to the extent that my knowledge and experience permit.

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    $\begingroup$ a very helpful answer, thank you for taking the time to write this. Regards $\endgroup$
    – Moderat
    Commented May 24, 2013 at 6:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A+, great analysis. $\endgroup$
    – adhg
    Commented May 25, 2013 at 1:43

Your question is only slightly ill-defined. The problem is that the word "cryptography" is horribly overloaded. I think there are at least three different regimes of cryptography:

  1. Cryptography in academia. As Reid said, academic cryptography mainly springs out of complexity theory. With very few exceptions, you don't need much math knowledge to succeed here; your high-school/intro college level probability and number theory courses are probably sufficient, although a course on the probabilistic method wouldn't hurt. If you're interested in doing this long-term (and it doesn't sound like it from your question), you'll probably want to read a book like Sipser's Theory of Computation. Reid's recommended books by Papadimitriou, Arora-Barak, and Goldreich are good too, but they are a bit more difficult so I'd recommend reading Sipser's book first. The job question is somewhat irrelevant right now, because you'll have to go to graduate school first if you want to work in this space.

  2. Cryptography as used in software development or engineering/chip design. To be honest, this area of cryptography is in bad shape, so your help here would be much-appreciated, but as a result the bar for entry is rather low. I would argue that 90% of the people who do cryptographic work in software or hardware don't actually have any formal knowledge of the field. So, reading a book like Applied Cryptography and perusing the forums here already makes you ahead of the curve. Of course, you'll either need to learn a lot about software development or about chip design (or both). For the former, becoming a serviceable developer in any programming language is good; I agree with Reid's point about C but I'll also note that Python and Java have good library support for math (in general) and crypto (specifically), so if you're actually developing a higher level cryptographic protocol they may be more useful. For instance, C is good for implementing a new encryption scheme, but Python or Java might be better for building a new TLS-like protocol using existing low-level crypto schemes as building blocks. Also, I suggest you look at something like the Matasano crypto challenges to learn about common crypto implementation pitfalls. If you're interested in hardware design, I always liked the Patterson and Hennessy books.

  3. Mathematical cryptography and cryptanalysis. This sounds most likely to be your true area of interest. For this, there's not much I can recommend except: take as many math courses as you can. The most important courses are probability, number theory, and abstract algebra, but other topics can be relevant too. Honestly no amount of academic coursework can prepare you to be a good cryptanalyst; it's just something that you "learn by doing" more than anything. Taking these courses, plus reading books like Schneier's, should be enough to get you an internship and you can go from there. Since you mentioned a mathematical background and an interest in the NSA, you might try applying for this in the fall.

I hope this helps. Good luck!

  • $\begingroup$ thank you very much for this answer. I am learning Python as a result of a summer research project where I have to use Sage to compute characteristics of algebras, and I am looking at computer science masters programs to improve my compsci background. I'm actually more interested in the second part of your answer, and how I might go about getting over that barrier to entry. Are there jobs that will take me as a mathematics undergrad, or should I first try to apply to a computer science masters program? Thanks again for taking the time that you already have. Regards. $\endgroup$
    – Moderat
    Commented May 25, 2013 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Zvpunry It's probably way too late for me to respond to this, but I just saw your comment. Learning Python and Sage is pretty cool, but as you said, it won't be of much usefulness to the crypto engineering problem. There are plenty of available programming jobs that will take a math undergrad with good Python programming skills though. So, you may just want to start from there. If you're truly interested in the hardware aspects of things though, that's a sufficiently different topic that you may want to take some EE classes before you leave college, so as to be better prepared. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 4, 2013 at 15:29
  • $\begingroup$ not at all, I appreciate the advice, thanks for taking the time to respond. It looks like I should be 1) capable of understanding the theory and 2) good at implementing it $\endgroup$
    – Moderat
    Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 16:59

I am a master's student in cryptography, and I have had a few summers worth of experience in applied cryptography. Cryptography is a broad field, and there are many aspects to it. If you are looking at cryptography in academia, I would definitely recommend having a strong background in mathematics and computer science, and as strong a programming/implementation ability as you can obtain given the previous requirements. If you want to read some 'crypto classics' to sample several different areas of crypto, I suggest this list (it is not my webpage, just something I stumbled upon):


  • $\begingroup$ I am interested in applying cryptography rather than academia, is there any way you could post some of the names of the places where you got some experience? Regards. $\endgroup$
    – Moderat
    Commented May 27, 2013 at 15:13

I am a graduate student researching cryptography at JHU. If you want to research cryptography in academia, you'd better have a strong ability in mathematics. In my opinion, programming is a basic ability and software is just a kind of tool to realize your idea. cryptographers who made breakthroughs before all have a strong mathematics and theoretical computer science background.


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