CISM vs CISA 2024: Which Is Best for Your Career?

CISM vs CISA 2024: Which Certification Is Best for Your Career?

Deciding between working towards a CISM or CISA certification can be difficult because there’s quite a lot of overlap between their content.

Both focus less on the technical operations of information security and more on the procedures of businesses implementing information security policies. However, some differences are worth noting, especially regarding the careers that can develop from attaining them.

In this CISM vs CISA guide, we’ve combed through the respective ISACA exam syllabi, eligibility requirements, countless user reports regarding the two certifications’ exams, and numerous job boards advertising United States-based roles for the two certifications.

Read on to learn about these two certifications and decide which is best for your current expertise and career goals.

What Are CISM and CISA Certifications?

CISM and CISA are comprehensive cyber security certifications offered by ISACA (the Information Systems Audit and Control Association) that deal primarily with business information security controls and regulations.

Both certifications are designed to be undertaken by those who are already information security professionals.

CISM and CISA tackle information security programs and regulations from opposite directions: CISM validates a candidate’s ability to come up with programs and regulations and manage their implementation; CISA, instead, validates one’s ability to audit such policies, procedures, and programs, either internally or externally.

Because ISACA awards both certifications, they have the same exam format, exam structure, syllabus structure, and cost.

About CISM

Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) is a certification that, according to its awarding body, tests your ability to “assess risks, implement effective governance and proactively respond to incidents.”

CISM validates your ability to create and manage the implementation of information security programs. Medium- and large-sized businesses should have an information security program that characterizes its rules, regulations, and processes surrounding data and information system security.

Because most job roles involving the creation and implementation of security programs will require you to have extensive experience in the information security field, the CISM certification is aimed at these professionals.

About CISA

Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) is a certification that ISACA claims can “assert your ability to apply a risk-based approach to planning, executing, and reporting audit engagements.”

CISA validates your ability to perform an information system audit. An information system audit examines and assesses whether a business’s information system adheres to its information security program, including risk assessment, compliance, incident response, and more.

Because most information system auditor job roles will require extensive prior experience in information security, the CISA certification targets these professionals—especially those with an information systems auditing, control, or assurance background.

CISM vs CISA Roadmap

To see how CISM and CISA stack up against other certifications, read our articles:

CISSP vs CISA: Which Certification Is Best for You?

CISM vs CISSP: Which Certification Is Best for You?

Exam Details

Because CISM and CISA are both offered by ISACA, exams for both certifications are identical in format, structure, and length. The only way the two exams differ is in terms of content.

Each exam question has four answers, and each question might be in the form of a question or an incomplete statement. Some questions may involve a scenario, and some may ask you to choose the answer based on a qualifier such as “most” or “best.”

After registering, you have 12 months to book and take your CISA or CISM exam. Exam appointments are available 90 days in advance, and you can reschedule without penalty at any time during your 12-month eligibility period, provided you give a minimum of 48 hours' notice.

The computer-based exams can be undertaken at authorized PSI testing centers or remotely with remote proctoring.

CISM Exam Details

The CISM assessment runs for four hours (240 minutes) and features 150 knowledge-based multiple-choice questions. It has a passing score of 450 out of 800.  

The CISM exam covers four content domains:

  • Information Security Governance (17%)
  • Information Security Risk Management (20%)
  • Information Security Program (33%)
  • Incident Management (30%)
CISM Exam Domains

CISA Exam Details

The CISA assessment is formatted identically to the CISM assessment, running for four hours (240 minutes), featuring 150 knowledge-based multiple-choice questions and a passing score of 450 out of 800.

The CISA exam covers five content domains (distribution accurate from August 2024):

  • Information System Auditing Process (18%)
  • Governance and Management of IT (18%)
  • Information System Acquisition, Development, and Implementation (12%)
  • Information Systems Operations and Business Resilience (26%)
  • Protection of Information Assets (26%)
CISA Exam Domains after August 2024

This content distribution, as ISACA explains in its CISA Job Practice Update 2024, will only be accurate from 1 August 2024. Until then, the distribution is as follows:

  • Information System Auditing Process (21%)
  • Governance and Management of IT (17%)
  • Information System Acquisition, Development, and Implementation (12%)
  • Information Systems Operations and Business Resilience (23%)
  • Protection of Information Assets (27%)
CISA Domains Before August 2024

Winner: Draw

Both exams cover various topics and adhere to the same exam structure and format. CISM covers governance, program creation, and management more thoroughly, but CISA covers audit, compliance, risk assessment, and related topics.

Which exam is best for you depends on whether you’re more interested in information system governance or auditing.

Eligibility Requirements

CISM and CISA require five years of experience in information security or similar fields, of which some must be relevant to the certifications’ respective content domains. Both CISM and CISA certifications also require payment of an application processing fee.

Both CISM and CISA certifications can be attained by completing the following:

  1. Taking and passing the exam;
  2. Paying the application fee;
  3. Applying for certification.

CISM Eligibility Requirements

To be eligible for a CISM certification, in addition to passing the exam and paying all fees, you must also have five years of work experience in the Information Security Management field.

At least three of them must involve work in at least three of the following areas:

  • Information Security Governance
  • Information Security Risk Management
  • Information Security Program
  • Incident Management

Up to two of these years may be waived as a requirement if you have a relevant MBA, master’s degree, or other relevant qualifications or experience.

Read more about CISM work and education experience waivers.

You can sit the CISM exam without fully achieving these requirements, but you must have completed them within five years of passing the exam.

You can fill out and submit your application for certification up to five years after passing the exam, so you have some extra time after being examined to attain the relevant required work experience.

CISA Eligibility Requirements

To be eligible for CISA certification, you must pass the exam, pay all fees, and have five years of work experience in information system audit, control, assurance, or security.

Two of them must involve work within the following areas:

  • Information System Auditing Process
  • Governance and Management of IT
  • Information System Acquisition, Development, and Implementation
  • Information Systems Operations and Business Resilience
  • Protection of Information Assets

Up to three of these years may be waived as a requirement if you have a relevant master’s degree or other relevant qualifications or experience.

Read more about CISA work and education experience waivers.

As with CISM, you can sit the CISA exam without having already checked the boxes of these requirements, but you must have achieved them within five years of passing the exam.

Winner: CISA

CISA only wins by a hair regarding eligibility requirements. Both CISA and CISM have almost identical eligibility requirements, but CISA requires just two years of the five total work experience years to be related to the certification’s domain areas, while CISM requires three of the five years of experience.

Exam Difficulty

Both of these are advanced exams targeted at those who are already professionals in the information security industry.

However, neither exam requires extensive technical knowledge because both are oriented more toward businesses’ information security programs, processes, and procedures.

Both exams are identical in format and structure, so neither format or structure is more complex. The only differences between the two exams stem from exam content and domain areas.

CISM Exam Difficulty

CISM focuses mainly on information security governance.

It focuses on the procedures and rules required for information security program development and how to manage the large-scale implementation of such programs without getting into the weeds of implementation.

As such, the CISM exam is not as technically difficult as other more technical certification exams.

However, this depends on what topics you find challenging. If operational details and technical know-how come easily to you, but management and governance do not, you might struggle with CISM more than more technical certifications.

Most people, however, should find CISM relatively easy once they understand the mode of thinking required for management, governance, and large-scale information security program strategy.

CISA Exam Difficulty

While CISA, like CISM, focuses on some of the more procedural aspects of information security, it is more technical than CISM.

CISA focuses on those aspects required to perform an information system audit, such as organizational structure, database management, security monitoring tools, etc.

Some candidates will probably find the CISA exam challenging because it requires extensive knowledge about various topics and a holistic view of an organization’s information security policies and procedures.

Some candidates might find the holistic view required for auditing difficult as they might be more used to honing in on one or two specific technical problems.

Winner: CISM

CISM is technically a more advanced certification than CISA because, according to ISACA, CISM is for “technical experts looking to strategic management positions,” while CISA is for “Mid-level IT pros.”

However, most IT professionals will find CISM easier than CISA, provided they gel with the required governance and managerial mindset. CISM is considered more advanced only because it is targeted at information security managerial roles for professionals who have advanced further in their IT careers.

Job Opportunities

CISM and CISA have ample and well-paid job opportunities, but some differences exist.

To compare the two certifications’ job opportunities, we combed through several job sites, such as Indeed and ZipRecruiter, looking at jobs requiring these certifications in the United States.

CISM

Job Roles

These are some of the most common job roles listed on job sites for those with a CISM certification:

  • Cyber Security Manager
  • Cyber Security Analyst
  • Business Analyst
  • Cyber Security Consultant
  • Risk Analyst
  • Project Manager
  • Information Security Officer
  • Information Security Manager
  • Chief Information Security Officer
  • Security Control Assessor
  • Information Systems Security Officer

The most common roles are managerial and governance-related—e.g., Information Security Officer (ISO). Analyst roles are also common.

Volume of Opportunities

At the time of writing, 3,029 United States-based jobs listed on Indeed cite CISM.

Salary

According to ZipRecruiter, CISM certification holders in the United States can expect an average salary of about $95,000 p/a.

Indeed job listing for chief information security officer, for CISM certification, with $240k to $270k salary
Source: Indeed

At the lower end of the scale, job roles such as Security Control Assessor and Information Systems Security officer begin at around $60,000 or $75,000. Salaries increase with more senior managerial positions such as Information Security Officer or Cyber Security Manager.

Information Security Officer roles, common for CISM holders, frequently offer between $130,000 and $160,000, with Chief ISOs of large companies often being paid up to $300,000.

CISA

Job Roles

These are some of the most common job roles listed on job sites for those with a CISA certification:

  • IT Analyst
  • Risk Analyst
  • Cyber Security Consultant
  • Cyber Security Manager
  • Internal Auditor
  • Senior IT Auditor
  • Cyber Security Analyst
  • Senior Audit Manager
  • Financial Auditor

The most common roles are audit-related, such as Internal Auditor and Senior IT Auditor. Consultant roles are also common.

Volume of Opportunities

At the time of writing, 3,867 United States-based jobs listed on Indeed cite CISA.

Salary

According to ZipRecruiter, CISA certification holders in the United States can expect an average salary of $110,000.

Indeed job listing for Vice President Internal Audit role for $197k to $366k per year
Source: Indeed

At the lower end of the scale, we found that job roles such as Junior Auditors might begin at about $80,000, and Analysts often begin below $100,000, too. Salaries increase with more senior roles, with Senior Internal Auditors and Chief Audit Officers sometimes earning between $175,000 and $400,000.

Winner: Draw

CISM and CISA certifications open the door to many job opportunities with similar salary ranges.

Both offer end-goal careers that average around the $100k-$150k mark, and both have open junior roles. Both can also lead to high-salary ($250k+) positions, such as Chief Information Security Officer for CISM and Senior Internal Auditor for CISA.

Cost and Recertification

CISM and CISA operate under the same ISACA rules and rubrics, so they cost the same.

The CISM and CISA exams cost $760 if you’re not an ISACA member or $575 if you are a member. Member benefits include networking opportunities, access to the Mentorship Program, and discounts on courses and certifications.

You can retake your exam up to four times in a rolling year within 365 days of your first attempt. However, you’re required to pay a full exam fee for each retake attempt.

To maintain your certification, in addition to paying the annual maintenance fee ($45 for members or $85 for non-members), you must earn at least 20 Continuing Professional Education (CPE) points per year and 120 CPEs over three years.

To earn CPEs, you can do things such as:

  • Attend conferences
  • Do training weeks
  • Do online training
  • Attend One in Tech educational events
  • Do On-demand learning
  • Do journal quizzes
  • Volunteer with ISACA
  • Volunteer with One in Tech
  • Do skills-based training/lab activities

Just be aware that if you’re CISM-certified or CISA-certified, ISACA can select you for an audit to prove your CPEs. So, ensure you keep receipts, etc., for all your different CPE-accredited activities.

Cost and Recertification

Winner: Draw

Both certifications cost the same for first and repeated examination attempts and require the same number of CPEs to maintain.

CISM vs CISA: What’s Better?

CISM vs CISA Final Verdict

In many respects, these two certifications are on equal footing.

Both are accredited by the same organization; both require five years of relevant work experience—albeit CISA requires slightly less certification domain-specific experience; both have identically structured exams; both offer stellar job opportunities and salaries; and both cover more procedural and less technical aspects of information security.

However, the two certifications are not identical. The main differentiating factors are the content domains that CISM and CISA cover and the kinds of jobs these certifications often lead to.

CISA targets IT or finance professionals who want to step into information system auditing and work in audit, compliance, or risk management roles—though it can certainly prepare you for more information security roles than just these.

CISM, on the other hand, aims for information security professionals who want to enter the managerial and governance side of information security, helping them develop and manage the implementation of security programs and procedures.

There’s an overlap between the domains required for each of these career paths—and there’s an overlap between the kinds of careers open to CISM and CISA certification holders.

Still, if you want to go down the audit route, you should stick with CISA; if you want to go down the governance route, you should stick with CISM.

Are you preparing to take your CISM or CISA exam? Join the StationX Accelerator program to access exclusive exam prep courses, practice tests, labs, mentorship, and more.

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