You’ve decided you want to pursue a professional credential. Congratulations! You’ve taken an important step on your professional development journey. The next step is to decide which one to pursue. There are so many choices. Where to begin?
Certificates, Certifications, Degrees, Oh My!There are so many different types of credentials available these days that it’s hard to distinguish among the choices. Before we go any further, let’s define a few terms.
· Certificates: Certificates are typically awarded based on completion of training on specific subject matter. They typically do not assess how well you learned or can apply that material. However, there are some exceptions, such as university-sponsored certificate programs or ATD’s Masters Series, that do have an assessment component. Once you have completed a certificate program, you can say “I have a certificate in [subject matter] from [organization that provided training].” Or, “I have completed the [subject matter] certificate from [organization].”
· Certifications: Certifications involve a testing process developed by an independent certifying body that covers the competencies required to excel in a specific job or field. If you pass the exam, you have the right to say “I am a certified [fill in the blank],” which allows you to display letters after your name that attest to your competence. The certifying body is, in effect, giving you a stamp of approval. Since they are staking their reputation on you, they want to be sure you know what you’re doing. As a result, the certification process is typically rigorous and involves a recertification process to ensure that you are maintaining your skills over time.
· Licenses: These are certifications that are legally mandated by the state before one is allowed to practice a particular profession. A license to practice medicine is a legally mandated certification. Doctors must have both a medical degree as well as license to practice medicine.
· Degrees: These are college and university–awarded diplomas signifying that the holder has completed a course of study in a specific subject. When you complete a degree, you can say “I have a master’s degree in instructional design from XYZ University.”
Typically, certificates take weeks, certifications take months, and degrees take years to complete. Employers generally prefer a certification over a certificate because they provide proof of competence and credential holders must keep their skills current. College degrees are often required for a job, but the degree may or may not be related to job responsibilities. There is also no guarantee that holders of a specific degree have kept up their skills over time or that the material covered in the degree program matches the needs of the employer.
What Areas Do You Want to Focus on Now and in the Future?Your first step in narrowing down your choice of credential is to decide the areas of expertise in which you would like to concentrate your time and effort. What skills and knowledge would you most like to employ in your career? If you think the credential will help you get a job, just be sure you want a job that focuses on that area. I know this sounds obvious, but I have spoken to many people who get a credential in something they dislike doing simply because they think it will help them get a job. If you’re not sure which area you’d like to focus on, complete the Preference Grid in Keeping Your Career on Track (available as a free download for ATD members).
How Can You Tell If the Certification Is Worthwhile?After you have decided what topics you want your certification to cover, it is time to research your options. Do a web search for certifications in your field. Professional associations are often good sources of information on credentials. Another site that provides information on certifications is CareerOneStop, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Here are some other steps you can take to learn more about the available options.
· Ask credential holders: One of the best ways to learn if a certification is worthwhile is by talking to people who already have it. They can tell you if it has been worthwhile for them personally and professionally. They can also tell you how much effort it took for them to achieve the credential. Search on LinkedIn for people who already hold the credential or ask your professional association for referrals.
· Are employers asking for it? Another indication of the value of a credential is if employers are identifying it as a preferred or required qualification on job postings. Take a look at job sites to gauge the number of employers who prefer or require applicants to hold the credential. This may help you determine if the credential is well-known. Keep in mind that if there are not a lot of people with the credential, employers may not list it as a requirement because they don’t want to screen out too many applicants. As long as the certification is from a well-respected organization in your profession, getting it will likely put you in the top tier of people in your field.
· Who is doing the certifying? Not all credentials are created equal. Be sure that the certificate or certification you are considering has a good reputation. The content should be relevant and aligned with current industry standards. Career coach and professional trainer Chrissy Scivique suggests in her article “Are Professional Certifications Worth It?” that you ask, “Is the organization behind it trustworthy? Are they well-known? Do you know others who have participated in the program and found value in it? Have you purchased other training from the organization in the past and, if so, was it worthwhile?” In addition, many industry certifications require a prerequisite of some kind, such as education or number of years of experience, so make sure you understand the eligibility requirements.
How Much Money and Time Is Involved in Pursuing the Credential?Of course, time and money are always a factor . Make sure you do your research and identify all the costs involved in completing the credential. For industry certifications, there is usually an exam fee and an application fee. In addition, you may want to invest in preparation courses or materials. Ask how much time credential holders typically take to study and prepare for the exam.
Do your research before you make a decision. Certifications are rigorous and, although frequently very valuable, they will make a dent in your time. Consider your other commitments and make sure your schedule will permit you to make the effort required to successfully complete the certification process.
Still not sure if you’re ready? Try our online tool Which Certification is Right for Me? on download this handy credential checklist to help you make your decision.