IT Career JumpStart

Aug 6 2008   3:38PM GMT

Degree versus Certification

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel


One of the questions I get asked most frequently might best be stated as “Which is better from a career development perspective, a college degree or certification?” Though in some cases, employers may be more inclined to favor a degree over a certification (especially for entry-level positions where entrants are expected to have little or no prior on-the-job experience), or vice-versa (especially for highly technical positions that either require said certification or expect entrants to earn it within some definite time interval after taking the job), the real answer to these question is “Neither. Employers want you to have BOTH a college degrre AND one or more relevant certifications.”

And while you’re mulling the implications of this statement, let me also observe that in an extremely competitive job market, employers also generally want to hire candidates with significant prior on-the-job experience in the positions they’d like them to occupy. But what does this really mean in terms of career planning and development?

Here’s what I think:

  1. Degrees work best in the early (Bachelor’s or Associates) and middle (Master’s) stages of career growth and development. After 15 or more years in the workforce, another degree only matters to those looking to redefine themselves (or for those seeking to parlay the traditional checkbox MBA into a leap from technical contributor to technical or administrative management positions).
  2. A PhD or other tertiary level degree (LLD, JD, MD, and so forth, though these aren’t usually relevant for IT related work, and only seldom for software development work, either) is kind of a special case. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics continues to validate the notion that the higher the degree you earn, the greater your lifetime earnings will be. But this type of degree usually qualifies its holder to teach, conduct research, or occupy some kind of highly advanced technical position. If that’s what you aspire to, go for it; otherwise, you may not be able to parlay such an advanced degree into the desired level of career growth and advancement.
  3. Certifications matter more as they become more advanced, less common, but also in some kind of demand. The poster child for this phenomenon has to be the Cisco CCIE, where (a) Cisco claims they could hire the world output of CCIEs all by themselves, and (b) perceived and real demand for CCIE certified people remains extremely high, with corresponding job opportunities and handsome compensation. Entry level certs (CompTIA stuff, CCNA, MCP, and so forth) seldom registers on anybody’s radar. Mid-level certs may or may not be relevant depending on lots of things: perceived value, relevance to jobs of interest, degree of difficulty, demand, and cost/time/effort versus payoff value (that’s what I call ROI on certification).
  4. Of all the ingredients in the mix, direct, relevant, prior job experience–the more of it the better, and the more relevant likewise–becomes increasingly important as you scale the career ladder into ever more senior positions and responsibilities.

All of this may seem disheartening, if not a bit overwhelming at first blush. But if you conduct your career analysis and planning properly, you can use this information to your advantage. In upcoming blogs, I’ll explain how you can conduct this exercise, in small (and hopefully digestible) increments.


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  • Suzanne Wheeler
    I look forward to seeing this analysis unfold. I feel like I've been floundering my entire career. Because I worked full time while earning my bachelor's I missed out on vital internship programs that propelled my fellow graduates into top positions at local firms. I have no certifications because after flunking the first one by a single question I couldn't justify spending money I didn't have to waste. I'm trying to prove my skills by getting an MBA in IT Management. I'm jaded when it comes to advancing in the IT field, but green is my favorite color. That's my way of saying I'm not exactly complaining about my circumstances. Rather I try to recognize them for what they are and keep working forward.
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