How to Decide Whether Certification Is Right For You

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Information Technology (IT) is a specialized and skill-driven industry, and IT workers are constantly challenged to keep abreast of the latest technologies and trends. One very popular way to stay current is to earn certifications relevant to your work domain.


These days, thanks to the side effects of business intelligence and social media, a lot of information regarding an IT professional's skills and work experience is readily available in the public domain and accessible by certification and training providers. IT pros are often bombarded with cold calls and advertisements saying: "Get this certification and see yourself at the top," or "The reason your career is not rocking, is that you lack a certification."


This deluge of enticement, while occasionally providing useful information, can sometimes overwhelm. It's easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Certifications require an investment of time, money, and effort. Any person considering one has to carefully weigh these factors to decide on the most suitable credential for enhancing skill and professional growth.


It's also the case that not all certifications provide an optimal return on investment. And making this scenario murkier is the fact that a certification often does not lead to a direct, tangible outcome like a promotion, or an immediate pay hike.


There are even naysayers who decry certifications altogether, often contending that no amount of study and drilling will be as worthwhile as hands-on work experience in a given field. This is why there is no direct or scientific method of calculating whether a certification will yield one's hoped for returns.


To find the answers to our original question on whether a certification is relevant to you personally, let's first see what the current context around certification looks like.


Generally, an entry level certification costs considerably less than an educational degree and will increase the chances of landing a job in a related field. In contrast, higher-level certifications not only cost more, but may not directly augment one's career.


Take the case of certain certifications offered by Cisco. The cost of taking the Cisco Certified Technician certification exam is a modest $125, and the likelihood of landing a job with just this certification is high.


On the other hand, at the far end of the Cisco spectrum, some credentials are hugely expensive, and not all of them will immediately increase one's chances of better employment or a pay hike. The Cisco Certified Architect (CCAr) certification carries a mammoth $15,000 price tag — $3,750 U.S. for the initial interview, and $11,250 U.S. for the exam itself. (To say nothing of study and training expenses.)


Of course, CCAr is the costliest certification around and one of the most difficult to attempt. So far, only a handful of people have cleared the exam and all of them just happen to be employed by Cisco.


A perhaps better example of rarefied certification air is the Oracle Database 11g Certified Master Exam (OCM). It will set you back $2,498 U.S. It does provide a third-party stamp of approval on one's skills and knowledge, and could increase one's chances of securing better employment. By the time you've worked with database technology long enough to have the skills required to think about taking and passing the exam, on the other hand, you may already have passed the point at which you really need the professional validation it offers.


Similarly, while PMI's PBA certification is a good way to start a career as a business analyst, their PgMP certification alone isn't enough to land a job as Program Manager. Getting a job most likely requires that you already have gained a high degree of actual experience managing large teams and programs to be effective.


TCNC woman with laptop

Given this backdrop, the question of whether or not to certify becomes highly individual. The best person to decide whether a certification will add value to your career is you. You are the one who best knows your professional circumstances and can best judge a given credential's potential impact on career growth.


When the time comes for you to decide whether a certification is something to add to your resume, here are four questions to ask that can help you make the correct decision:


1) Will the certification enhance your knowledge in your field of expertise? The skills taught by some certifications are applicable across multiple IT realms, but that is by no means universally true. A PMP is nice to have for project management, but will provide little benefit to a cybersecurity career unless you are aiming to work in management-level positions. Also ask yourself: Will I learn new and different skills, or is this certification essentially a review of things I already know?


2) Will the certification get you more responsibility and a boost in pay? According to the Salary Survey 75 list from the most recent Certification Magazine Salary Survey, the Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC) credential from ISACA offers access to jobs with an average salary of $131,310. Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA) – Windows Server 2012, on the other hand, has an average annual salary of $96,550.


Some credentials may not do much to boost your salary beyond what you've already achieved. In such cases, if the credential is not required for advancement, then it may not be worth your time.


3) Will the certification increase my employability? Organizations do often emphasize the credentials of certified personnel to customers as a way to project competence and ability on projects. It is the same for a freelancing IT consultant: Showing that you have a valid certification can be a solid asset when pitching your services to potential clients.


4) This is a hodgepodge of questions, but they all directly apply to your decision: How long will the certification remain relevant? Does the certification sponsor have a large part of the market share in the area of work that your credential would verify? And what is the probability that the organisation will remain a market leader for at least two more years? Who are the organization's major competitors, and what do market analysts say about the competition?


Analysing market trends and reading available reviews is a good way to evaluate the relevance of a certification. If other IT professionals complain about the sponsoring organization, or industry SMEs feel the technology is going to be obsolete within a few years, then it may be wise to avoid taking up that certification — even if it is considered the standard today.


If, on the hand, you can answer affirmatively to all of the above, then by all means, take up the certification! Organizations value employees who pursue certifications. They tend to see such employees as committed to their field and eager to learn.


This is evident from the fact that more and more IT organizations now reimburse the cost of taking certification exam. Some even provide paid time off to prepare for and complete an exam. According to the CompTIA HR Perception of IT Training and Certi?cation Study: 2015, "36 percent of all IT employers pay for all certi?cation and training expenses," and "31 percent offer paid time off for studying (and) training."


Another reason to take up a credential is that corporate recruiters regularly search for keywords and phrases related to certifications, thus increasing your chances of being called for a job interview. Certifications can also help increase networking opportunities providing access to groups of similarly skilled professionals where one can take part in knowledgeable discussions and opportunities for career advancement.


The benefits of certification abound. If, after careful consideration of your situation, it seems that certification would benefit your career, then don't hesitate. Start down your certification path today.


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About the Author

Jayita Dey is an independent IT consultant and certified Project Management Professional. She also serves on the board of Shishur Sevay as the Executive Director for IT and Brand Management.