How Professional Certifications May Help (or Hinder) Your Career

If you thought that obtaining a bachelor’s degree would be enough to make you competitive out in that cut-throat job market, then *loud, annoying buzzer* you’re in for a bit of a rude awakening. Bachelor’s degrees are practically required for entry-level professional positions, making them the new high school diplomas. Graduate school, albeit costly and time consuming, now seems to be the marker of a truly qualified job applicant. I’m certainly not arguing that working professionals shouldn’t be educated; however, I do think that a person’s experience and/or demonstrated commitment to the industry could provide equal, if not more, employer and societal value than a degree.

While researching, volunteering, and keeping up with current events in your industry are great ways to obtain experience and knowledge without enrolling in an extensive educational program, the disappointing truth is that these methods probably aren’t enough to entice a recruiter to keep your resume separate from the ‘trash’ pile. Professional certifications, on the other hand, are viable options for career advancement; my intent with this post is to create a dialogue about the process of obtaining one, and to discuss benefits as well as cautionary warnings that I believe everyone should know.

How Do I Explore My Certification Options?

When beginning your certification journey, here are a few things to consider:

  1. Find out which are the most prominent professional societies and regulatory boards in your industry. These typically are the organizations that are managing the issuance of the top certifications available for your field. Reach out to a contact person at the organization to obtain more information.
  2. Use LinkedIn to search which certifications are most common among professionals in your industry. LinkedIn is a great resource to find information about the qualifications of people in positions that you may be considering. Try searching for employees of the top competitors in your field.
  3. Talk to multiple people in the field. Take your questions to someone with the certification you are interested in getting. Speak with a hiring manager to get a sense for how they view applicants with certifications.

Is a Professional Certification Right for Me?

Once you’ve done preliminary research around which certifications are potentially worth pursuing, it is important to answer the following: 

  1. What are the experience, education, and application requirements for my certification? More than likely, obtaining a certification will require an exam. However, even before taking the exam, you may have to complete a minimum number of experience hours, apply for membership with the certifying agency, and/or obtain professional references.
  2. Knowing the requirements, do you have the time, lifestyle, and/or study habits to pursue this certification? Preparing for and taking a certification exam can be time consuming and exhausting. For instance the Certified Public Accounting and Chartered Financial Analyst certification exams are grueling. I’ve heard from many people who have taken one (or both!) of these exams that their mental and physical health suffered in the process. Even if you pass the exam, becoming certified may require hundreds of additional hours working in the field.
  3. How does the certification align with your career aspirations and future goals? There is no denying that having letters after your name is cool – but is it necessary?  I’ve known people that have obtained certifications not because it was the best career decision for them, but because all their peers were doing it. Some certifications are the next logical step for an advanced position, but what if you don’t want that position to begin with? I cannot emphasize enough the importance of finding out what a certification would do for YOU, otherwise you could end up with unnecessary stress and a certification you’ll never use. This is time that could have been spent pursuing a different career or position.

Final Thoughts

Professional certifications can be useful for many reasons. Here is my list:

  • A certification, if the right one, can serve as a differentiating factor when applying for jobs, promotions, and raises.
  • If it is actually useful in your career and/or workplace, having a certification increases your value as an employee.
  • Whether it’s true or not (although I hope it’s true), having a certification communicates to clients and employers alike that you are qualified and credible.
  • Having a certification typically is contingent upon fulfilling continuing education requirements – these usually aren’t too demanding, but can help you stay sharp in your field.
  • Being a certified professional under a reputable industry organization can expose you to valuable network opportunities and events.
  • Certifications are usually a more affordable alternative to graduate school or an extensive educational program.
  • Employers may sponsor your professional association dues and certification exam expenses – it doesn’t hurt to ask!

Still, I advise you to keep the following in the back of your mind:

  • Certifications do not guarantee a job. That is an important point to be aware of, regardless of how obvious it may seem.
  • Figuring out which certification is right for you, if any, takes research. The more, the better.
  • Preparing for the certification exams and completing experience and application requirements can be time consuming and difficult. You should really know what you are getting yourself into.
  • Some certifications are more valuable than others – make sure that the certifying board is reputable within the profession and that they don’t just hand out certifications willy-nilly.

Thanks for reading – I hope that this post has been helpful. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts!

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