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!


Work-Life Balance

The line between workaholism and ambition are sometimes blurred; most of us have to work to survive in this world, and some still struggle to make ends meet. This is especially true in the United States where a capitalist society creates a culture that forces its citizens to compete for jobs, salary, and benefits by rewarding working longer instead of better. Politics aside, it can be discouraging for a young adult in corporate America to discover that those who work 60+ hours per week instead of the “legally mandated” 40 hours are praised and recognized for essentially surrendering their lives to their companies.

I had a boss once tell me that “when you’re in your 20s you should be working as much as possible because well, you just can.” This reminded me of the age-old testament that just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. He went on to say that I would be making a grave mistake by leaving my position at a company which monopolized my days, nights, weekends, and basically any free time I had.

I now work at a great company that has provided me with the flexibility to live the life that I want to live while having the financial resources to support myself. I can’t say that I love the work that I do, but developing a healthy work-life balance has allowed me to spend time outside of work nourishing my hobbies and interests. Will my decision to cut back on hours and leave a gigantic international company decrease my earning potential? Probably. But, I have decided that my life is so much more fulfilling when it is not only defined by a paycheck.

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Honestly, I sometimes think that if I could avoid going to business lunches and networking events, I would. I don’t particularly enjoy conversing with strangers when the underlying pretense is testing the quid pro quo waters. Still, the reality of today’s professional world is that opportunities are more likely to come to those who know people.

So, how do you get to know people in a professional setting when you have moved to a new city, feel uncomfortable in social situations, don’t like asking people for favors, or all of the above? If you’re like me, I have struggled to find solutions for each of these limitations and continue to experience mild levels of anxiety when I’m invited to any sort of “meet and greet” event.

I like to think that there are ways for me to form positive connections with people in my industry without compromising my personal sense of pride and self-worth. One way that I have eased the process of post-graduate networking is by becoming a part of my alma mater’s local alumni association. I already have an educational institution in common with these people and somehow it feels easier to interact with others who have walked on the same ground as I have. I also keep in contact with past colleagues whose work ethic I have emulated.

Ultimately, showing the people on my minimal but meaningful list of professional contacts that I care about how they are doing rather than what they can do for me has been one of the most effective and humbling ways to navigate a world that seems driven more by who you know rather than by who you are. 

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Career Building

If we all became what we “wanted to be when we grew up”, then the world would be filled with astronauts, doctors, and race car drivers. Although pursuing these dream jobs is noble and ambitious, our society needs a well-balanced array of trades and skills. Still, people in my generation (yes, I’m a millennial) were expected to pursue higher-education degrees in order to compete in our workforce.

Why were concepts such as ‘happiness’ and ‘fulfillment’ in relation to a career not emphasized to us as children? I certainly was caught in the trap of believing that I had to become a surgeon, high-powered attorney, or business executive in order to be successful. Little did I know that these professions were one way, but not the only way to achieve career satisfaction and financial stability.

If I could go back in time and speak to my 18-year-old self, I would advise her that the value of a career lies in how it is built rather than what it is. Developing one’s career-related skills, whether it be by obtaining vocational certifications or a PhD, is important for setting a solid foundation as a respected, trusted, and valued professional. We need scientists and mathematicians as well as electricians, police officers, and educators – I think that our younger generations should be taught that a so-called “glamorous” job is not the only (or even guaranteed) way to achieve success.

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Job Searching

We all know that job hunting is a daunting task; most of us would be content with never having to write a resume or attend an interview again. How is it that finding professional employment has become a competition that the well-dressed and well-spoken almost certainly win? Plus, with unreasonable educational and experiential requirements, how are young adults supposed to obtain employment without advanced degrees, financial assistance, or professional connections?

Thankfully, through my involvement in business-oriented extra curriculars as an undergrad, I was fortunate enough to become proficient at job searching functions such as writing resumes and cover letters, utilizing LinkedIn, and interviewing. In fact, I accepted a full-time offer from a Big 4 accounting company six months before graduating. Over the span of four years spent in the adult workforce, I have participated in my company’s recruitment efforts, helped friends throughout the various stages of their job searches, and applied my experience to eventually find another finance-related position that allows me to live my best life.

Regardless of which career stage you are currently in, feeling confident about your ability to effectively communicate your skills and expertise to a potential employer is imperative for a successful job search. Although my employment and recruitment experience is pretty limited to the practices of corporate America, I hope that the tips I offer on this page are beneficial to all you qualified job searchers!

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