You want to get ahead in your career, and you’re interested in learning some new skills—but pursuing a master’s degree isn’t the right path financially or timewise. A professional certification program may start to look like a good option. But are these programs a valuable move career-wise? Is a professional certification program worth the time and money?
The answer: It depends.
“Certificates” vs. “certification” vs. “licenses”
Before you invest in a continuing education course, make sure you understand what you’re signing up for. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI), through its National Accreditation Board (ANAB), explains the difference between certificates and certification:
- A certificate is earned through completion of a specific training or program and demonstrates the holder has accomplished intended learning outcomes. A certificate cannot be revoked and may be issued for life or for a set time period. No renewal or ongoing maintenance is required. The end result is a certificate in a particular skill set.
- A certification is granted after an individual has demonstrated proficiency of knowledge skills, and/or abilities, generally through an exam. A certification must be maintained through ongoing requirements, such as additional continuing education. If these requirements are not met, the certification will be revoked. The end result is the ability to call oneself a certified professional in a particular field.
A license is granted by a governmental entity (generally a state) and allows an individual to practice a particular profession. In many instances, a license is a government-issued certification. For instance, a certified public accountant holds a CPA license issued by a state board of accountancy.
In professions that don’t require licensure, a professional certification can still help you get ahead. Achieving a certification shows dedication not only to a particular industry but also to learning and self-improvement. A certificate program can be worthwhile, too, though it is generally not as impactful long term as an ongoing certification. You’ll also want to be on the lookout for certificate programs that are thinly veiled moneymaking schemes or sales pitches.
Deciding whether to pursue a certification
Before you invest in a professional certification, you’ll want to answer several questions:
- How common is the certification in your industry? Is it well-recognized enough to be impressive? If a certification is too commonplace, you probably already have it (or need it to stay employed). But if a certification is rare, ask yourself why. Is it too new or too obscure to be recognized? Could you achieve your career goals without it?
- What types of resources are necessary for you to complete this program? How much employer support will you have? Most certification programs require a significant investment of time and money. Not only must you satisfy continuing education requirements, but you must also dedicate yourself to preparing for and taking an exam. If you have employer buy-in, preferably in the form of both financial support and workday time to take classes or study, your chances of success are much greater.
- What institution is doing the credentialing? Before you embark on the path toward certification, do your due diligence on the credentialing agency. How is the program described on the credentialing organization’s website? How often is the program updated and revised? Does the program reference ANSI standards? Who writes and grades the exam? These are all questions to investigate to ensure a program is reputable.
- What is your “why”? Ask yourself if the ROI on this certification program is worth it. If you’re simply pursuing a certification because your peers are, it might not be for you. Similarly, if your sole motivation is to earn more money, you might ask yourself if there are easier ways to get a raise.
Pursuing and maintaining a certification is a long-time commitment, and it is most beneficial when you are both invested in the knowledge set and future career opportunities. And while individual work days may feel really long, your time in the workforce is overall short. You need to make the most of it.