Degree or Certification – Which is Better?

A big question I get asked from clients who are looking to get ahead in their career is whether they should pursue a (another) degree or pursue a certification. Or, do nothing at all. I think the answer depends on several things:

  • the industry you are in, as a degree is the only way you get access or move up, such as in healthcare or the science fields
  • the ease of getting into a position and then moving up through gaining a certification or on-the-job experience
  • the level you are looking to pursue – managerial positions most often require a Master’s degree; the counseling field also requires it
  • the level of commitment you are willing to make to get a degree; certifications are not as lengthy but still require commitment and work
  • your financial situation – determining if you can afford to get a degree, or able to get loans, or if your employer offers tuition reimbursement; certifications are not as expensive and employers are usually more willing to fund these as it is an investment in your role, such as project management
  • time commitment – determining the level of disruption in schedules, both personally and professionally
  • the level of support you have from family and friends, coworkers and employers
  • your motivation and desire to have one or the other; some do it for the job while others pursue one of these for personal fulfillment

One way to know would be to look at the requirements for the job you want; what skills, experience and education are required and which are preferred; required means there is no consideration without having one of those qualifications, while preferred means it won’t take you out of the running if you don’t but would put you in a higher category for consideration. My advice for someone who has years of experience but isn’t moving up would be to first, have a conversation with their upline to get feedback on reasons why; I would encourage them to get a certification in a specialized area before going back and getting a degree.

The IT field is one of those areas where you can get a well-paying job without a degree but they would value certifications, as well as a portfolio of work done. Human Resources (HR) is another field that a degree is preferred but certifications are more valued, such as the Professional in Human Resources (PHR). These show commitment and specific knowledge related to job roles. If you are in this position, I encourage you to go answer the questions above, look at job descriptions, network with individuals in those roles (or departments/organizations) to see which is preferred and what might exclude you from moving into a higher role.



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