WBB's Thought Leadership

Certification vs. Education

August 23

Throughout professional circles there has been an ongoing discussion regarding the best way to round out a resume. Is it better to pursue a master’s degree or a professional certification? This questions revolves around a series of other questions that get to the heart of the question. What will give my salary the best pay boost? What makes me the most competitive on a job application? What will further my career? (The assumption in this article is that someone is not simply pursuing education out of a desire to simply get a degree and I am also not going to discuss industry licenses)
For me personally, I had a hard time with this very question. As a veteran transitioning out from active duty my focus might have been a little different but it frames the issues and how to approach a solution.

As a transitioning veteran there are a few factors that applied:

1) I had a defined timeline. (less than 2 years)
2) I wanted the best value for my effort and money with versatility. (I wanted to save my GI Bill for my kids)
3) I didn’t yet know what I wanted to do for a career with enough specificity to invest in a master’s degree.
4) I needed something to help me get a job/make me competitive in the job market and also demonstrate my skills to an employer.

As I have coached individuals through this question over the past two years I start with a simple process.

1) What field do you want to go into and what role do you want to have? *If you are unsure then look at a job posting to see what qualifications are required.
Knowing the type of industry and what position/type of work a person wants to hold/do helps frame and shape what qualifications, certifications, and education might be beneficial. Certain industries value certifications more than formal education. Things like IT/Software development tend to value certifications more (Security Plus, C++, ITIL, ACP, SCRUM). Areas like finance and business value more formal programs like MBA.  Engineering and construction look for both (BS/MS degree and PE/PMP).
2) What is your timeline? Various education programs have very different timelines to obtain. Masters programs usually take about 2 years. Certifications are usually less depending on if there is a project associated or not.
3) What is your budget? Formal education programs are typically much more expensive than certification programs. 
As I began to look at the qualifications listed on jobs I was interested in two certifications stood out. Lean six sigma and PMP. Both of these I was able to earn and have funded by the military.

So what do you choose? Here are some pros and cons to each. 

• Affordability
• Quick Timeline to obtain
• Both narrow and broad application depending on which certification
• Quicker return on investment
• Often demonstrate education and experience
• Cost may be reimbursed or covered by employer or military unit.

• Often Industry specific
• Many require experience in a field (PE, PMP)
• Not all instructional programs are quality (Flooded market)
• Often require re-certification/maintenance

Formal Degree (Bachelors/Master’s)
• Often Required for upper movement in a corporation
• Broad acceptance and application
• More in depth learning and education
• Costs may be reimbursed
• No re-certification

• Long time to obtain
• High costs
• May be industry specific

The choice in this is not always easy but hopefully this provides some insights that have not previously been considered and a way to approach this decision.




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