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Education versus Certification

Education versus Certification
By Ed Tittel

If there's one question I get from people interested in IT certification that keeps coming around, it's got to be, "Should I finish my degree or get a <fill in a certification name here>?" The short answer to this question is "Do both!" because that's really what most employers want. Degreed people with IT certifications show employers that they have both general and specific training, not to mention learning skills.

Although the temptation to skip school and go for a short, intense and potentially rewarding IT certification like Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) can be hard to resist, ponder this before you make that kind of a move: Once you get a college degree, it's yours for life. Most IT certifications come with expiration dates, or include requirements for ongoing re-certification. (A good example of this is Microsoft's decision to retire its Windows NT 4.0 MCSE exams at the end of 2000, and expire certifications based on those exams at the end of 2001.) If you don't keep up with a certification's requirements, it will eventually become obsolete and essentially be taken away from you.

If you simply must choose between a degree and a technical certification, think long and hard about doing whatever it takes to finish the degree before going the other route. That's because even though most employers want employees who have both a degree and one or more IT certifications, if they are forced to choose between degreed people who have no certification and non-degreed people with certification, they show an alarming tendency to pick those with degrees only over those with certifications only.

The reason, say most recruiters or hiring managers, is that only a few certifications require more than a year to complete on average, whereas even an associate's degree takes two years, and a bachelor's takes four or more. Completing a program with a longer commitment shows more evidence of stick-to-itiveness than completing a shorter program--and employers are inclined to treat this as evidence that employees with degrees might stick around longer. With job turnover a major concern for most companies in our current economy, this is not a factor worth discounting.

If you take the certification only route anyway, you will probably still be able to find a job--perhaps even a good one. But remember that you're going to have to renew your certification regularly, and build the time and energy required to keep up with the latest requirements for your program or programs of choice into your busy workaday schedule.

Ed Tittel is a principal at a small content development company based in Austin, Texas, and the creator of the Exam Cram series. Ed has worked on over 30 certification-related books on Microsoft, Novell, and Sun related topics.

This was last published in September 2000

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Degrees provide a broad spectrum of knowledge compared to technical certifications. 
I think that another reason why employers pick the person with the degree over those that only have a certification is that most degree programs not only teach you the specific skills for the job, but they also teach you more general analytical, problem solving skills as well as how to think critically.
If a degree is a long way out, look to reputable certifications that can demonstrate skill. If you are close to completing a degree program, stick with it and get it done. Degrees are more than just a piece of paper, they are also a litmus that shows that you know how to reason, understand, synthesize and formulate ideas. More to the point, that you can pivot based on new information. Certifications do not focus on that aspect of education, at least not the ones I have seen.