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Will a degree or certification help enhance your IT career?

Before you plunk down tuition fees to enhance your IT career, here's some advice on education options, cost considerations and on keeping your sanity when time constraints rule your world.

When there's an economic downturn, a lot of people go back to school to enhance their IT career. But is it worth giving up all that time and hard-earned money to get a degree or certification? That question doesn't have a clear-cut, black and white answer that those of us in IT often seek; it's more like a dull shade of gray. Here are some factors to consider before moving forward.

For those certification seekers:

  • Will you be able to recoup the costs? When you factor in all of the out-of-pocket expenses and the time you'll spend getting certified, you may have to get a job making $5K to $15K beyond what you were making to see any return in the short term.
  • Will a certification really help you get a job – or a better one? Sure, it can be an entry into jobs and may even set you up for a promotion. However, assuming that certification -- any certification -- will automatically make you a subject-matter expert or more marketable is dangerous. Certification is only one cog in the well-rounded wheel of a true IT professional, so don't take this lightly.
  • Have you weighed your options? Should you go for a vendor-specific certification, such as Microsoft's Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) and Certified IT Professional (MCITP) or for a vendor-neutral certification, such as CompTIA's Server+ and Convergence+? Whatever path you choose, know the pros and cons for all of the options.
  • Ask yourself whether you want to stay on the Microsoft specialist track or branch out and learn more about other systems and technologies. Both will likely have benefits – it just depends on the time you have and what you need now versus what you believe you'll need in the future and on your career goals.

For the degree seeker:

  • How much free time will you have? At a minimum, going back to school and earning a degree is the equivalent of taking on a part-time job. Depending on your course load and area of study, you could get into something that requires the same amount of time, effort and energy as a full-time job. How is that going to work out with your current job? Or, if you're currently unemployed, how will that play out for any new job you land in the near future?
  • As secondary as they may seem now, you have to consider family needs, travel time between home, work and school, and other personal issues. All of these things are interconnected, so you have to think about your long-term sanity before jumping in. The last thing you want to do is find out it's not going to work after going through all the money and effort it takes to register, take the standardized tests and attend classes for a few semesters.

  • Is a degree really needed? If not, it may not be worth pursuing. I've known many people without degrees in IT that were some of the sharpest people I've ever met. On the other hand, I've known many people with advanced degrees in IT and other areas of study that had little to offer their employers. That said, having a degree may come in handy when you move on from your current organization. Just don't overlook the fact that a degree is not a short-term fix to any employment concerns you may have right now.
  • Do you need an IT-specific degree? Most people can gain the technical skills they need through certification, hands-on experience, and by staying on top of the latest trends. A general business degree may be all you need if you're just concerned about the barrier-to-entry issue posed by not having a degree. If you're just starting out, or want to get into the technical nitty-gritty of computers and network systems, an engineering or computer science degree may be best. Each person's timing and career needs are different, but that level of technical education early on can be invaluable.

You may have some extra time on your hands these days. The timing may be right for you to get that certification or degree you're considering. But don't jump to a quick conclusion about either one. Money may be tight and your time is important. Make sure you spend them both wisely.

Kevin Beaver, is an information security consultant, keynote speaker and expert witness with Atlanta-based Principle Logic LLC. Kevin specializes in performing independent security assessments. Kevin has authored/co-authored seven books on information security, including Hacking For Dummies and Hacking Wireless Networks For Dummies (Wiley). He's also the creator of the Security on Wheels information security audio books and blog providing security learning for IT professionals on the go. Kevin can be reached at [email protected].

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