How to Select the Right Certification for You
Take the proper steps and ask the appropriate questions when selecting your next certification
By Ryan Day
So you've decided to pursue a certification. Congrats! That's a big step.
Now your homework begins.
Each certification requires a huge commitment of time and resources. Earning one is a notable achievement. So the question remains...
How do I select the right certification for me?
The decision goes beyond just choosing between entry level or advanced certificates. Know that not all are alike, so proper vetting is encouraged.
If you’re planning to get certified, there are steps to take to ensure your decision aligns with your interests and career path.
Understanding the value of certifications
Understanding the value of certifications before you make a selection is vital.
According to our IT Skills and Salary Report, 9 out of 10 professionals possess at least one certification. That’s a ton of competition in the industry. And the general consensus is the more certifications, the better.
So why are so many IT pros and decision-makers putting such an emphasis on certifications? Why is so much investment devoted to training?
Well, it’s simple—the added value is substantial.
The merits of certification can be separated into two categories: value to individuals and value to organizations.
Value to individuals:
- Professional credibility—it tells co-workers and supervisors that you possess the skills needed to succeed, and you were willing to put in the time and effort to get certified.
- Personal satisfaction—have you ever felt like an expert in something? You’ll have the knowledge to enter your workplace with confidence and assert yourself as a subject matter expert.
- Salary—according to our IT Skills and Salary Report, the wage difference between certified IT professionals and non-certified is $15,913, or 22%.
- Job search—certifications give you an advantage during the hiring process and help you stand out in a competitive market. Some employers won’t even consider candidates unless they possess a certain level of certification.
- Professional growth—career advancement often requires you to learn new technologies or enhance the skills you currently possess.
Value to organizations:
- Job essentials—with technology constantly evolving, there’s a need for all organizations to have subject matter experts on new and updated topics.
- Filling skills gaps—IT decision-makers say that skills gaps can put a strain on many departments and the best way to fill those gaps is with training. Certified employees can lead to greater productivity and increased workforce morale, as well as knowledge share across the department.
- Employee retention—job satisfaction results in greater staff retention. Employees who are fulfilled are less likely to pursue other employment.
- Partner relationships—certain vendors incentivize their partners to maintain competencies on their products. For instance, IBM benchmarks these competencies using certification and badging programs.
Choose your certification path
Now that you understand the value of certification, it’s time to pick one. (Don’t worry, there aren’t 9.2 quintillion possibilities.)
It may seem simple, but rushing your selection could waste time and money. There are four things you should consider when making your choice.
1. Answer this question: What do I want to accomplish?
Is your ultimate certification goal to make more money? Is it to advance in your profession? Maybe you just want to learn a new skill? You shouldn’t start evaluating your options before you have a definitive answer.
If your primary goal is to boost your salary, check out our article on the 15 top-paying certifications for 2018.
If you want to establish yourself as a subject matter expert, get certified in new or recently-updated technology. It’s a great way to showcase your value to the organization because few others will be certified in this area.
If you’re focused on career progression, refreshing your tech skills is a must, especially considering all of the IT advancements in fields such as cloud computing, security and Internet of Things (IoT). Additional certifications are often required to advance into new job roles. Just make sure your choices align with your career path.
Don’t forget a byproduct of career progression is often job satisfaction. The two go hand in hand. According to the IT Skills and Salary Report, IT managers are more satisfied with their job than their staff. Getting certified can help you get promoted and lead to a more gratifying career. Two birds. One stone.
2. Answer this question: What am I interested in?
Remember those boring classes in college? Of course you don’t—you were either asleep, doodling network architectures in your notebook or building an app to make your life easier.
The principle is the same with certifications—unless it’s a requirement, why would you choose one that doesn’t interest you? You don’t want to snooze through training. And you don’t want to snooze on your career.
Pick a certification that will keep you invested.
Are you just getting started? Begin with foundational certifications to learn how to speak and understand the language of the IT industry. CompTIA IT Fundamentals, for example, helps you learn the basic hardware components and how they work together.
Are you a more technical person? Cisco offers a variety of certification options ranging from cloud computing to network design.
Are you hoping to be the ultimate cybersecurity authority in your organization? Completing the CISSP certification is like earning your master’s degree in IT security.
If you’re particularly passionate about a unique skillset, take as many certifications in that area as you can. This is especially important if it’s a topic your company has been looking to implement.
With that said, it’s always a good idea to be well-versed in multiple technologies too. Especially for those hoping to advance into a new job role, being adept at changing technologies is a must.
3. Do your homework
Would you buy new servers for your company without doing proper research? Or would you do a hardware refresh without exploring all options? Of course not. You probably wouldn’t even go out to dinner without looking at a few restaurant reviews first.
The same goes for certifications. Make sure you do your homework and know what is expected with each one. Some have more prominence while others are stepping stones. Speak with co-workers, read IT blogs and even join online forums to find out which ones are most valuable.
When perusing your certification options, make sure to keep the following questions in mind:
What are the requirements?
How much time will you need to invest?
Is it industry-recognized?
How does it link to your career path?
Will you have to get recertified?
Are there retake vouchers for exams?
When comparing certifications between different topics and brands, you’ll notice many distinctions and variations. This is why research is vital.
Amazon Web Services (AWS), for instance, offers many popular certifications and boasts some of the highest salaries in the industry for AWS-certified professionals. An important detail you’ll uncover when researching AWS’s options is that their certifications are role-based. Each path is clearly defined based on your job—solutions architects, developers and systems operations administrators. These certifications make your decision easy for you.
Certification tracks provide easy-to-follow roadmaps of the steps and courses you need to take as you pursue a certification.
The certification training tracks below were designed to be clear and easy to follow. Certifications take a lot of your time and energy, so before you embark on your journey, make sure you’re fully aware of the courses and exam prep available, and what’s required or optional.
- Business Analysis
- Google Cloud
- Project Management
- Red Hat
We have a collection of resources to help you navigate your own certification journey.
If you’ve decided to get certified but want to ensure you select a proven certification with staying power, check out “18 Certifications Worth Having.”
We also offer an assortment of certification prep guides for specific credentials. These guides provide a deep and detailed look at the certification, while also offering helpful exam tips and tricks you won’t find anywhere else.
- A Complete Guide: How to Become an AWS Certified Architect
- A Complete Guide: How to Become an AWS Certified SysOps Administrator
- A Complete Guide: How to Become a Google Certified Professional Cloud Architect
- A Complete Guide: How to Become a Google Certified Professional Data Engineer
- A Complete Guide: How to Become a Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert in Cloud Platform and Infrastructure
- A Complete Guide: How to Become Certified in CompTIA Cloud+ CVO-002
- A Complete Guide: How to Become a Certified Project Management Professional
4. Think about the future
Ninety percent of IT professionals hold at least one certification. With so much competition, it’s not uncommon to see people prepping for their next certification, often years ahead.
Plan beyond a single certification. You’ll want to know your next steps as soon as you’re completed.
Also, know what you need to do to stay certified. For example, Microsoft’s MCSE and MCSD certifications do not expire, but you still have the opportunity to re-earn the certification every year and show your continual investment in this technology area.
Several other certifications can expire. The popular Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification is valid for three years and requires 60 professional development units (PDUs) during each renewal period to maintain your credential.
Another way to ensure you’re thinking about the future is to devise a certification calendar both for the short term and long term. Maintain a calendar to make sure you’re staying on track to finish your current certification. A post-certification calendar is also vital when it comes to continuing your training and keeping track of when your certifications will expire.
The value of certification is easy to define. Where you start is harder to pin down.
If you can narrow your options to a specific technology or job role, you’re off to the right start.
It’s easy to make a decision if you’re new to IT (hint: stick to foundational certifications). But if you’re more established or don’t have a clear picture of your career path, it may take a little more time and research to locate the most suitable option.
Remember, certifications show your value to co-workers, managers and future employers. Beyond the skills you’ll gain, seasoned IT professionals respect certifications because they understand the time and effort needed to acquire one. It’s a great way to differentiate yourself from peers.
And if a decision-maker notices that you’re earning certifications even when they’re not required, that could be the deciding factor in a promotion or a raise.
My advice: choose wisely! And best of luck on your certification path.