Home > Blogs > Cert Vs. Degree Gets Another Look

Cert Vs. Degree Gets Another Look

Ever since I started writing about certification and related IT career development topics back in the mid-1990s, one perennial question I've been posed has been "Which is better: a college degree or IT certification(s)?" This is something I've written about repeatedly, but it's one of those questions that keeps coming up, particularly for cash-strapped youngsters trying to decide if their lmited funds should go to a degree, or some collection of specific IT certifications. For this blog post, I'll give a nod to an interesting and informative article over at GoCertify, and then revisit the issue yet one more time because of its enduring relevance to current and aspiring IT pros of all ages.

Here's the question of the day! [Image Credit: LinkedIn.com]

The article in question is entitled "Which Is Best for IT: Certifications or a University Degree?" and it appeared online on Monday (11/30/15). IMO, the answer to the question remains a resounding "Both!" because employers definitely want IT pros with the general background and demonstration of learning that a degree provides along with the current, relevant and often job-role-specific skills and knowledge that IT certifications bring to the party. It's not really an "either-or" proposition at all, in fact.

The article makes enough excellent points that it's well worth reading on its own, but I'll encapsulate some of its most important assertions for continuing discussion here:

1. IT professionals have to make the call on degree vs. certification based on the job role they seek to occupy, the prevailing state of skills and knowledge in the applicant population to which they belong, and their level of ambition in perhaps going above and beyond baseline requirements.
2. College degrees demonstrate an ability to learn, to follow through on a long-term commitment to learning, and to demonstrating both a good general background of overall learning along with a more advanced degree of understanding in a particular field or discipline. Advanced degrees maintain that latter focus and show increasing levels of depth and breadth across a sub-field or sub-discipline.
3. Degrees, especially graduate degrees such as MBA, MA, MS, and PhD, can offer improved chances at climbing into the management ranks in organizations, and leaving the realm of the purely technical or perhaps straddling between that realm and the realm of business, strategy, governance, and planning or execution.
4. Certifications provide ongoing evidence of a continuing interest in learning, and a desire to demonstrate technical competence and/or mastery long after one's school days are over and done. The longer a person is out of school, the more important their current skill set becomes, but that does not mean they never needed a degree in the first place, nor does it diminish the ongoing impact of more education versus less in determining one's lifetime earnings (and earnings potential).
5. The importance of a degree versus certification(s) varies by the specific focus of an IT professional's working life. The article claims (alas, without providing detailed citations from the news report it cites) that as far as IT management, systems analysis, data analysis (Big Data), and business development jobs go, that "a university degree holder retains an edge over a certified professional..." It goes on to assert further that "Certifications are ... applicable only in specific technical roles, which often are product-centric."
6. Indeed it is true that, once earned, a degree does not expire or lose its validity over time (though it's certainly reasonable to question its relevance to prevailing and current, state-of-the-art tools and technologies in use). Certifications, on the other hand, remain relevant only as long as the products or platforms to which they are so often tied remain in use.
7. The trend for university programs to integrate industry certifications into their curricula, in concert with conferring degrees, or to develop their own certificates or certifications, "is a positive move toward enhancing the employability of graduates." I concur with this assertion wholeheartedly.
8. In India, trade/industry organizations have partnered with universities to develop specific "qualification packs" (QPs) designed to teach and test candidate's skills and knowledge within specific, well-defined technical and/or operational areas relevant to IT as practiced in the workplace. Engineering students are encouraged to earn QPs to enhance their employment prospects. I believe this is a positive trend (and one that is also underway in North America, albeit on a more informal basis) that should be extended in Computer Science, Informatics, Management Information Systems (MIS) and other IT-related academic degree programs as well.
9. In addition to degree(s) and certification(s), relevant work experience remains a key differentiator among job candidates for any given position. There's no way to diminish this importance (nor should their be) so aspiring IT pros need coaching that they must map out their careers and put together the kind of "experience portfolio" that will make them as appealing to current and prospective employers as possible. The article's final sentence sums things up as follows in a statement that I believe reflects reality as we know it, and sets a high but achievable bar for IT professionals of all kinds: "Ultimately, what counts is a mix of education, certifications, experience, demonstrable real-world application, the ability to learn and utilize new technologies, work ethic, and as always, attitude."

It is still very much the case that both an evidence of an ability to learn and to successfully complete a long and structured academic program (earning one or more degrees) and evidence of current, specific and marketable IT skills and knowledge (earning one or more certifications) are important to employers seeking to fill IT positions. The more senior or responsible such positions become, the more the importance of these factors plays a role, but where high-level management positions inevitably favor experience, attitude, and achievement (both academic and professional) over specific "merit badges" of technical competency (certifications). The higher you wish to climb the ladder, the more important the degree(s) become; the more technical your focus, however, the more important valid, unexpired certifications remain as proofs of technical currency in a fast-changing technical and technology landscape.

For the record, those interested in reading more of my thoughts on this always-interesting topic should check out this Google search, which nicely assembles most of my writing on this subject.