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IT certification vs. degree: Which is better?

Peter Andrew, May 27, 2011

Anyone who asks the value of certifications versus degrees in IT probably doesn't work in IT. Because, it seems, everyone in the industry already has a very clear view on the subject. Unfortunately, those views appear to be pretty evenly split, and that means that there's no definitive response. As is so often the case, the answer is: It all depends.

So when the Information Security Leaders site launched its 2011 survey of the Value of Certifications, it told prospective respondents: "Since we launched this website, it has become clear to us that the most debated topic in our industry is the value of professional certification credentials."

And when, three years earlier, TechRepublic made an attempt to address the issue of certifications over advanced degrees (or vice versa), it observed:

Frankly, it would be easier to solve the age-old question "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" than to ever reach a consensus on the question of whether it's better for an IT pro to have a technical degree or certifications. It may be one of the oldest, yet most hotly debated, issues ever to post on TechRepublic.

Certifications over advanced degrees

Wade through the countless comments posted on this subject by visitors to serious websites such as ComputerWorld and InfoWorld, and one begins to find some valuable grains of truth. "It all depends" becomes a real issue, because it truly does depend on an individual's ambitions.

On the one hand are people who seem to value certifications over degrees. One posted on InsideTech, saying:

I am attending college right now going for a degree in Networking and Network Security. So far I would say the certifications I don't have yet are what's holding me back from getting a job.

He (unless -- judging from the photo that accompanied the posting -- she was also being held back by male-pattern baldness and five o'clock shadow) was making the point that a lack of certification can make it difficult to acquire one of the entry-level posts that are essential to securing a foot on the IT career ladder. Certainly, when it comes to junior positions, many employers value proven skills over academic achievements.

Advanced degrees over certifications

But there are plenty of IT professionals who take the opposing view. For example, a respondent dubbed Deftone26 told the Linux Commands blog in 2010 that: "I would go with a degree. Certs are only usually for two or three years. A degree is forever."

That's probably true. Many prospective employers are likely to regard those with IT degrees as credible candidates decades after they graduate. Some may also be unwilling to consider anyone for a senior post who doesn't have a relevant degree.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists many senior IT posts that are generally open only to those with appropriate degrees. For example, it suggests that those wishing to be computer and information systems managers should expect that:

A bachelor's degree in a computer-related field usually is required for management positions, although employers often prefer a graduate degree, especially an MBA with technology as a core component. Common majors for undergraduate degrees are computer science, information science, or management information systems (MIS).

Those employers that as a matter of policy select only graduates for senior posts may remain unmoved no matter how many--or how impressive--a pile of certifications a job candidate can produce.

Certifications vs. degrees--what to do?

The bottom line? People who are highly focused, driven and ambitious, and whose principal goal is to reach the top of any organization they join, should probably aim for a degree that's relevant to IT. If they don't, they may well hit a glass ceiling that prevents them from achieving all of their career objectives.

However, those whose immediate need is to find a job quickly may well find that they should prioritize certification over advanced degrees. After all, a bachelor's degree usually takes four full-time years to complete, while certifications (depending on their subject and the prestige they bring) can take anything from weeks to two or three years of part-time study to secure. For many, that time differential leaves little real choice.

But of course, there's no need to regard this as an either/or question. Those who achieve the greatest success in the industry frequently have a bachelor's (and possibly a master's) degree alongside certifications.

And where a choice has to be made, the outcome may well depend upon the financial resources and time an individual has available over the collective wisdom of the IT industry.

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