“You need a degree in a computer-related field to get a job in IT these days. We don’t care about certifications.”
“I won’t even look at a candidate who isn’t certified. Even if they have an IT degree.”
If you’ve considered a career in IT, you’ve probably read articles that contain some variation of these statements – or even both of them. And if you are on the fence about whether to earn a degree in computer science or an IT related field or pursue your certifications first, you’re probably confused at the very least, and at the worst frustrated.
Part of the confusions stems from the fact that which is better for your career really does depend on a number of factors. Individual company and hiring manager policies and preferences are certainly something to consider, but other factors, including your level of experience, your ultimate career goals, and the specialization in which you want to work all play a role in determining whether a degree or a certification is the better choice. In the end, the best advice often comes down to a simple statement: You need both.
The Case for a Degree
Earning a degree in computer science or an IT-related field is an ideal first step. Not only do you gain the knowledge and hands-on experience that employers are looking for, but most degree programs allow you to explore a number of different functions before you declare a specialization. Since a growing number of employers now require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, taking the time to go to college can give you a leg up in the competitive job market. Getting a degree can also help you build your network, and gain experience in internships, both of which are invaluable to landing your first job.
The downside to a degree? Obviously, the investment of time and money is a consideration, but considering that college graduates earn significantly more than those who don’t have degrees over their lifetime, it’s a worthwhile investment. Also, while a degree never expires, it can be out of date. Technology changes so quickly that someone with a degree earned only a few years ago may not have the same skills and knowledge as someone who has a certification.
The Case for Certification
Even if you have a degree, certifications are still necessary to your IT career. Recent surveys of certificate holders indicate that not only do most people who have put the time into earning them feel that it was time well spent, but that they have also been beneficial to their careers and helped them earn promotions faster. In fact, some people report that holding certifications has actually helped them compete against people who have graduate degrees, more experience, or even both.
One of the main advantages of certifications over degrees is that a certification allows you to specialize. Whereas a typical college degree offers a broader spectrum of experience, certifications allow you to specialize in a few key areas, such as security or networking. This specialization can be more appealing to employers looking for someone to fulfill specific roles, while also making you more in demand — and able to command a higher salary. You also cannot ignore the fact that a certification requires less time and money than a degree; you can usually study for an entry-level certification via IT training online within a few months on your own time, and you’ll spend a fraction of what a degree costs.
Which Comes First?
In many ways, the decision about whether to earn a degree or certification first is somewhat of a chicken or egg conundrum. Sometimes, the answer is clear: If you have not earned a promotion and have no chance of getting one because either one is required, and you don’t have it, then you need to get whichever piece is missing. If that’s not the case, your path may not be as clear.
Certifications are often helpful when you have limited experience in the field, and can help you get your foot in the door when your resume doesn’t quite match your abilities. Working on certifications also shows employers that you are serious about your career, and continual learning. In the end, your best bet is to look at the job listings for the positions you’re interested in, and review the requirements — but plan on getting both a degree and certifications. When you do, all of your bases will be covered, and you will have a better chance of meeting your career goals.