Graduate School Options: Certification vs. a Degree

by | March 10, 2009

There are a multitude of factors you need to take into consideration when deciding whether to pursue an advanced degree, attend local classes towards a certificate, or study for and take your certification exam. The following factors will aid in your decision-making:

  • Stage in life. Don't let an arbitrary and subjective detail like your age get in the way of your education or professional advancement. If you really want to do it, it doesn't matter whether you're 25 or 125.

  • Stage in career. Will the degree help you in your career progression? If you have already broken into a field and have amassed experience in it, probably not. If you're looking to change jobs to another company, you may want to consider it. If you're an independent consultant and want to ensure that new clients find you credible, you may want to go back to school.

  • Impact on income. Can you afford to go to school full-time? Can you find a good part-time program while you continue to work? Is it worthwhile to take out a loan? Will your employer help you out with a tuition assistance program?

  • Impact on relationships. How will your time away from your friends and family impact your relationships? What's more important to you right now and in the future?

  • Volatility of field. Is this field going to be around in the future - or are there tell-tale signs that it will be replaced by technological advancements or radically altered so that your specialty won't be needed? Check out trends and professional forecasts on web sites like Vault.com and SHRM.org for more insight.

  • Return on investment. What are the benefits of each option?

  • Time and money. Do you need this education by a certain deadline, for a certain reason, and on a certain budget? If so, certification will be much quicker and cheaper to attain than a degree. If time and money are of no concern, do both.

  • True motive. Are you looking to make more money? Then, depending on your current employer's compensation system, you may have to change jobs to a company that rewards its employees based on education rather than tenure. Also, if you are over 40, it probably won't make a difference if you have another degree if you already have over 15 years of career-relevant experience.

  • Theoretical education. If you want this, school is often a better option.

  • Practical application. Certification might make more sense here.
It's no secret that having an advanced degree will make you more marketable in the job market, should you need to change employers. If you're just starting out or trying to break into a field, you should definitely pursue a relevant degree; it will open up doors for you and get you more money from the get-go. If you're already established in the field and have a wide array of experience, you'll probably be OK without a degree for future internal advancement - although getting a degree certainly wouldn't hurt you for credibility and possible job changes. Furthermore, achieving a professional certification (e.g., PHR/SPHR) is a boon for degreed professionals and seasoned ones alike.

Attending local college-run certificate programs can give you some added, high-level insight into areas of interest, but won't substitute for a degree or certification. And as far as which school to attend, research all the possibilities and select the one that's right for you. The right program may not be at a "big name" university, but at a smaller institution that offers you the perfect education and training. Be sure to check out the alumni association and career placement office to find out where the school's graduates have landed jobs and which companies actively recruit from the school. The decision to pursue either an advanced degree or certification all comes down to what you feel more comfortable with and your personal career goals

Filed Under: Job Search


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