Back-to-School Debate: IT Degree or Certification?
BackBy Agatha Gilmore —
It’s nearing that time of year again. The air will get crisp, the leaves will turn yellow and the days will be full of anticipation. As you prepare to return to campus, you’re probably more concerned with sharpening your pencils and dusting off your books than brushing up your resume. But isn’t the reason we go to school in the first place to better prepare us for that thing out there called the “real world?”
Taking the time out to map the best course of study will not only maximize your return on investment but will help you lay the groundwork for the career of your dreams. What’s your best move: four-year IT degree or specialized certifications?
“It’s really an apples and oranges kind of discussion,” said John Estes, vice president of strategic alliances at Robert Half Technology, an IT consulting and staffing services company. “What companies tell us all the time is they want people that demonstrate willingness and a track record of lifelong learning.”
A Degree in the Door
At many IT companies, a four-year degree is a prerequisite for a job and could be the deciding factor between getting an interview and getting passed over.
“There are some companies out there that, as a condition of employment, won’t hire you unless you do have a college degree. That’s just part of their basic requirements,” Estes said.
Many companies are flexible when it comes to the major of the degree, however. Estes said he’s seen hiring managers eagerly set up interviews with candidates who majored in art history, for example. That’s because the degree really signifies broad, basic knowledge and demonstrates your ability to follow through on a project.
Just don’t count on your degree to get you promoted or to open the door to additional opportunities.
“Many people, when they get out of college [think], ‘Well hey, that’s done.’ They’re done with their education. And in IT, you’re just getting started,” Estes said.
Continued Education With Certification
In addition to showing your employers you’re committed to furthering your education, there’s another reason to get certified: The speed of innovation in technology is so rapid that “by the time you learn a technology, the beta for the new version’s already out,” Estes said.
Thus it’s important to show employers you’re working around the clock to keep your tech skills current.
“Certifications have become more and more en vogue as just one more differentiator for someone,” Estes said. “Because, even if you’re getting a college degree, you’re getting [it] in computer science; you’re not getting [it] in Microsoft Windows Server 2008. The certification will come into play more specifically with what you’re doing.”
Half the battle, however, is knowing when to begin the certification process. As a new grad, you’re not expected to have specialized already, but when is the right time to consider it?
“I would say as soon as possible,” Estes said. “It’s not like they graduate in May and have to start the certification by July, but [they should start] once they get more of an idea of where they are in the organization, truly what they have passion for, what really interests them."
Even if you’re not interested in a hands-on implementation job, you still are likely to get into some type of project management or business analysis role as you progress in the field of IT, and it’s worth getting certified to back up your experience, Estes said.
It’s also entirely possible that, as a recent grad, you’ll start off in one discipline but come to decide you’d like to go in a different direction instead.
In that case, you should definitely consider a certification, but know that you’ll need to back it up with real-world application, Estes said.
– Agatha Gilmore, firstname.lastname@example.org