Whether you're a proven veteran with 20 years of experience under your belt or just starting out, it's no secret that an IT career can be quite demanding and time consuming. Between long hours and projects that often require you to work remotely, in addition to the time you spend at the office, finding a little headspace for additional learning, pursuing hobbies, and fitting in other extra-curricular activities can be difficult.
Another commonly known fact of an IT career is the importance of certification and credentials as a means of demonstrating your skills and specialized knowledge to employers. As IT continues to expand and competition for jobs becomes more intense, having globally recognized certifications is perhaps the most important way of differentiating yourself from other applicants and succinctly demonstrating your value to businesses and organizations operating in the IT world.
Given the long hours and demanding schedules that any IT professionals faces, coupled with the investment of weeks or even months required for any certification, finding time to study, practice, and prepare for exams can be a significant challenge. Working while studying and preparing for new certifications is doable — but it's going to require a bit of discipline and time management.
Let's take a look at some tips that can help you find the time you need in your busy schedule to get certified from start to finish while maintaining a full-time job.
Be creative with study materials
These days, content can be accessed from a wide variety of media. Plenty of certification study materials are available through podcasts and audiobooks — a convenient way to study while you're on the go. Given that commutes to and from work often exceed an hour, this can be an excellent opportunity for many otherwise busy professionals to get some studying done.
Many certification textbooks come with a free audio CD that can be played directly or converted into an MP3. If your study material is in a digital format such as a Word or PDF document, there are also plenty of free tools that let you convert it to an audio format so that you can study for your certification exam on the go.
An exam date that works for you
Most certification exam providers are fairly flexible when it comes to scheduling tests, and let you book in advance. Don't feel pressured to sit for an exam at an earlier date purely so you can finish sooner; schedule your test well ahead of time and give yourself time enough to study at a reasonable pace while maintaining your job and other important commitments.
Failing a certification exam because you didn't give yourself adequate time to study and prepare will end up taking significantly longer than if you had originally planned for the fact that you'd be simultaneously working while studying. You control your study time and when you sit for the exam — don't be rushed into it before you are ready.
Use vacation time strategically
Scheduling an exam date ahead of time may enable you to arrange your vacation around that week. Having a few days to devote entirely to exam preparation can be a tremendous boost to the likelihood of your success. Speak with your current employer well ahead of time and be sure to mention how the certification exam you're taking is related to success in your current position.
Balancing work and studying for your certification exam, on top of all of the other things you've got going on, requires some time management skills. Setting a weekly schedule is an excellent way to hold yourself accountable that you are putting in the work necessary to succeed on your exam.
Depending on your study habits, make certain to set aside specific time slots each week where studying and exam preparation is mandatory, no excuses. Many, if not most certification exams require hands-on practice to achieve mastery so you'll need to put in some decent time if you want to pass. Weekly schedules let you plan your work and make sure that you allocate a sufficient amount of time dedicated solely to study and preparation.
Study smarter, not harder
Working full-time while preparing for a certification exam means that you won't have the luxury of taking your time to study. Thus, it's critically important that you determine what method of studying is best for you. Whether you prefer instructor-led night courses or would rather use books and practice exams, figuring out how you want to study will make sure that you're not wasting valuable time on ineffective study methods that don't work for you.
Prioritize what you study
As mentioned above, working a full-time job will cut into your exam preparation time significantly, meaning that you have to use what time you do have efficiently. Virtually every IT certification exam has exam objectives that you can download.
Make sure to read these objectives carefully and then tailor your exam preparation around them. Doing so will ensure that you don't waste time studying frivolous material or secondary content that isn't heavily tested on the exam. Save time by focusing on learning the specific content that will be included on the exam.
Use breaks wisely
Chances are that your job affords you at least 30 minutes of break time each day; this is valuable time that can be spent preparing for your exam. While it can certainly be difficult to motivate yourself to study during these breaks, doing so can add a not insignificant couple of hours of extra study time each week. That might not seem like much, but it adds up quickly — after ten weeks you will have studied for an additional 25 hours.
Plus, there is ample evidence that studying in short bursts (10-15 minutes) can actually increase the retention of what you studied.
Make IT happen
Working and preparing for your certification exam is a difficult yet decidedly doable feat. While challenging, successfully studying for and passing a certification exam while maintaining your full-time job will also teach you valuable skills such as discipline and time management.
Regardless of how much you work, making time to study for your certification tests is always possible and is ultimately a function of your discipline, ability to stick to schedules, and the various study methods and techniques you've identified to maximize the efficacy of your preparation.
Nothing good ever seems to come easy, but patience and consistent effort is always worth it. The sacrifices you make today will deliver the preparedness you feel tomorrow.