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When are professional certificates most useful?

Michael Feder

Written by Michael Feder

Kathryn Uhles

Reviewed by Kathryn Uhles, MIS, MSP, Dean, College of Business and IT

African American male smiling at laptop

In this article

  • Pursing career goals
  • Helpful tips to consider
  • Explore certificate programs

Professional certificates are credentials awarded to students who complete a course or training program and pass an exam or other form of assessment to demonstrate their mastery of the subject. These skills can then be added to employer-facing resources like LinkedIn or your resumé to showcase a proficiency in a certain skill or industry. 

A certificate is different from a degree in terms of scope, cost and time commitment. While a degree is meant to provide a broad knowledge base on which to build a career in a specific field, professional certificates focus on a single skill or group of closely related skills. Because of their narrower focus, certificate programs typically take a shorter time to complete.

Certificates can be worthwhile for working professionals who have a degree but want to specialize further. They can also benefit individuals who don’t have a degree but want to gain proficiency of a specific skill. In some instances, they can help professionals with experience demonstrate their knowledge in a more formal way than simply listing it on their resumé.

Here’s a look at the benefits of earning a professional certificate and the steps for ensuring you select ones that will benefit your professional plans.

Pursuing career goals

People who balk at the prospect of undertaking a degree program or returning to school for a master’s degree after already earning a bachelor’s can consider certificate programs as a way to potentially reach their career goals while saving money. 

You can enroll in an online certificate program and learn while you are working or attending school. Certificate programs vary by institution, but participants often receive a certificate after successfully completing a program and assessment.

Some industries where professional certificates can be particularly helpful in bolstering knowledge and helping candidates position themselves for career growth are:

  • Information technology
  • Education
  • Business
  • Healthcare
  • Accounting 
  • Human resources
  • Marketing

Completing a certificate can give you additional knowledge and skills you can add to your resumé.

Complement your academic studies

A college degree is meant to provide a foundation of knowledge and skills on which you can base your career. Professional certificates can supplement these degrees by helping you add specific skills relevant to your plans and goals.

For example, someone with a bachelor’s degree in computer science or IT can also earn an Advanced Cybersecurity Certificate to refine and update their technical skills for the rapidly changing field of information security.

Cloud Computing and Advanced Software Developer certificates are other examples that can help you qualify for a specialized job if you already have or are currently working toward a computer-related degree. Such programs are also quicker than a degree program, making them attractive to individuals who are eager to learn and work in the field.

Certificates are valuable well beyond the tech world. Nurses can pursue certificates in specialized medical areas after earning their RN license and nursing degree. Teachers and other education specialists need to complete similar license requirements and opportunities for additional credentials.

A specialized skill set and knowledge

A specialized skill set from a quality certificate program can help you stand out from other job candidates in competitive fields where many applicants have similar backgrounds.

The advantage of added skills does not only apply to tech, healthcare or other jobs requiring a college degree. Trade workers, such as machinists in the manufacturing industry, may choose to pursue a non-degree certificate program to learn skills such as operating computer numerical control (CNC) machines.

If your career plans include a very specific position within a company, you can use certificate programs to tailor your knowledge for a particular role. A custom strategy can be effective because many certificate courses focus on specific skills, streamlining the learning process compared to a degree program.

Here are four more helpful things to consider.

1. Research your options

The first step in finding the appropriate certificate program for your needs is researching the possibilities.

First, you want to define your chosen career path. Certificates have a narrow focus, so you need to be sure about your chosen specialization before you enroll. While you may not need to settle on a specific position, you will likely need to select a focus, such as financial planning, cybersecurity or business analytics.

The next step is to find the best programs for your chosen subject. If the programs are offered through a university, you will want to ensure it is an accredited institution and that the program will lead to an actual certificate. Some programs can help you prepare for a certification exam from a credentialing organization respected in the industry.

The difference between certificate and certification is that a certificate is an educational program you can receive through a college while certification is a note of accomplishment through any other organization or resource that might specialize in a specific skill or set of skills rather than an overall topic. To determine which may be best for you, consider speaking with a college career counselor or ask those in the industry you are looking to break into which they value more.

If you decide you want a certificate, you will want to select a program that provides the most value for your career. In some industries, such as tech, you will have to choose between many similar certificate options. You want to be sure that you select one that aligns with your plans and is preferred by employers in your industry.

Another way to determine which professional certificate is right for you is to seek advice from people working in your chosen industry or profession or even talk to HR managers and recruiters to see which credentials they prefer when hiring.

2. Understand the financial implications

Professional certificates may be less expensive than degree programs, but they still need to be factored into your budget. There are traditional options for covering the cost, such as paying tuition and exam fees up front or taking out a loan, but there are other options too.

Companies that want their workers to upskill may offer employer payment programs in which the organization covers all or part of the cost of a certificate program. Another common option is tuition reimbursement, which involves the employee paying for the course up front or with a loan. The employer then reimburses the employee over time.

3. Explore job opportunities

Certificates are an opportunity to specialize in an area of interest. However, you also need to be practical about which certificate you choose. Is there a demand for this skill set? Does the salary make earning a certificate worthwhile? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics offers growth projections for professions over the next decade. These insights can be useful, as can looking at job sites to see the number of open positions in your area of expertise and the salary offered for those jobs.

4. Network

First-person insights can be valuable during your decision-making process. Networking with peers and others in your field can help you learn more about which certificates offer the most value, tuition reimbursement opportunities through your employer and how difficult or rewarding specific programs are.

The benefits of networking extend to your certificate program as well, where you may have opportunities to network with students and faculty. These connections could help you learn about jobs available in your new area of expertise or different associations or groups that could prove useful.

Where to get professional certificates

Several kinds of places offer certificates, including colleges, online universities and well-known companies that offer their own specialized options. It will depend on which industry or skill you are seeking a certificate in.

Certificate programs at University of Phoenix

University of Phoenix offers 45 online certificate programs in over nine fields, including business, cybersecurity, health informatics and education. Discover which certificates may be right for you and your career goals!

Here are just several examples of useful certificates at University of Phoenix:

  • Advanced Cybersecurity Certificate — Develop technical knowledge to step into the fast-growing field of IT security, helping keep computer systems safe from data breaches and cyberattacks.
  • Advanced Software Developer Certificate — Develop programming, software engineering and IT architecture skills in as little as seven months. Learn to design and implement software solutions in relation to project scope and stakeholder needs. Study multiple programming languages and software architecture principles.
  • Marketing Certificate — In as little as seven months, you can learn specialized skills such as designing product development strategies that deliver value to consumers and managing supply chains.
  • Business Analytics Certificate — Develop valuable skills such as mining, analyzing and visualizing data. Learn how to use data ethically and securely, make decisions ethically and securely and apply data to core business functions. You can complete this program in as little as 11 months.
  • Medical Records Certificate — Learn the entry-level, technical aspects of medical insurance, billing, coding and claims processing in approximately 10 months online. Our Medical Records Certificate prepares you to sit for the Certified Billing and Coding Specialist (CBCS) exam, a national certification offered through the National Healthcareer Association.
Headshot of Michael Feder


A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and its Writing Seminars program and winner of the Stephen A. Dixon Literary Prize, Michael Feder brings an eye for detail and a passion for research to every article he writes. His academic and professional background includes experience in marketing, content development, script writing and SEO. Today, he works as a multimedia specialist at University of Phoenix where he covers a variety of topics ranging from healthcare to IT.


This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
Read more about our editorial process.


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