Earning a certificate can help you strengthen your existing skill set and stay on top of rapidly changing industry trends.
A certificate as an educational credential is a bit like a multi-purpose tool. It can be put to use in a variety of ways, depending on who has a grip on the handle.
Certificates are typically pursued by two types of students — those who are looking to enhance their current careers and those who are considering a new career path. In either case, a certificate can help set you apart from other candidates or help you determine your next chapter.
“It’s the idea of being able to pivot or to strengthen your existing skill set to specialize,” said Steven Starks, senior manager of Career Counseling Programs & Operations for University of Phoenix.
Certificates serve as professional development
A working adult who wants more skills in a particular specialty, and a recognition of that competence, might pursue a certificate. Certificates can serve as a form of professional development, helping you to stay relevant in the field or continuing to add to the base of knowledge you have from previous coursework and on-the-job experience.
An experienced nurse, for instance, might want to specialize in health informatics to help stay on top of rapidly changing trends. A business professional might want to pursue a certificate in project management or executive leadership. And a teacher might be interested in adding new skills in instructional design.
Certificates let you explore new areas
A certificate is also attractive for those who want to test drive a new subject area in a more cost-effective and time-efficient way than a traditional degree program. Those who desire additional opportunities with their current employer, or those thinking about a whole new career path are excellent candidates for certificates.
For instance, someone working in an entry-level customer service position might want to explore human resources. Or a help desk technician might want to move into cybersecurity. Earning certificates in human resources or a certificate in cybersecurity may educationally prepare candidates for new opportunities.
And for a person who is looking for a complete career change but is hesitant to commit to a degree program, Starks notes that “a certificate can be a low-risk way of learning about a career path you might be interested in.”
Certificates can help you get a foot in the door
Alice Rush, a Certified Career Counselor for University of Phoenix’s Department of Career Services who has 25 years of experience and has counseled thousands of working adults, noted that some employers may perceive an investment in a certificate as a skill-building activity, giving the candidate potential competitive advantage.
“It doesn’t replace a degree, but it showcases your interest and familiarity with the subject matter,” Rush said.
“A certificate can be a low-risk way of learning about a subject you might be interested in.”
— Steven Starks, senior manager of Career Counseling Programs & Operations, University of Phoenixx
Certificate vs. Certification?
Some employers, particularly in technology, may require job applicants to have particular industry certifications. There’s a difference between a certificate and a certification.
A certificate is a credential tailored to a specific academic or experiential area of study. It provides additional focused education in that subject area. While there are exceptions, it typically takes anywhere from four weeks to one year to complete a certificate program.
Certification, on the other hand, is granted by a third-party involved in the industry, not the higher education institution. It usually requires an exam and potentially work experience or coursework. A certificate program can educationally prepare a student to sit for a third party’s industry certification exam. Certifications are particularly in demand in the IT industry, as they prove competency in particular technical areas, such as networking and cybersecurity.
‘You can’t Google yourself into a new career. You have to talk to people who do it’
So what do you do with a certificate once you have one? While government resources such as the Occupational Outlook Handbook can be helpful for research, there’s no substitute for interaction.
“Too many people sit behind a computer and research stuff and that’s never going to be as rich as information you get from people in the field,” Starks said.
He suggests anyone interested in an industry or specialty should join a professional organization for those in the field. Go to meetings, introduce yourself and ask questions of professionals already working in the field. Be curious and act on that curiosity to learn more about what’s possible.
“That’s how you get clarity,” Starks said. “You can’t Google yourself into a new career idea. You have to talk to people who do it.”
Let your network know you’ve earned a certificate
Another tip: Use your existing friends, family and social network to find others already in the field you’re looking to enter. Ask for an introduction, and then ask questions once you meet the person. LinkedIn can be helpful, but warm introductions are best if you have network connections.
It’s helpful, too, to remember that a certificate, like a degree, does not guarantee a job or promotion. Starks said it’s not just about being qualified. It’s about being competitive.
Once you have that certificate, put it to use. Make it impactful, so there’s an apparent reason you stand apart from other candidates.
Starks advised, “When an interviewer asks ‘Can you tell me how you’re practicing what you learned?’ you’ll have a full and convincing answer.”