Posts Tagged ‘education’

Comparing the Value of Degrees

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

In today’s Wall Street Journal article, The Alternative M.B.A.: One-Year Master’s Degrees, students are faced with a dilemma:

  1. Get a degree that is time-consuming, expensive, broad in scope, and widely-recognized.
  2. Get a degree that is faster, less expensive, narrow in scope, and untrusted in the marketplace.

You may not be in the market for an MBA, but these same choices face anyone seeking to continue his or her education, or even, to some extent, when selecting job openings for which to apply. As I mentioned in Boost Your Career with Professional Certifications, there are credentials you can acquire in a very short amount of time, but often for very specific skills that are not transferable to a wide variety of jobs, and that may or may not be highly regarded within your industry. The same is true, of course, for degrees.

At a recent industry event, I saw representatives from a local university promoting some of their degree programs:

  • MS in Computer Science
  • MEng (Information Engineering and Management)
  • MBA

Each program is interesting to me, but each one has certain limitations. For example, the MS in computer science is in a well-established and rigorous program. It would be a time-consuming degree, and once obtained, it would qualify me for a wide variety of technical positions. The MBA is also a widely recognized degree, which would qualify me for a wide variety of managerial positions. The MEng degree is a much newer program and the degree is not widely recognized; however, the program is designed for working professionals and can be completed while working full time. It would qualify me for managerial positions in IT.

Venn Diagram: Degree Programs and Skills

The MEng degree represents a much smaller area than either of the other 2 options. Specialization has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that if a position is available that requires the intersection of those 2 skill sets, your qualifications will put you above candidates with only one or the other. The disadvantage is that such positions are far more rare, and that your qualifications for more general positions (in this example, in either IT or management) are not as strong.

Acquiring a more specific qualification in an in-demand field will be an excellent short-term strategy, but as a long-term strategy it is riskier: it is hard to predict today what skills will be in demand tomorrow. In either case, a degree (or an additional degree) will certainly put you above the competition.

An Overview of Professional Certifications

Monday, November 9th, 2009

Certification or licensure may be required for a variety of fields, ranging from hair styling to welding to teaching to actuarial accounting. Covering the breadth of certifications available is impossible, so I’m going to focus on a variety of IT-related certifications, go over 3 in-demand professional certifications outside the IT field, and then review a couple interesting certification programs offered by Ivy League universities.

Technical Certifications

There are a few reasons why I think technical certifications are particularly interesting right now. The biggest reason is that I think many technical certifications are relatively easy to acquire. They do not require a lot of prior knowledge, and with diligent self-study or a single training course, certification is within the reach of many. Another good reason? Even in this job market, there is still a high demand for IT jobs. The best reason? Technical certifications can often increase your salary substantially.

Computer Support

CompTIA offers A+ certification for computer support technicians.


  • Exam ($168)


Microsoft Server Administration

Microsoft has a plethora of certifications, including several variations of the Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) such as the MCITP Server Administrator.


  • 3 exams, 2 of which qualify you as a Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS), so you can earn lesser certifications while working towards a larger goal. Each exam is $125, based on the testing site I selected; prices may vary, as the tests are offered through 3rd-parties and not directly by Microsoft.


Novell Networking

Novell networking, the example I used in Boost Your Career with Professional Certifications, may not be in demand as much as it was 10 years ago, but certifications are still available. Novell offers 11 certification programs, such as Certified Novell Administrator (CNA)–the very same program that catapulted my colleagues into more lucrative positions.


  • One exam ($125)


  • 5-day training course ($2495, offered by various training partners)
  • $495 self-study guide

It appears that Novell is on the decline, so picking up Novell certification may not seem like a great idea. However, many companies are still using older, legacy systems and there may be less competition for jobs like these. Check your local job listings to see if any employers in your area are still in need of Novell administrators.

Oracle Databases

Oracle offers various database administration certifications. For example, an Oracle Database 11g Administrator Certified Associate:


  • 2 exams (Oracle database SQL expert and Oracle database 11g administration, $125 each)


Why is Oracle’s self-study CD-ROM so expensive? Well, I suppose it is actually cheap relative to $6000 worth of in-class training, but it seems the 3rd-party exam guide would be worth a shot to me. You can retake the exam after 14 days, and the retake is score independently (i.e. your scores are not averaged).

Java Programming

Sun offers certifications such as Sun Certified Java Associate. If you are already a Java programmer with years of experience, you probably don’t need to become a certified associate, although they offer more advanced certificates as well, such as Sun Certified Java Programmer and Sun Certified Enterprise Architect.


  • Exam ($300)


Adobe Software

Adobe offers ACE (Adobe Certified Expert) certification for their specific software titles, such as Flash CS4 or Dreamweaver CS4.


  • Exam ($150 per software title)


  • Access to an online training library ($200)
  • A copy of the software title in question (e.g. Adobe Dreamweaver CS4, $400; Adobe Flash Pro CS4, $700). Substantial educational discounts exist if you are a student enrolled at a university.
  • Books about the software title (there are not, to my knowledge, titles specific to the Adobe certification exams).

Is Adobe certification for a specific software title valuable? I have not seen many job listings that specifically request Adobe certification. For specific software titles, demonstrating your ability to a potential employer through work experience or a portfolio of work examples may be enough. Certifications may be more helpful when you are competing in a broader field with more competition.

Notes on Technical Certifications

As you may have noticed, there is a certain genius on the part of many of these software companies: They create the software, they make you pay to learn how to use it, and then they make you pay to prove that you know how to use it. Don’t forget they will probably release new versions of the software that will soon make your certification look quaint an outdated, like a certified Lotus 1-2-3 professional. However, if you can pass the exam with an inexpensive self-study guide, it can certainly help you break in to a new field.

Now let’s take a look at some professional certifications outside of IT.

Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

This is one of the most intensive professional certifications available, requiring 5 years of college education. Most people pursuing it are already working as accountants and have accounting degrees, and therefore already meet most, if not all, the education requirements. Why would someone already working as an accountant want to become a CPA? Many accounting positions require the certification and pay a premium over accounting positions that don’t. Although requirements vary from state to state, the following gives you a rough idea.


A 4-year college degree, including 150 college-level course hours, with specific coursework required in accounting and other business topics. The specific coursework requirements may be waived if the applicant also has a graduate degree in accounting. The undergraduate degree may not need to be in accounting if the applicant has work experience as an accountant. After passing the exam (which costs about $100 to take), CPAs are required to stay current by completing Continuing Education (CE) credits.

Project Management Professional (PMP)

Project management is a hot field at the moment, and one organization–the Project Management Institute–certifies Project Management Professionals. A project manager is basically the point person between the client and the production team, and gathers the project requirements and makes sure that the project stays on track to completion on time and on budget. Why become a certified PMP? Many government agencies require contractors to have at least one PMP, which can lead to substantially higher salaries.


  • Experience: 3 years project management experience + bachelors degree, or 5 years project management experience. Experience is self-documented, but requires substantial detail.
  • Education: 35 contact hours of approved project management education. One hour spent in a classroom (or an online class) is a contact hour, so it is very different than a course hour. It can often be completed with a weekly class over the course of a semester, or in a 5-day intensive class.
  • Audit: the organization randomly selects applicants for detailed audits to verify their experience and education.
  • Exam: 4-hour, computer-based, multiple choice exam.
  • Fee: $555
  • Continuing Education: PMPs are required to obtain Professional Development Units (PDUs). I personally have attended a couple of presentations that have qualified for PDUs, and I can say that the content varied from a waste of time to interesting and relevant. It appears that the quality of your PDUs is largely irrelevant, though–the quantity is what is important.

Non-Profit Management

Anyone who has ever volunteered for any length of time has probably seen first-hand how much non-profits could benefit from first-class management. In particular, when budgets are tight, non-profits looking to make the most of their resources will favor candidates with such credentials.

  • Duke University offers a nonprofit management certificate. It requires 50 classroom hours, although there are no admission requirements and no exams or grades.
  • University of Virginia offers a non-credit certificate in non-profit management. It requires 35 contact hours and has no required classes (you select classes that best relate to your organization).
  • Capella University, a for-profit university, offers an online certification in the management of non-profit agencies. It requires 16 quarter credits (4 courses), at a total cost of $6768.

As you can see, the requirements for these programs are quite different, and there does not appear to be a standard non-profit management certificate. Employers may look upon certificate holders favorably, but may not understand the value of your particular credential. If that’s the case–play it up! Be sure to let them know what you learned that you can bring to the organization.

Ivy League Credentials

If you’re at a point in your career where technical certifications won’t help you, you could always consider adding some prestige with a little Ivy League. The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and eCornell, a subsidiary of Cornell University, both offer business certificates in a variety of disciplines.

The Wharton Program for Working Professionals offers a variety of business certificates that range from 12 to 18 credit hours (4 to 6 courses) from the prestigious Wharton School. The tuition for each course is approximately $3000, so the total cost may range from $12,000 to $18,000 and may take over a year to complete. The courses are held on the Wharton campus in Philadelphia, so it is definitely not accessible to everyone. Even so, some students travel from Washington D.C. and New York City to attend.

eCornell offers 22 certificate programs in leadership, management, human resources, and hospitality & foodservice management. A representative example is a certificate in Project Leadership, which consists of 6 courses (each course is two weeks and 6 hours “learning time”), at a cost of $3750. Although the courses can be taken online, the certificate is awarded from Cornell University’s College of Engineering.

Do you have experience with a professional certification that you would like to share? Let us know in the comments.

Boost Your Career with Professional Certifications

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

When I worked for TechTeam a number of years ago, many of my colleagues were frustrated by the slow pace of their career advancement. Several of them decided to study for a Novell Networking certification exam, and were regularly seen toting around hefty red-and-gray hardcover books. Once they passed and were certified as CNAs (Certified Novell Administrators), they quickly left the company to work elsewhere. They increased their salaries by at least 45%, and sometimes much more. Not a bad return for an investment of studying and a $125 test!

Certification programs cover more than just technical fields, and can range from relatively straightforward and inexpensive to fairly time-consuming and pricey. In almost every case it give you an opportunity to learn skills–or validate existing skills–to give yourself an edge in the job market without the cost and commitment of a degree program.

How is certification different than a degree?

Degree programs tend to range from 2-4 years, depending on the degree, and require a substantial amount of coursework, accompanied by substantial expense. Certification programs may have required training classes, which tend to be concentrated (e.g. a 5-day course with 8 hours of instruction per day). A frequent alternative to training classes is self-paced self-study. Either course of study is followed by a certification exam. The exam is typically the only required component to a certification program, and the tests are typically pass-fail. Many of the exams are quite difficult, and are designed so that only about half of the hopeful students will succeed on their first try.

Degree programs are offered through accredited colleges and universities, whereas certification programs are typically offered by for-profit organizations. Sometimes the certifying agency is affiliated with a professional organization (e.g. the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants certifies CPAs), and sometimes with a software developer (e.g. Sun certifies Java developers).

Some colleges and universities offer certificate programs in addition to degrees, particularly online and/or for-profit universities such as Capella University. University-offered certificate programs frequently require substantial coursework (and expense), but not a final pass-fail certification exam.

When should I consider certification?

Certification is most often useful if you are trying to demonstrate your expertise in an area where you do not have a lot of (or any) professional experience. For example, if you had been a COBOL programmer but are now applying for jobs as an Oracle database administrator, then becoming an Oracle Database Administrator Certified Professional would be helpful.

Certification is also useful in a crowded marketplace. If you are a systems administrator, you may find that becoming a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) helps set you apart from your competition. All other credentials and experience being equal, the candidate with the certification will be more attractive to a hiring manager.

A certificate may also get you a higher salary from your current employer. Some larger companies automatically award employees salary increases for acquiring job-related certifications. If not, a certificate is a good bargaining chip to use to justify your own request for a salary increase, and if that doesn’t work, it can always help you land a higher paying job elsewhere.

Lastly, some contractors and employers require certifications. For example, a law enforcement agency may require a Certified Computer Examiner for certain computer forensics positions.

Hurdles to certification

Training and exams are frequently located only in major metropolitan areas, which could be an issue if you live off the beaten path. In addition to the often steep prices for a 5-day training course (~$2500), you may also have to factor in travel and accommodations, not to mention rearranging your schedule.

Fortunately, many certification programs do offer distance learning, or, if you are disciplined enough to stick to a self-imposed study schedule, many offer self-study guides (either books, or computer-based learning). The latter can offer a huge savings.

Caveat Emptor

Because certifications are often sought by people who do not have a lot of relevant experience, some people in the industry may be skeptical of their value. Experience without certification is usually preferred to certification without experience. However, acquiring certification shows a fair amount of dedication and desire to break into the industry, and should be looked upon favorably. Although it is probably best to ignore the skeptics–there will always be skeptics, after all–it is important to keep in mind that not all certifications are created equal. Be sure to find out if the certification you are considering is in demand before you pay a lot of money for training courses and exams. Check job listings to see if the certification is mentioned in the required or desired qualifications, and talk to other people with the certification and ask if it helped their careers.

A broad range of certifications

Check back Monday for An Overview of Professional Certifications, where I’ll discuss some specific certification options currently available. The offerings lean heavily towards IT, but I will be sure to explore a few other options as well.

The Extended Unemployment Feedback Loop

Friday, September 25th, 2009

The Long Slog: Out of Work, Out of Hope, from today’s Wall Street Journal, discusses the growing percentage of the unemployed who have been out of work for more than 26 weeks. Obviously it is stressful to be out of work for 6 months, but as the article points out, it can make it even more difficult to find employment: employers comparing candidates with similar qualifications will most likely prefer the candidate who has been out of work the shortest time.

I suppose that makes sense: if you see a house that has been on a market a long time, you assume it is either overpriced, or there is something wrong with it.

The article focuses primarily on blue collar workers: a cable-maker, an electrician, a boatyard worker. Manufacturing jobs have moved or been eliminated completely, leaving unemployment in the vacuum. Presumably, white collar workers are feeling the same strain, although many of their skills may be more easily applied across white collar jobs. Many manufacturing sector jobs are not coming back, leaving a growing number of workers to vie for a smaller pool of jobs.

Macroeconomics defines 3 types of unemployment: cyclical, frictional, and structural. Cyclical unemployment is attributed to the ups-and-downs of the business cycle, and we’re obviously experiencing a lot of that right now. Frictional unemployment is attributed to mismatches between what job hunters want and what employers want. This may have to do with skills, wages/salaries, or even location. (Structural unemployment is similar to frictional unemployment, but is more endemic.)

As one person in the article, the boatyard worker, said, “You look for work and it all has to do with medical.” Although his initial unemployment was cyclical, his continued unemployment is frictional: he is not qualified for the jobs available in his region, and he has not broadened his job hunt beyond his region. He says he can’t see himself going back to school for 4 years at 59 [although I am taking a class on statistical analysis right now, and one of my classmates has him beat by 3 years]. He may not realize that there are, depending on his qualifications, accelerated nursing programs that can be completed in a single year.

Relocation can be hard, particularly if you own a home or want to stay close to your family and friends (and who wouldn’t?). Training and education, on the other hand, is far easier by comparison. Sure, it may not be easy to step into a classroom after a 40 year hiatus, but spending some time to get a certification or degree is a better way to explain a gap in your resume than, “I was waiting for my old job to come back.”

Other ideas to fill the employment gap in a resume:

  • Volunteer (preferably in a position that uses your job skills)
  • Take consulting/freelance jobs

If nothing else, it will show potential employers that you are keeping your skills honed and that you have no lack of work ethic.