There’s an on-going debate in the IT field about whether or not you need certifications or degrees to advance in your career. Frankly, it would be easier to answer the chicken and egg problem! Most of the time people will answer “it depends.” But there are good reasons why the answer differs depending on how much experience you have, what area within IT you are most interested in, what job you want to apply for, and what career path you have in mind. For most in the field today, however, the answer usually is do both, because the certification and the degree combined qualify you for a career path in which a certificate or a degree by themselves wouldn’t suffice.

There are a number of bloggers who have tried to answer the certification vs. degree question and the comments on their blogs tell you the variety of successful paths IT professionals have found.

Spiceworks blog:

“I think you should start with the degree. I have applied places where they wouldn’t even give me an interview because I didn’t have the degree. The certs are another good way to get your foot in the door”

“If it was me I would go for the most often called for certifications. This will get you in at a lower level post but will give you a solid grounding in the real world. Employers I feel would prefer people who have started from the ground up rather than a highly qualified person with little experience. It will also cost you less to get started and if you fall upon a decent employer they may well help fund your further education as your career progresses.”

The Night Owl blog:

In fact, when someone does express preference for one over the other – say, a degree is more important because certifications are always changing and are so industry-specific – they’re usually speaking specifically about their own situation. Maybe they’re looking to transition out of IT into a field where certifications mean less, or maybe the certifications they’ve earned are outdated or on topics that don’t apply to the kinds of jobs they’re now seeking.

The safest solution, it seems: Get both.

So here are four steps to remember while upgrading your skills and advancing your career.

1. Earn an appropriate certification for your IT field.

Recent data from both IT leaders and HR hiring experts indicates that you have a clear advantage over your competition, especially in security, if you have a certification. In 2011 InfoSecLeaders conducted a survey of more than 1300 people ranging from individual contributors to executive leadership. Here are some key findings from their survey.

  • An overwhelming number (80.3%) of those who have obtained a certification believe that the time/money spent was a good use of their resources, and 39.7% of respondents believe that certification is the most important investment that they can make in their careers.
  • Further, this value is increasing – more than half of respondents somewhat or strongly agree that certifications have increased in value over the past 5 years.
  • More than ¾ of the respondents (77%) somewhat or strongly agreed that holding a certification gets them access to more job opportunities and over half (54%) reported that they have received a job or a promotion because they held a particular certification.
  • Nearly half of the certified respondents (46.1%) believe that certifications provide an advantage even when competing with those who have greater experience (but are uncertified themselves).

But it’s important to ensure that the certification you seek is keeping up with current standards. The association responsible for the certification has a responsibility to keep the best interests of their members in mind. For example, in the field of security, the standards are changing rapidly given new technologies and new threats. Make sure that the certification you seek has stayed abreast of the current trends and is still valued in the marketplace.

2. Add a degree in your IT field.

Getting a degree might seem like a lot of work. But most education institutions are aware of workplace requirements for their graduates and implement changes in their programs to meet these requirements. Several education institutions (Capella included) will look at your professional certifications as validation of knowledge you have already obtained in your field and award degree credit accordingly. That limits redundant learning and allows you to complete your degree with reduced cost and faster time to completion. But even more importantly, it lets you advance your career by checking two of the requirements listed most frequently by employers: certification and degree.

The advice for members of the military members and their family who are interested in jobs in the Government Security Industry is a good guideline for those in other parts of the IT industry as well.

Associate’s Degree: An associate’s, or two-year degree, along with relevant work experience, may be sufficient for entry-level or junior-level positions. However, this level of education can limit your chances for advancement in the field. In addition, employers hiring for government information security positions often require professional certifications and security clearances.

Bachelor’s Degree: You’ll have expanded career choices when you earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science, computer information systems, or a related field from a four-year college or university. Most government information security jobs require a bachelor’s degree, plus professional certifications and security clearances. With experience and additional certifications, you could qualify for advancement.

Master’s Degree: If you’ve set your sights on advanced positions in government information security, such as chief information security officer or senior information security analyst, you’ll likely need a master’s degree in cyber security. This two-year advanced degree program can be obtained at certain universities, either immediately upon completing a bachelor’s degree program, or after you’ve started working in the field.

Just as you need to be sure that the certification is up-to-date, you need to be sure that the degree meets your needs. When reviewing a degree program, these questions might provide helpful guidelines.

  • Will you learn not only the most current technical skills but also the people skills you will need to distinguish yourself on the job?
  • Does the degree help you to integrate both business and technical skills so that you can solve the complex problems of today’s employers?
  • Does the degree help you in becoming innovative and flexible?

The value of a degree is in helping you to understand the application of your IT skills in today’s work environments. Becoming a better problem-solver, especially for those vexing workplace problems without a correct answer, is a value a degree can provide.

3. Highlight both the degree and the certification in your resume.

Most organizations use either an HR professional or a technology solution to filter the resumes to fit the job. The most frequently used filter is for your degree level, but in IT filtering for specific certifications is often common. For more technical organizations, the certification is often a key filter. The following from the NextGov website states this succinctly.

“While certifications are needed to get past the HR filters, hiring IT professionals who continue to educate themselves is important.”

4. Rinse, wash, and repeat.

In other words, add certifications and degrees as needed for your career path. The more you advance, the more likely you will need to add additional certifications and another degree. And as you advance, the certifications or the degrees will help to differentiate you as someone who wants to advance as a manager or someone who wants to become the super-tech.

Best of luck to all of you as you “secure” your careers!

For more information on how you can turn your CISSP into bachelor’s or master’s credit, go to www.capella.edu/infosec.