Are certifications worth it? It depends on what you mean by ‘worth’ and ‘it’
On Dec. 15, Justin Rohrman published an article at TechTarget that asks a question many have argued: Are Certifications Worth It? The article is well-written and, unlike many of the masses of similar ones that ask the same question, it does not argue its own conclusion. I like that Justin does not come down firmly on either side of the fence. A component I feel is missing from his article, however, is a strategy to help potential certification-seekers decide what exactly ‘worth it’ means. This is a key step to personalize the decision on whether or not to pursue a certification.
When we talk about whether something is “worth it,” what is the “it” we’re referring to? With reference to information technology certifications, generally the word describes the time and money spent preparing for and taking the exam. For Oracle certifications at least, the price of the exams tends to be fixed for a given geographic area. The cost of preparation materials will vary widely, however, depending on which ones are used.
Some candidates prepare using only the documentation and white papers from Oracle, along with articles on the web from prominent Oracle experts like Tim Hall or Steven Feuerstein. This technique will minimize the money spent in preparation, but typically increases the time required to prepare. Certification candidates can prepare more rapidly when using materials that cater to the exam objectives, but this can cause out-of-pocket costs to increase significantly. The decision on whether to focus on saving time or saving money is one that every person has to work out for themselves.
The easiest step in determining whether or not to pursue a certification is figuring out how much one must spend versus how much one can afford. The exam fee is a given, so start with that as the minimum cost. Beyond the fee, you must decide on a maximum budget to allocate for preparation materials. Once you have a dollar figure, the next step is estimating how much time you will need to set aside to prepare for the exam.
Don’t forget to account for the time that will be spent actually taking the exam — especially if you will have to take off from work. In general, it is possible to study in the evenings and on weekends. Most appointment slots to take the exam, however, will be during business hours. Estimating exam preparation time is not an exact science by any means. The amount required will vary considerably based on the person and the exam. I created this article some time ago that suggests how to come up with a ballpark figure. After creating cost and time estimates, candidates should ask themselves a couple of questions:
— What else would I be doing with that time?
— What else would I be doing with that money?
Some individuals might have to save for weeks or even months just to cover exam fees. For others, it may be just a blip on their account balance. By the same token, some people may be able to free up the time to prepare simply by cutting back on playing video games or watching TV. Others will find themselves going without sleep or spending less time with family in order to study. Only you can determine the personal cost of “it” when pursuing a certification.
The simple definition of “worth” is the expected benefit to be gained from becoming certified. As with cost, people’s expectations vary widely. What one person might consider an excellent return, will barely move the needle for another. An analogy would be personal investment strategies: Many people invest large sums of money in Certificates of Deposit that earn 1 percent annually. They would like more, but consider the 1 percent to be “worth” having a zero risk investment. Others would argue that a rate of 1 percent is not “worth” tying their money up and invest in the stock market instead. The potential returns are the same for both individuals, but their definitions of “worth” are not.
Certifications can certainly improve career prospects, but they are not the IT equivalent of a fairy godmother. Earning one will not instantly alter the universe with some sparkles and a puff of smoke. In the days or weeks following getting a new certificate, job offers will not start pouring in from stunned recruiters. Managers will not suddenly have a change of heart and provide that long awaited promotion or salary increase simply because someone adds an acronym after their name. Anyone who pursues certifications expecting these kinds of results is headed for disappointment.
Some of the potential benefits that are reasonable to expect from earning certifications include:
— Having a greater chance of making it past the first cut of candidates when applying for a position applicable to the certification.
— Increasing knowledge/skills from the time spent preparing for the exam.
— Achieving something to add to the “individual development” portion of your annual review.
The first bullet point might lead to a job. The second might lead to a promotion or other career boost (or a career change). The third might lead to a raise. The only thing that is certain is that none of these outcomes is guaranteed.
Once you have defined the expected costs of a given certification and what you hope to gain from it, deciding whether or not it makes sense for you should be easier. There are no shortcuts. It makes little sense to ask other people if a given certification is worth pursuing. Some people will say yes. Some people will say no. Others will tell you, “It depends.”
At best, anyone who tells you that a certification is (or is not) worth pursuing is not giving you the answer that makes sense for you, but the answer that makes sense for them. At worst, they are simply giving you the answer that they received when they asked the same question in the past. The best way to reach your career goals is to take actions that make sense for you, rather than actions that make sense for someone else.