Published on 2012/12/13

Professional Certifications: A Quick Path to Career Advancement

Professional certifications signal to an employer that you have proven mastery of a given, industry-recognized topic and can be a faster route to career advancement than earning a two-year or four-year degree.

Usually, it is considered the norm to pass linearly from school to work, making that transition as you proceed across the stage to obtain your degree at graduation. However, career paths are becoming less conventional, with many employees returning to school or making job changes along the way. If you are seeking to advance or modify your career, acquiring a professional certification can offer a quick path without investing a significant amount of time into another degree.

All valid, recognized professional certifications are sponsored by an industry-approved certifying body. These organizations create boards and committees of experts in the chosen field to identify the key knowledge and skills to be assessed that would speak to a mastery of the subject. Often, these same organizations offer membership options and continuing education opportunities that are required to maintain certification, or simply to stay updated on current trends in the field.

Local education providers, such as community colleges or universities, can become registered education providers of both continued education credits (CEUs) and test preparation classes. Certifying organizations approve these providers based on a review of their content and instructor qualifications and may offer lists of approved course locations in your area on their websites. It is important to note that education centers may deliver similar training without being a registered provider—these courses may be equally effective, but they are not always accepted as official CEUs. A local chapter of the industry organization can usually assist you with this process.

One popular example is the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. There are various levels of eligibility required to sit for the exam based on the number of hours of experience in managing projects and your level of education; the higher your education, the lower your required experience, and vice versa. Most professional certifications require this type of balanced scale for eligibility, which levels the playing field, whether you have a GED or a Master’s degree, as the certification is obtainable if you can show your depth of knowledge. And as project management covers a diverse range of industries, from IT to construction, from healthcare to manufacturing, an individual can use this certificate to move into a multitude of job opportunities.

Unlike vocational certifications, what you are saying when you show your certificate is not, “I have learned the basics of this skill and am ready for entry level work.” Instead, you’re saying, “I have proven mastery of this topic.”

These types of certificates are often used in the process of job screening to identify a candidate’s skill, even before an interview, making a resume much more competitive. Occasionally, industry recognized certifications are so valued by employers, that they will require them when hiring new employees, or sponsor the costs of classes and testing as part of internal professional development plans.

Whether you are looking to move into a new field, or advance to the next level of your current career, acquiring a professional certification aides in a rapid and smooth transition—expanding your job opportunities and increasing your earning potential.

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Readers Comments

Eugene Partnoy 2012/12/13 at 3:21 pm

This article really underplays the time, money, and effort needed to get PMP certification; it is not a cheap certification (unattainable for non-professionals, anyone with less than middle income), prepping for the exam takes a lot of time, and it is something that you have to work to maintain over the rest of your career with supplemental courses and hours. It can of course be very useful, and maybe if you are lucky, and already working as a project manager, your company might pay for it–but I think it is out of reach for many.

Just to provide a balanced view to this article, there are also some recognized downsides to a PMP: it is a widely-held opinion that the PMP system and method are outdated, when compared to others. There can be an impression that anyone can pass the PMP, even if they are a terrible project manager who hasn’t ever had a project succeed, so sometimes there is skepticism around the PMP, and perhaps an employer might prefer a candidate who had proven success on the ground. It is only one way to leverage your skills and success, so do your research before attempting your PMP certification.

Ashley Nottingham 2012/12/13 at 3:40 pm

Eugene makes a good point, professional certifications are not something to get on a whim, but opposed to the cost and time of another degree, there is no comparison. My college does a PMP bootcamp that can be accomplished in 35 hours of training – it’s intense and a difficult exam to pass, but it’s quite possible.

However, the PMP is just one example, there are many other professional certifications, in Human Resources, Food Safety, and multitude of diverse subject matters. I used PMP here because it can be one of the more cross-functional certificates.

And while there are many who come to us with sponsorship from their employers, we also get quite a few people requesting these kinds of certificates as they are a requirement for promotion or in the hiring process – but each company is different.

Ray Infante 2012/12/18 at 12:07 pm

I’d like to know the writer’s position regarding notions of the term certification that represent (or validate)the completion of an educational course of study vis-à-vis certification as a program that follows national norms and are eligible for accreditation by accrediting agencies like NCCA or ANSI. The use of the term “certificate program” seems to have become more popular in recent years, but in certain industries the term certification is used interchangeably to describe both examples above.
Where would the writer’s reference to “Unlike vocational certifications”fit?

    Ashley Nottingham 2012/12/18 at 3:27 pm

    Hi Ray,
    There is a definitive difference between a certificate program and certification. You are correct in noticing how these words are overused and sometimes improperly interchanged.

    Generally, within higher education, receiving a certification means one has successfully passed a test to achieve an industry recognized level of mastery. Vocational certifications are considered entry level and occasionally terminal, such as Truck Driving. Within these vocational certifications, there may be advanced levels, as in HVAC or Electricians, who can achieve multiple stages of recognized proficiencies.

    As a contrast, the terminology of a professional certification implies the recipient is not at an entry level position, but that of an advanced and experience professional, such as the PMP mentioned in the article.

    The wording of “certificate program” can be misleading, because it implies a course of study that will end in a certificate of some sort. The difference is that a “certification program” ends in an accredited certification, while a “certificate program” ends in only a certificate of completion.

    These certificate programs that offer only proof of completion, do not attest to a level of competency, and while possibly a useful first step into an industry, are by no means a test of ability comparable to a certification.

    I hope this helped to clarify a bit, please let me know if I only made it more confusing, lol!

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