If you have ever seen a person’s name written with a handful of letters behind it, you’ve probably seen someone who has earned a certification.

Certification is a formal process that ensures people have at least a baseline of skills and knowledge in their field. This is not the same thing as being able to work legally in a profession, which is known as licensure. Like certification, licensure requires you to demonstrate certain competencies to work in your field. Licensure is typically controlled by a governmental agency and is intended to protect the public, so you cannot work without it. Certification, on the other hand, is typically administered by companies and professional associations and is voluntary.

To become certified, you must prove that you have a certain level of experience and possibly pass a test offered by a company or professional association. In some cases, you must have a few years of experience in your profession before you are even able to apply for certification. Once you complete the requirements for certification, the company or association will deem you “certified.”

The idea behind certification is to prove to employers that you possess a basic level of knowledge and skills in that discipline. People pursue certification to set themselves apart from other candidates applying for jobs. Certification can also influence your ability to receive a promotion within a field and enable you to ask for a higher salary when you do.

Certifications are available in many fields, including information technology, teaching, accounting, and especially health care. The certification process can test a broad range of skills, such as those offered for teachers, or they can be highly specific, such as a certification for cardiac vascular nursing.

There are advantages and disadvantages to certification. Certification will often get you recognized within your industry, increase job opportunities, and enable you to earn a higher salary. It also allows you to prove that you are competent in one area without having to devote time to extraneous subjects, which you would have to do to earn a college degree. Most certifications can be obtained through self-study, though some companies require you to take their courses to become certified to work on their products. This is particularly common in the information technology field.

Colleges often perceive a certification as less prestigious than a degree. Few colleges or universities recognize certifications and are willing to translate them into college credit if you later decide to pursue a degree in your field. Some argue that certification tends to be perceived the way that trade education was in the past, so universities and even employers may be predisposed to see you as a tradesperson and not necessarily as a professional.


Another disadvantage to certification is that you will probably have to recertify after a specified period. Some certifications are issued for a lifetime, but most will lapse after a set number of years and you will be required to demonstrate your competency again to remain certified.

The expense of becoming certified varies depending on the field. Some information technology certifications have multiple tests, which can cost a few hundred dollars each to take. In general, higher-paying careers mean more expensive certifications; for example, a teacher will pay less to become certified than an information technology specialist.

How long it takes to prepare for certification also depends on the industry. Some certification processes can be completed at home in just a few months and require little more than providing evidence of your experience in the field. Other certifications require you to take English courses and pass rigorous exams. It can take more than a year to prepare for these types of certifications. While more challenging certifications can be difficult to complete around work and family schedules, becoming certified may translate into a better paying and more prestigious job, so it may be worth the investment of time and money.

Before seeking a certification, it is prudent to approach people in the field who have the certification to find out whether becoming certified made a difference in their career options. If they say the certification led to a promotion or higher salary, you may want to pursue it. If other professionals tell you it did not make much of a difference, it may be best to forgo certification and pursue other educational options such as a college degree.

Either way, you will be better able to decide if having that string of letters behind your name is worth the time and money to become certified.


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