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A Degree in IT vs. Certifications: Which is Better?

Nov 21, 2012 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 1 Comments

If you’re planning to go into the IT industry, which is better—holding a Bachelor’s degree (or higher) in a technical field, or earning a boatload of certifications? Unfortunately, there’s no straight answer—which is better for you depends on a variety of factors. Here are a few things to consider when questioning whether to just earn another certification or invest in a degree program.

Who’ll be making the decision to call you in for an interview

The reality is that, in many cases, HR managers—who may or may not have a technical background—will be doing at least the initial screening. And in some cases, they’re more likely to understand and respond to an
online bachelor’s degree than they are to know
what the latest certifications are.

If it’s someone with a technical background giving the resumes an initial screening, however, they’re more likely to value and understand those IT certifications. The reality is that most of the time, you won’t have any idea who’s making the hiring decisions—and you’ll have to guess.

The idea of Bachelor’s degree as screening device

In some areas of IT, you can get an entry-level job without a degree—especially if you have certifications and hands-on experience. However, in this economy, employers can afford to be picky—and you’ll be competing with a lot of people who have four-year degrees. If you don’t have a degree in information technology and want to get into the field, it could be worth your while to earn one—simply because a Bachelor’s is often used as one of the first criteria when sorting resumes into yes and no piles.

How old your degree is

Bear in mind that IT is a constantly evolving field. And if your Bachelor’s degree is ten or even five years old, the expertise you earned could be dated. If that’s the case, certifications are a great way to demonstrate that you have a strong educational background in the latest technologies—and shows you’ve had to demonstrate your knowledge fairly recently.

Your company’s policies on promotion

Some companies have policies that state specifically that you must have a four-year degree to advance to a management-level role. If you’ve been in the IT department for a while, you want that promotion, and you don’t have a degree, you should probably earn it—and you may even be able to get your company to pay the tuition bill.

You need specialized expertise

Some companies are small enough to only need one IT person with generalized expertise. But others have large IT departments and hire staff with lots of different specialties. If you’re looking to get hired at one of these companies, it definitely helps to have certifications in specific areas. Many companies put more emphasis on certifications when looking to fill highly technical and specialized positions.

You already have a degree—in the wrong field

Maybe you already have a four-year degree in something outside of the tech field—and you want to break into IT. No matter how much self-taught knowledge you have, you may have a hard time getting hired with very little job experience and, say, a fine arts degree. If that’s the case for you, you may not be able or willing to invest in four more years of your life and more tuition money on going back to school to earn another Bachelor’s degree. Certifications can demonstrate your expertise instead—and they’ll take much less time and money to earn.

The bottom line is that it’s usually the best case scenario to have a degree in an IT-related field and specialized certifications as well. If that’s not possible, there are pros and cons to each scenario. An IT degree, either from a traditional school or an accredited online college [], demonstrates depth and breadth of knowledge, and Bachelor’s degrees are often required for entry-level work. However, a degree can become dated, and you may require specialized expertise. That’s where the certification comes in. Do some research into the hiring practices of people in the area of IT where you want to work, and you should be able to gauge which would be most valuable for you in your area of expertise.


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