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There are many optional certificates out there that may help a career, but also many that are just a waste of time and money.

What factors should I consider to determine if a certificate will help me in my career or not? What questions can I ask to help evaluate a certificate's worth to me?

PLEASE NOTE: I'm looking for a comprehensive answer to this question, and not short answers that will only tell me one part of the answer. Please edit the Community Wiki answer to share your knowledge.

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I like this, but this question and answer operate on the assumption that having a certificate can never actually harm your career. For instance, if the accrediting institution has a poor reputation (W3Schools, etc...) –  maple_shaft Dec 18 '12 at 20:14
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@maple_shaft That's a good point to make. Perhaps you could edit the community wiki answer below to include a section under "Industry Considerations" about how and why some certifications can potentially harm your career, and what to watch out for? –  Rachel Dec 18 '12 at 20:18
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From a personal experience - and I'm not suggesting this is an answer - I've worked with a department who had a couple of poor candidates who held SCJP. After these bad experiences, SCJP became almost a black mark for people applying to join us. So, it can be a case of "in the eye of the beholder". Sometimes, even if the certification is good, CV vetters will form their own opinions of certs based on their experiences. –  BunjiquoBianco Dec 19 '12 at 9:54

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Here are some questions you can ask yourself when trying to decide if you should get an optional certificate or not:

Industry Considerations

Things to consider across your industry - these answers should be true across a discipline or type of business. They typically evolve over time, but slowly.

  • How often is the certificate requested in job descriptions?

    If a certificate is mentioned in a large percentage of job descriptions, then naturally getting the certificate will increase the number of jobs you can apply for, therefore increasing your changes at getting a job in the industry you've chosen.

  • How often is the certificate requested in customer requests/contracts?

    In many cases, a job description including a request for a certificate represents an ongoing demand on the part of customers that employees have this certificate. Perhaps the goes beyond "optional", although in industries where certification practices are evolving, this is a likely case, and if it continues as an increasing trend over time, it just may become a required certificate.

  • Is the certificate widely recognized within your industry?

    It's very unlikely a certificate is worth getting if nobody in the industry has ever heard of the certificate before. Be sure you check that the certificate is one that is recognized within the industry.

  • Is the certificate viewed negatively by the industry in your area?

    Some certificates have a negative reputation, and can actually be harmful to your job prospects. This is usually a problem localized to a small geographic area or within an agency, however it can happen if the accrediting institution has a poor reputation, teaches substandard information, or is known to certify unqualified people.

  • Is there a pay differential associated with this certificate?

    Note, this is both industry related and personally focused. Most of the time, an optional certificate won't have an industry-wide standard of higher pay, but there may be trends. Sometimes even a salary search site can tell you whether there's any large scale data here.

  • Are there ongoing benefits?

    Networking opportunities, certificate-holders-only materials and information, special deals - there can be ways to improve yourself post-certificate that are less obvious than direct salary increases.

Individual Considerations

Things that are unique to each person.

  • How much relevant work experience do you have?

    Certificates are often used to make up for a lack of work experience. If you have very little relevant work experience, a certificate is a great way to show you have some knowledge and/or interested related to the job.

    However if you have plenty of related work experience to show off during an interview, than a certificate is less likely to be the deciding factor between if you get a job or not.

  • Are you actually looking for a job?

    The main point of most optional certificates is to increase your marketability when searching for a job. If you already have a job and are not seeking another job, an optional certificate is unlikely to be as much of value to you.

  • How difficult is the accreditation to obtain?

    The hardest won skills usually have the highest overall value. Similarly, some certifications have a reputation for being challenging, with high standards, a high "fail rate" and the need for retakes. Others serve more to demonstrate that you attended a course. One benchmark for this is to find out if significant "home study" outside of the course is usually required to pass and gain accreditation.

  • Can you ask for a higher salary just because you have this certificate?

    In most cases, probably not, but sometimes you can request a higher pay rate if you have more education, so don't forget to look into this if it applies. Also, keep in mind that the trends on a salary site and your personal experience are slightly different. Just getting the certificate may not be the reason that anyone gets a pay increase - but many people who get a valuable certificate become more highly paid because they use that valuable knowledge to improve their work.

  • Do you have an educational gap?

    Sometimes an extra certificate can bridge an educational gap. There can be cases where there's a traditional path through a career, but with enough hands on experience, the educational side doesn't matter. That said, some certificate programs can help fill the gap of knowledge areas that aren't really taught on the job, but are assumed to be understood. I see this particularly in technical areas that change over time, or fields where there is no one true way.

  • Does the subject matter of the certificate actually interest you?

    Since this question is specifically about optional certificates, I would not recommend wasting time/money on a piece of paper if you don't have any interest in the subject at all.

Barriers to Entry

Things to consider that make the certificate harder to get. Sometimes a relatively useless looking certificate may be worthwhile if it is cheap and easy to get and has good potential.

  • How expensive is the certificate?

    Some certificates are simply not worth the price. Before spending a lot of money on a certificate, be sure the job that certificate will help you get is one that pays enough to justify the certification cost.

  • How much work will the certificate take?

    Certificate programs can be as simple as taking a test (if you already have the knowledge) or as hard as a year or more of study with homework every week. It's a mix of technical material and the individual's existing experience to say for sure how many man-hours a certification process will take. But bear in mind that there are definitely differences between certificates that are a pass/fail test vs. certificates based on a body of study and coursework. Both what you get out of them, and what you put in can vary greatly.

  • How expensive is sustaining the certificate?

    Some certificate programs can have a sustaining requirement. In technical areas, for example, many certifications can require proof of continuing education. That my improve the reputation of the certificate program, but it also leverages an ongoing requirement on the certificate holder. Not to mention the cost and frequency of renewel fees.

Other Considerations

  • Have you checked with co-workers about this certificate?

    In a team environment, it may be worth asking co-workers for their opinion of the certificate. If most have it then that could be a clue that it is common and worth having to better blend into the team. On the other hand, this could be a way to bring something new into an organization. This is similar to the recognized/viewed negatively questions but a bit more specific to within an organization.

I would also recommend reading through the answers to the question Are certifications worth it? on Programmers.SE. It provides some other insight on certificates, although it is speaking specifically about programming certificates, and not certificates in general.

But last of all, don't forget the deciding factor is You. If you really want a certificate, don't let any of these factors affect your decision. Go for it!


This is a community wiki answer because I would like the community to help keep this answer comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date. If you feel you can add anything to it, please feel free to edit it and include additional information.

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@bethlakshmi Great edit, thank you! :) –  Rachel Dec 18 '12 at 19:28
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Great to see a community wiki out there! Thanks for raising it! –  bethlakshmi Dec 18 '12 at 20:56

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