When you stop to think about it, it's amazing how much can be learned just doing your job. However, there comes a time when it's necessary to learn more. Perhaps you've been working for awhile in an area you like, but notice that people with a bit more learning are being promoted past you. Perhaps management is opening a new business area or installing new software, or perhaps you're interested in moving into management yourself. You want to move up or change, yet wonder how you will devote time to studying, since your life is already filled with responsibilities.
The majority of adults make educational choices based on occupational requirements, and it's no wonder, since the Department of Labor predicts that the average worker will change careers five to seven times in his or her lifetime. That includes both the subtle shifts in career like the evolution from programmer to IT manager, as well as more abrupt changes caused by job elimination and life events. Many people turn to certifications as an agent of change or renewal. More and more, these certificates and certifications are available online.
Assessing the Options
It all begins with you: What do you need to achieve your goals? Whether you are beginning a career, learning new skills for your present job, pursuing an interest or learning simply for the sake of learning, online learning can meet a variety of needs. In addition, the list of courses and programs available online is growing daily.
Be sure to research the requirements for any career you are considering. A good source of career-related information is the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Once you have decided what you need to learn and how you will apply it in the short run, it is important to think ahead. This can save time and money, especially if a certificate is a stepping stone to a degree.
In order to make appropriate choices, it is important to know your own abilities and research the requirements and opportunities education can provide. Previous newsletters have focused on self-evaluation on goal-setting and on questions to ask educational providers to assure a beneficial experience. Whether the experience is limited to a certificate or requires a complete degree is determined by your needs and goals. There are several questions to ask yourself that will help guide your decision.
Do I need a Certificate or Certification?
One of the crucial questions to answer is whether you require certification for your chosen field. Many professions, including many in the health care and financial fields, as well as technical and computer careers, require certification to obtain employment in a specific capacity, like network administration or laboratory technology. Certification is generally based on experience or an apprenticeship and satisfactory results of a testing sequence. It may or may not include classes and degree requirements, but certification itself is determined by testing. What do you really need?
Certificate programs, on the other hand, generally consist of groups of four to six courses in a particular topic area, such as a Certificate in Network Management. They can be developed and offered by a college department of professional development division, a trade school, a software vendor, the federal government, or anyone else who can create course objectives and determine how and when to teach the material. Certificate programs can be valuable learning experiences or simply ways for those who offer them to make money.
You must do the research, based on your needs, to ensure that any certificate you are considering is a worthwhile one. What does the program prepare you for? How many people have successfully completed the program? If possible, speak with former students about their experiences both during and after the classes. If certification testing is necessary, do the classes prepare you for them? Ask people who do the work you want to do if the certificate you are considering will help prepare you for that work, and ask them what else you should look for in a training or preparatory program.
Do I Need a Credit or Non-Credit Program?
Your deliberations should include the question of credit-bearing as opposed to non-credit learning. There are plusses and minuses to each, depending upon your needs. Generally speaking, non-credit certificates cover a wider range of options, most of them career-focused. They can be offered by anyone, from trade schools to individuals, corporations to the Federal government. They are usually specific to an area, as opposed to a more general college course. For example, a real estate management certificate will cover only real estate concerns and will not include material related to retail or banking management.
Consider, also, the financial ramifications of credit-bearing versus non-credit certificates. Non-credit certificates may be available at a lower tuition cost, but are usually not eligible for Federal financial aid. If your employer offers tuition reimbursement, be sure of the conditions that govern the program. Many employers will reimburse only for credit-bearing work completed with a satisfactory grade. Include these factors in your deliberations.
Credit-earning certificates are offered by colleges or have been evaluated for credit by the American Council on Education. There are more restrictions placed on the creation of these programs, which must adhere to accreditation standards. (For information on accreditation see the distance learning FAQs.) However, they can offer greater flexibility to the students that complete them. Credit-earning certificates can often be applied toward the completion of a degree, since these certificates are often taken from a required group of degree courses in the major or minor. Non-credit certificate courses usually do not transfer into a college program.
If you have been thinking about completing a bachelor's degree, a certificate can be a good first step. For example, a certificate in Information Systems Management can be included in a computer degree later. Often, certificates in one field can become concentrations in another. The same Information Systems certificate could possibly be included in requirements to complete a degree in business, management, or even art or education! Conversely, you can complete a certificate program such as those offered by many community colleges even if you already have a 4-year degree. Many people use this method as a way to upgrade skills in their field or add competencies to their resumes. As stated earlier, it all depends on where you are and where you want your learning to take you.
Do I need Graduate Level Learning?
Some careers require learning beyond an undergraduate (4-year, or bachelor's) degree. These include certifications for teaching, as well as many other professions. A complete Master's degree may not be required but, again, a graduate certificate can provide a good start on a complete degree. A graduate certificate is also a good way for those who already have an advanced degree to earn additional credentials to update or change career direction.
Some examples of graduate certificates and the degrees they could be a part of include:
Reading Specialist or Technology Integration certification (Master of Education).
Leadership Studies or Benefits Management (Master of Business Administration).
Network Management (Master of Science in Management Information Systems).
Some graduate certificate programs join two disciplines, like computing and engineering, and can be transferred into a range of degree programs depending on your desires. Even if your certificate cannot transfer entirely into a degree program, several courses (assuming satisfactory grades) can usually fulfill electives requirements.
Keep in mind that acceptance in graduate-level programs can be quite competitive. Admission requirements can include a statement of purpose, prior transcripts, references, and/or additional prerequisites to indicate your readiness for and seriousness about pursuing education. After all, graduate work is more difficult and requires strong academic skills. Inadequate preparation can lead to frustration and lack of completion.
Where Do I Start?
To save time, money and energy, work backwards from your final goal, if you know what it is. If you think you might want to complete an MBA, for example, start with a certificate that will help you in your current work situation. Then, if you decide to complete an MBA later, you will have a head start. If you are considering a Master's degree, and haven't studied online, consider starting with an online certificate. Do check to be sure that it can be transferred into a degree program.
Make a list of the items that are important to you. Are you interested in a degree or not? Is completion within a specific timeframe necessary? Must the learning be employer-funded? Must it fit into a hectic travel schedule? What student services are available? Is the school accredited to supply the learning you need? What are your lifestyle and family needs? All of these questions will help to narrow the choices, and to keep your goal in mind when the options seem overwhelming.
All programs are not alike! Look closely at the curriculum, the list of courses required to earn the certificate. From the titles and course descriptions you should be able to tell what areas are emphasized, the background required and the final application expected. The program objectives should be plainly stated, and provide a clear idea of what you will gain from completing the course of study.
The Process, in a Nutshell
Determine the requirements for achieving your goal.
List your lifestyle, family, time, financial and other requirements.
Research educational providers to find those that most closely match your goals.
Fulfill admissions requirements and procedures.
Get ready to learn!