“Should I get a master’s degree or a certification?” It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot over the years. And my answer is usually an ironic, “Yes.” Asking, “Should I get a master’s degree or a certification?” is like asking, “Should I have an apple or should I have turkey and dressing with giblet gravy?”
A certification and a degree are not equivalent. Believe me, I know. I have both. I’ve taught in both kinds of programs. Thus, it makes me irrationally crazy when I see a certification described as “the MBA of” any field. It’s not the MBA of a field. An MBA is an MBA (did I mention I’m a professor in a business school?). But I digress.
A certification—be it a CMP, CMM or one of the many other valuable options available—is a great professional development tool when you want to fine-tune skills or knowledge within a fairly well-defined framework. The content is consistent and it can usually be achieved within a short period of time. While sometimes including strategic elements, it tends to be focused on more discrete topics out of necessity due to the timeframe. It’s recognized within an industry or professional segment but may or may not be known outside the industry.
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A degree, on the other hand, is an expedition into a body of knowledge. The focus of most advanced degrees is strategic and I would venture to say that no two degrees are alike. Ten students can take exactly the same classes in the same master’s degree program at exactly the same time and they will all come out with something different because you get a certain freedom to customize, to integrate your professional experience into the curriculum, to poke and prod at the materials and challenge the professors and theories over an extended period of time based on your unique experiences until you come out with a common base of knowledge layered with unique experiences and projects that make a master’s degree a one-of-a-kind experience.
The beauty is, you don’t have to choose a certification or a degree. You can do both. Or either. Or several of either or both. That’s the beauty of educational credentials. There’s no one-size-fits-all, but there’s probably a credential for everyone. When people ask me which they should get, I ask them these questions:
- How much time do you have to devote to it? In the short-term? In the long-term?
- Why do you want a credential? Personal gratification? Do you think it will help you get a promotion? A raise? A new job?
- What kind of credentials do others who have the promotion/title/job you want have?
- Do you think you’ll go on for additional credentials in the future?
Answering these questions can help guide a person to what may be their first (or only) credential or may lead them to another path altogether. The credential alone, however, doesn’t make the person a better meeting planner or salesperson or whatever. Again, this is not to disparage certifications or degrees. Clearly, I’m a believer. My point is that you can get the credentials, but you have to apply the learning and continue learning for it to truly help you professionally. Both certifications and degrees are based on a body of knowledge. You can master the body of knowledge, great or small. But what you do with it from there is what makes you a professional…or just a person with a credential.
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And what if you are thinking, “But I don’t even want a credential?” In my mind, that’s okay, too, as long as you never stop learning. Credentials aren’t for everyone. And there are plenty of non-credentialed learning opportunities out there. There’s nothing to say that a credentialed person is smarter or more knowledgeable than one without. For example, my mother finished high school when she was in her 30s with a GED. My father earned a master’s degree. With absolutely no offense to my dear father, matching wits with my mother was a far more formidable experience for me, even after I earned four degrees and a certification. Mom used to say, “There are common sense smarts and there are book smarts.” Then she’d give me a look that told me that she put my father and I in that latter (and from her perspective, inferior) category.
Some of us just do better with “book learning” than others. It happens to be something I enjoy very much, wrapping my arms around a body of knowledge, learning from experts, feeling I’ve mastered it and getting some kind of credential—whether a certification or a degree—for it. It’s almost a game for me, like running an obstacle course and capturing the flag at the end. But I know others in and outside our industry who struggle mightily with the kind of learning I do for fun. My mom and dad were polar opposites. My brother and I are, too. College was not his thing, but not because he’s not smart—he’s very smart. There is no machine he can’t figure out, including cars. He builds houses and says he thinks in three-dimensional blue prints, which blows my mind. In education, we call this “differently smart.” And we haven’t yet figured out the andragogy (methods and principles used in adult education) of how to offer the same credentials in ways that reach those who are differently smart. So, if you are differently smart, keep learning your own way until we catch up to you. We’re trying!
Whether you’re seeking a degree or a professional certification, there are numerous scholarship programs available to help fund your growth.
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