Certification is defined by the National Organization for Competency Assurance as:
"The process by which a non-governmental agency or association grants recognition of competence to an individual who has met predetermined qualifications specified by that agency or association."
So what exactly does that mean? While not equivalent to an actual degree, holding a certificate may communicate to an employer you’ve attained a certain level of competency in a particular area. Rather than providing subject-specific specialization, certificate programs tend to focus more on building skills for specific trades. Some certifications are prerequisites for employment, while others may complement your Bachelor’s or Master’s degree by indicating you’ve pursued additional studies enhancing your knowledge of a certain issue. Certificate programs generally between six months to two years.
When deciding whether to pursue a certificate, it’s wise to determine:
(a) Whether a certificate is sufficient for the job you’re seeking
(b) The credentials of the certification agency.
The Certification and Accreditation Programs Directory* offers a few key questions to ask during your certificate program search process, including:
1. What is the reputation of the issuing organization?
2. Do the benefits of the certification justify the cost?
3. What are the requirements and costs for recertification?
4. Are there educational and experiential requirements for the certification? (Experience requirements are an important consideration for career-changers since they could prevent one from using a certification to move into a new career quickly.)
5. Is the certification national in scope as well as recognized outside the U.S.?
Less time and money than a Bachelor’s degree, or even, in some cases, an Associate’s degree, Certificate programs have enjoyed significant growth over the past few years. According to the Certification and Accreditation Programs Directory*, nearly 1,600 certifications exist. And they’re in all kinds of fields. Some of the more common career paths requiring a certification are:
1. Teaching. All teachers must have their Bachelor’s degree before obtaining their certification. Some also opt to do a Master’s degree.
2. Bodywork. A Bachelor’s degree is not required for body workers, but certifications usually are. Most massage therapists have completed certifications. All Rolfers have.
3. Information Technology. A huge variety of IT certifications exist, and a Bachelor’s degree is not a prerequisite.
4. Health Care. Medical Assistants, Lab Assistants, and Pharmacy Technicians all need certifications.
5. Real Estate. This is a difficult, but potentially highly lucrative, certification, with no Bachelor’s degree required.
Certificate programs may be a good option for an individual interested in expanding their expertise in their field, or developing more specialized technical knowledge to improve their ability to perform in their career. They may also be useful in taking a person’s career in a new direction.
*Paré, M. A. (1999). Certification and accreditation programs directory: a descriptive guide to national voluntary certification and accreditation programs for professionals and institutions (2nd ed.). Detroit: Gale.