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The Nth Degree

One IT pro's dilemma that may sound all too familiar: certification or degree.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm nowhere near qualified to help people with their career questions, but occasionally I do get an e-mail from someone who's struggling to decide what next to do in their life. Nearly all of these e-mails have the same ring to them: “Hey Greg, what should I do? Go get a university degree or start down the path of certification?”

Not long ago I received an e-mail from one reader along these lines, so I've decided to share his story with you. He's asked me not to share his identity, but his story is a common one:

Dear Greg: I am looking into pursuing either a Master's degree in a computer related field or working on certifications. Right now, I work as an IT Administrator for a civil engineering firm. I have been working here for the past three years. We are a small firm of about 20 people and I am the only IT guy here. In my job, I install and maintain software/hardware on users' machines, work on problems with computer equipment and update the company's Web site. I have also become pretty familiar with networking equipment like switches and firewalls and am somewhat familiar with Windows Server 2003.

My bachelor's degree is in Communications. Since that time, I have worked as a Computer Aided Drafting technician in various firms and have helped with computer-related issues in every job. I would like to continue working in the IT field, since that is what I love to do. I would maybe like to get a job in either networking, systems administration or IT security. Would pursuing a degree be better for me at this point, or should I just pursue certifications?

My response: I'm not technically qualified to give out any career advice, so you'll have to take any comments here as just my personal thoughts. To be honest, other than getting me in the door at my first job, my degree has done little for my own personal career path. My certifications have gone farther in helping people understand -- or, at least, believe -- that I know what I'm talking about and they should trust me to work on their systems.

It really goes down to what you want to do. Having either the degree or the certs will get you nowhere if you're not a go-getter that people want to trust with their expensive network equipment. If you have that air of trustworthiness and experience, the certs go far in offering evidence to people that you've proven yourself.

Oddly enough, if you don't have that air of experience the certs sometimes can backfire. You should make sure that your level of certification matches your actual experience. There's no greater put-off than when a certified person comes into a position or an interview and it is immediately obvious that they don't have any real-world experience. That's the true genesis of the “paper MCSE” problem.

What should you do? I'd suggest doing the things that are easiest/fastest/cheapest first. Nabbing a few certs is quite a bit easier/faster/cheaper than completing a Master's degree program. If you're a quick learner and have the experience, you should be able to knock off at least one of the easier ones relatively quickly. Make sure it relates to your current position and responsibilities.

Consider sitting down with your employer before you start and ask them to pay for books, tests or give you the promise of a raise when you finish. In my experience, as long as you don't ask for expensive classroom training, you'll usually get what you want. The total dollar outlay to your employer for a set of study materials and a few tests is still quite a bit less than a single classroom training session.

At my last corporate job, I always had good luck asking them for a raise associated with a cert -- as long as I asked before I ever started on the cert. It shows them that you are making positive career progress and, more importantly, makes you less of a flight risk.

Tech Help -- Just An
E-Mail Away

Got a Windows, Exchange or virtualization question or need troubleshooting help? Or maybe you want a better explanation than provided in the manuals? Describe your dilemma in an e-mail to the MCPmag.com editors at [email protected]; the best questions get answered in this column and garner the questioner with a nifty Redmond T-shirt.

When you send your questions, please include your full first and last name, location, certifications (if any) with your message. (If you prefer to remain anonymous, specify this in your message, but submit the requested information for verification purposes.)

Then, if the certs don't work out the way you want, consider the Master's degree.

What are your thoughts? In the IT field, do Master's degrees provide a level of return equal to the time and cost to obtain them? Is well-played certification really beneficial to a person? Drop a comment below or send me an e-mail. I'd love to hear your story.

About the Author

Greg Shields is Author Evangelist with PluralSight, and is a globally-recognized expert on systems management, virtualization, and cloud technologies. A multiple-year recipient of the Microsoft MVP, VMware vExpert, and Citrix CTP awards, Greg is a contributing editor for Redmond Magazine and Virtualization Review Magazine, and is a frequent speaker at IT conferences worldwide. Reach him on Twitter at @concentratedgreg.

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