3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Getting a Professional Certification

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Whether you work in IT, accounting, or another field, you may come across some colleagues with fancy certifications listed on their resumes. Unlike an advanced degree, a professional certification doesn't require several years of graduate school. Obtaining one is often a matter of taking a course, or series of courses, and passing an exam, or series of exams.

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Though the specific process varies depending on the type of certification you're going for, in a nutshell, getting that piece of paper could help your career in several ways. First, getting certified means you've taken the time to become truly proficient in your field, so it could open the door to new employment opportunities -- not to mention buy you a degree of job security. Furthermore, a certification might help with your networking efforts, which can also help your career in a number of ways.

On the other hand, depending on your industry and what you do, getting certified could wind up being not only a waste of time, but a waste of money. Before you pursue that certification, ask yourself the following questions.

1. Is it worth the cost?

The cost of getting certified can vary significantly depending on what it is you're going for. While some certifications might cost just a few hundred dollars, others might cost you thousands, especially if you're required to pay a great deal for coursework, training materials, or exams. As such, you'll need to run some numbers to see whether you're likely to make up that outlay in the form of higher compensation, and how long it'll take to get there.

Imagine you're an IT professional looking to get certified in a specific program. If the cost to do so is just $500, but you stand to gain a $2,000 salary boost once you have that certification under your belt, then the decision is pretty much a no-brainer, at least from a monetary perspective. But if you're looking at shelling out thousands of dollars for a certification that's unlikely to change your salary, you may want to think twice before spending that money.

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Of course, there are some less obvious financial benefits to consider as well. If your certification makes you a more valuable employee to your company, you'll be less likely to get downsized than those around you. Additionally, if your certification enables you to start pursuing a job you find more enjoyable than your current one, the investment might be worth it, even if there's not much financially to be gained. The key, however, is to think about whether that certification is worth its cost, and make a decision accordingly.

2. What will I need to do to maintain it?

Getting certified generally isn't a simple matter of taking a test, filling out some paperwork, and calling it a day. Many professional certifications come with hefty maintenance requirements, whether it's continuing education classes, follow-up exams, or both. For example, to keep your certification, you may need to put in 10 hours a year at seminars or classes only offered out of town or on weekends. While this shouldn't necessarily be a deal-breaker, be sure to find out what you're really signing up for before getting certified.

3. Will this lead me toward the role I really want?

Some people pursue certifications to give their resumes a boost. But if you get certified in something you really have no interest in doing, you ultimately won't end up benefiting.

Say you work in IT and get certified in a specific software because you think it'll boost your salary or give you additional job security. If that software is something you don't want to spend your days working with, then there's no sense in getting certified in it just to stick it on your resume. On the other hand, if you're looking to move up in your company and get certified as a project manager, it could be just the thing that lands you a promotion.

Keep in mind, too, that some certifications are more universally helpful than others by nature. Using the above example, getting certified as a project manager could help you pursue a career in a number of industries. On the other hand, if you obtain a certification in a specific software program that only a handful of companies use, you'll have fewer options for putting it to actual use.

Getting a professional certification can be a smart career move, and one that serves you well for many years to come. Just make sure you've done your homework before investing your time and money into the process.

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