There's an ongoing debate in the IT field about whether or not you need certifications or degrees to advance in your career. Frankly, it would be easier to answer the chicken and egg problem! Most of the time people will answer “it depends.” But there are good reasons why the answer differs depending on how much experience you have, what area within IT you are most interested in, what job you want to apply for, and what career path you have in mind. For most in the field today, however, the answer usually is do both, because the certification and the degree combined qualify you for a career path in which a certificate or a degree by themselves wouldn't suffice.

Sure getting both sounds easy enough, but doubling up will involve a lot more work than simply choosing one over the other. To help ease you into the process, I'll provide you with a few steps to remember while upgrading your skills and advancing your career.

The first step should be to earn an appropriate certification for your IT field. Recent data from both IT leaders and HR hiring experts indicates that you have a clear advantage over your competition, especially in security, if you have a certification. In 2011 InfoSecLeaders conducted a survey of more than 1,300 people ranging from individual contributors to executive leadership. Here are some key findings from their survey.

  • An overwhelming number (80.3 percent) of those who have obtained a certification believe that the time/money spent was a good use of their resources, and 39.7 percent of respondents believe that certification is the most important investment that they can make in their careers.
  • Further, this value is increasing – more than half of respondents somewhat or strongly agree that certifications have increased in value over the past five years.
  • More than half of the respondents (77 percent) somewhat or strongly agreed that holding a certification gets them access to more job opportunities and 54 percent reported that they have received a job or a promotion because they held a particular certification.
  • Nearly half of the certified respondents (46.1 percent) believe that certifications provide an advantage even when competing with those who have greater experience (but are uncertified themselves).

It's important to ensure that the certification you seek is keeping up with current standards. The association responsible for the certification has a responsibility to keep the best interests of their members in mind. For example, in the field of security, the standards are changing rapidly given new technologies and new threats. Make sure that the certification you seek has stayed abreast of the current trends and is still valued in the marketplace.

Next, you need to add a degree in your IT field. Getting a degree might seem like a lot of work. But most education institutions are aware of workplace requirements for their graduates and implement changes in their programs to meet these requirements. Several education institutions will look at your professional certifications as validation of knowledge you have already obtained in your field and award degree credit accordingly. That limits redundant learning and allows you to complete your degree with reduced cost and faster time to completion. But even more importantly, it lets you advance your career by checking two of the requirements listed most frequently by employers: certification and degree.

Just as you need to be sure that the certification is up-to-date, you need to be sure that the degree meets your needs. When reviewing a degree program, these questions might provide helpful guidelines.

  • Will you learn not only the most current technical skills but also the people skills you will need to distinguish yourself on the job?
  • Does the degree help you to integrate both business and technical skills so that you can solve the complex problems of today's employers?
  • Does the degree help you in becoming innovative and flexible?

The value of a degree is in helping you to understand the application of your IT skills in today's work environments. Becoming a better problem-solver, especially for those vexing workplace problems without a correct answer, is a value that a degree can provide.

After getting a certification and degree, be sure to highlight these achievements on your resume. Most organizations use either an HR professional or a technology solution to filter the resumes to fit the job. The most frequently used filter is for your degree level, but in IT, filtering for specific certifications is often common. For more technical organizations, the certification is often a key filter. The following from the NextGov website states this succinctly.

“While certifications are needed to get past the HR filters, hiring IT professionals who continue to educate themselves is important.”

The final step is to rinse, wash, and repeat. In other words, add certifications and degrees as needed for your career path. The more you advance, the more likely you will need to add additional certifications and another degree. As you advance, the certifications or the degrees will help to differentiate you as someone who wants to advance as a manager or someone who wants to become the super-tech.

There are even programs where you can turn your certification (CCNA for example) into bachelor's or master's credit. Just do some digging around Google.