The Truth About Certifications

Recently, I've spoken with several people who've wanted to build on their education and add certifications to their name. They've been curious who to go to, what programs are best, and so on and so forth.

Many of these same people begin with the assumption that certifications are worthwhile. And I'm here to tell you that in most cases, they're not.

But now, if you're tempted at this point to disregard this article on those merits alone, first consider this: certifications are for developing skills you don't have, and college degrees are for getting jobs you can't get. Period.

Which means, there are reasons to get degrees and certifications. They just need to be the right ones. That's what this article is really all about.

PREVIEW: "If you have certifications, they should merely validate aspects of your story. They aren't your story."

We've all seen 'em. You know, those LinkedIn types who've got more acronyms than letters to their name? There's almost a typology of people now based on the number of commas they use after their name that describes who they are, how they think, and how others perceive them.

Well, let's put a coaching tip right out there at the outset: if that's you, just stop doing it. We don't care about your [commas + ABC]. We care about your story.

Certifications don't tell your story. They don't even add much to your story, unless you're smart enough and lucky enough to score a certification program that actually adds significant shaping value to your life or your work. And don't forget that phrase, shaping value, it's important to remember.

When you post acronym after acronym right next to your name in your profile, what kind of message do you think it sends?

Clinical. Intellectual. Better-than-thou. Trying to prove yourself. Needs resumè to tell story. Needs resumè to be valued by others. Needs resumè. Needs resumè. Needs needs needs resumè.

You get the point.

Stop defining yourself with acronyms and be OK with your name. If others are inclined to care, they'll look or ask for your story. If you have certifications, they should merely validate aspects of your story. They aren't your story.

And here's the deal, if your certifications don't contribute to or validate the story you share, then they mean nothing. Absolutely nothing.

By now you've realized that telling your story should not emphasize certifications but that certifications should emphasize your story. But really, why get certifications in the first place?

Glad you asked.

If you want a certain skill and can't get it for free or on-the-job, then get a certification. That's it. The only reason.

While it is possible that someone out there will hire you for a job if you have a certain certification, that most typically applies to technical certifications like welding, project management, or IT engineering. They teach you practical skills needed to perform certain tasks for specific, usually higher-than-entry-level jobs.

So, certifications are all about skills at the end of the day.

For example, if you studied information technology in school and used that degree to get you a job developing apps for a software company but would like to move up into a management role, what do you think might be a good next step?

Well, some think an MBA with an emphasis in IT Management makes sense. But in many cases, that's not really necessary to get that management role. What's more needed in today's development environments are people who are Agile certified and know how to deploy tasks to the right people in the right ways at the right times to get the work done faster, better, and with less re-work.

So, Agile certifications are smart. They're cheap compared to MBAs. They're transferrable across industry, since they're a management perspective in general. And many people-leading roles require the knowledge and ability to deploy Agile perspectives.

The point being: if that's you, find a way to get Agile onto your list of accomplishments (I mean, "skills"). There's a future and a use value there.

And there are certainly many others that are worthwhile. Ultimately, the test you should be applying when asking the question, "Should I get a certification?" is: what skill could I not obtain otherwise that I need to perform to do what I'm ultimately here to do?

That's the linkage between story and work. Your work should reflect what you're here to do on this earth, and your certifications (if any) should specifically help you do that work in ways you wouldn't otherwise be able to do. Your story is all that combined into one, simple, and compelling narrative.

Now as you can see, if there's a skill to be learned, then you may have a reason to obtain a certification. But how do you decide which one to get?

Once you know the skill you want to have, then you survey the programs that teach anything relevant to that skill. In the end, the best one to teach it to you in the most robust and accessible of ways should win.

But wait, Tom, you have a certification from Cornell University? Are you saying there's no name-brand value?

No. There is, since we unfortunately live in a society where people wrongly assume that because you studied at the Ivy League level you're more qualified than other people.

In addition to Cornell, I have a 4.0 from the University of Virginia in coursework toward my PhD, but I don't have a PhD. I'm not likely to finish my PhD. I mean, how would "Tom Dankers, PhD" change the story I tell about how I'm here to coach others to live more strategic lives?

It's unnecessary. Therefore, I leave it out entirely. It's not something I talk about or share.

Now, when people see "Cornell" behind my name, does it validate the quality of my work to an extent? Yes. But for me, the purpose of obtaining that certification was to have a space to work out my philosophy on Wellness and what I think that really means for the people I lead and coach.

Cornell's program ultimately brought me shaping value. What that means is that the program provided a space where I, the intellectual me, could shape the philosophy that supports my coaching. It addresses both skill and subject matter. A double-whammy.

Was the program amazing? No. Was it helpful? Yes. Did it contribute to the story I tell? Absolutely.

It was worth the money and my time. And it's something, in more or less inadvertent ways, that I now share with everyone I coach and all of you who read my perspectives.

To get there, I first looked at hundreds of certification programs around the country related to a few specific subject matter and skills areas. Cornell's program filled a gap I couldn't otherwise see a clear way to fill. So, I did it.

And that's what you should do.

You should first begin with a gap analysis of your skills against what you want to do and how you want to do it. That implies that you must first know what you want to do and how you want to do it. If you don't, you shouldn't even be asking this certification question.

But once you're there, you need to put in the time and survey at minimum 5-10 programs that specifically relate to that gap area. Then, narrow the list by things like cost, offering relevance, name brand recognition, accessibility, and overall value.

Eventually, you'll get to a point where you'll see a clear winner and you'll be able to ask yourself the final question: should I take the plunge and do it?

The simple truth is, if you've done the process correctly, the final decision should be pretty easy and straightforward.

Now, to wrap things up, I'd like to offer a few specific suggestions.

First, if it's a no-name school for a common skill, it's almost always a no-no. Don't go just because it's cheap. When it comes to education right now, it's almost always cheap for a reason. Although my own coaching model aims to undermine this truism, the rest of the world hasn't caught up yet. For the most part, if it's cheap, it ain't deep either.

But second, I'd like to make you aware of some offerings I discovered along the way that may have particular shaping value for you to consider.

  1. Harvard Extension School Consider one of their many programs if you like the name brand recognition, don't care too much about cost, and want to learn from the best-in-field. They've got tons of programs to look at, many of which don't require standardized tests.

  2. eCornell Having done it myself, I can attest to the quality of the online learning portal and the extent to which the professors know their stuff and share it freely and unsparingly. While I can't say I agreed with some of my certificate course's philosophical opinions, it gave me the space and activities in a reasonable time frame at a reasonable price to explore what I needed to explore. It's cheaper than Harvard and likely just as effective depending on the subject matter.

  3. University of Florida Online Seeing a trend here, I recommend educational institutions of a name brand. With this one being a Gator really means something practical. If you're interested in digital marketing, strategic communications, or even getting a degree rather than a certificate, this is one of your best overall options. They've got incredible ratings, great customer service, and lots of practical degree and certificate options across a vast array of disciplines. Their platform is likely just as good if not better than Harvard's, being at the forefront of online learning.

With that, I hope this article helped you to clearly understand the purpose of certifications in a world that wants to sell you everything and anything. Don't just buy into commonplace thinking on a topic that's suppose to take you deeper than you otherwise would on your own.

Get a certificate if it'll help you achieve your life mission. And if you don't know yet what that is, what you're here to do, then book a life strategy session with Findlife Coaching before you waste money on more commas behind your name.

It's all about the big picture, your story. Spend most of your time shaping it, telling it, and adding things to it that fit the narrative.

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