The answer? It depends.
Of course, showing off your skills and education is a good thing — but so is real-world work experience. It’s easy to get caught in a cycle of certification-collecting rather than working towards the skills that will actually move your professional life where you want it to go. And because you don’t have infinite time, you need to prioritize the ways you develop professionally.
(You also want to be careful that you haven’t fallen into the Career Credential Addiction that seems to be pervasive these days.)
So, before you start raking in certification after certification, follow these three steps: take a reality check, do your research, and strategize.
What certifications do you actually need for your job? Don’t get waylaid by job ads that ask for lots of certs — oftentimes, they are in the “nice to have” category and not the “need to have.” Always consult your hiring manager before jumping right into a new cert just to apply to a few jobs. Be aware that lower-level certs are usually worth less to employers than high-level ones, so don’t accumulate the basics just to have a few letters after your name.
Remember: Unless you are in a profession that legally mandates certification before you can practice your craft, there’s often some wiggle room in getting hired for jobs that ask for them.
Here’s a tip that will save you time, money, and headaches: Research the people who have the job that you want on LinkedIn. What certifications do they have? Don’t stop at just one or two — look for multiple people across the country who have the job title you seek, and keep a record of what certifications they have to their name. But don’t stop your research there. Scan as many job ads and company websites as you can to see where the common ground is. Chances are, if you see the same certs popping up over and over again, they are worth your time.
Once you have the lay of the land, it’s time to come up with a plan. Will your current employer pay for certifications? Find out. Do you need to join a professional organization before you can get the cert you need? Ask. Boil down your plan to just the essentials, and ask yourself if it’s worth it. Never forget that relevant work experience is almost always considered more valuable than certifications, so factor that into your plan. Can you take on a new project at work, or volunteer your skills to an organization in need? Be creative in your approach.
Remember, it’s the quality of certifications — not the quantity — that matters in your job search. There’s no magic number. Certifications are shorthand for knowledge, but they aren’t the only way to prove your skills to potential employers.
Get comfortable communicating about what you do, and use your certifications as evidence to back-up your claims — not the other way around.