The Online Student’s Guide to Professional Credentials

Professional CredentialsAs you begin the new year, your resolutions may include job and education goals. The options for expanding your professional knowledge and technical skills are offered by a wide range of schools and organizations. The emergence of new formats, such as  badges and nanodegrees, has caused some confusion however. Can these opportunities help you get ahead in your career?

Even after you have a college degree (or several) the question of credentials persists. Should I, for example, pursue certification as a professional resume writer or career coach? Or maybe completing a certificate in online teaching would help me find new course contracts? What about social media certificate programs and writing badges? These questions are ongoing, but there are resources available to help me, and you, make good decisions about our professional development resources.

What is a professional credential?

The term credential isn’t regulated, so it’s used in a variety of ways to describe education and training activities. These activities range from academic courses to workshops and self-paced tutorials. The Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) provides a good definition. Earning a credential is:

… verification of an individual’s qualification or competence issued by a third party with the relevant authority to issue such credentials.

These authorities include colleges, professional associations, training companies, government agencies and other groups with expertise in the subject or topic they offer. Credentialing programs are also available for different stages of your working life, from high school to a post-doctorate; they can be academic or vocational in nature. This kind of professional development may also help you prepare for a new career, make a career change and advance in your field once you get started.

ACTE also describes four primary types of work-related credentials:

  • Certificate: These are usually issued after the completion of a self-paced tutorial or a series of courses, and often includes some sort of testing. ServSafe certificates in the food service industry are often required for food handlers, for example. Many colleges offer academic certificates in areas ranging from AutoCad and Paralegal to Computer Programming and Property Management.
  • Certification: Earned through a combination of training and evaluation that includes practicing and demonstrating mastery of specific skills. Examples include: Project Management Professional (PMP), IEEE certification programs and Cisco Network Security (CCNP).
  • License: Licenses are issued by government offices that verify whether or not applicants have the training and experience necessary to legally perform their jobs. Registered Nurses (RNs), for example, complete a degree and testing before applying for an RN license through their State.
  • Degree: You are likely already familiar with college degrees and how they are earned. The BA, BS, MBA and PhD are just a few examples of academic credentials.

These types of credentials are all popular in multiple industries, and certificates are on the rise. A study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that more than 1 million certificates are earned annually. The most popular certificate fields are healthcare and business management.

But now there are additional formats to consider, such as:

  • Badges: Digital badges, sometimes called micro-credentials, are awarded for different types of learning achievement, including professional development. Indiana University recently created a badge system to recognize faculty members who complete training seminars and develop skills with technology.
  • Nanodegrees: The online course platform Udacity now offers nanodegree programs related to technical career fields (e.g., web development, data analysis). After completing a series of courses in the system, which include projects and other types of skill evaluation, students earn a credential designed to help them on the job market. Employers like Google and General Electric are already partnering with these programs to hire people with nanodegrees and train current employees.
  • Bootcamps: Companies like General Assembly and Hack Reactor offer short-term, intensive training programs focused on job skills. While many of these opportunities focus on computer programming and engineering topics, business and other subjects are also available. These programs actively connect students with employers through partnerships and job boards.

Which credentials are right for you?

The answer to this question depends on two factors: 1) your interests and goals and 2) the expectations in your field of interest.

Some certificate programs offer academic credit, for example, that can be transferred in to a full degree program, which may be a long-term goal of yours. Other credentials are more technical in nature, designed to help you learn how to perform specific tasks, or perhaps apply your current skills in a new context. Companies currently hiring in your field may expect you to have already earned a professional credential, perhaps in addition to a degree.

Which ones will add value in terms of your skills set or career advancement? Which ones are extras that employers aren’t really concerned about? Each of us has to decide what’s required or acknowledged in our fields (and in some fields credentials have little or no impact at all). As you begin your research into possible programs, look for these elements and compare the options:

  • Competency-based, Student-centered, Learning-based Opportunities: The Connecting Credentials initiative is concerned about the “tangible benefits” for those who complete these kinds of programs. How will your participation in a credential program change what you know or what you are able to do? Many options offer opportunities to practice new skills and get feedback from peers, tutors and instructors.
  • Assessments: One common element across credential formats is the evaluation of student abilities. The issuing authority verifies whether or not you have mastered the material. Find out if the programs you are interested in use projects, quizzes, exams, portfolios or other formats to evaluate and document your knowledge and skill level.
  • Stackable Approach: Many credentialing programs offer multiple training courses that align with skills required along a career path. These allow you to build on existing knowledge as you progress in your job and achieve more advanced skills through a series of credentials that work together in your field.
  • Industry Recognition: What do your future employers want to see on your resume or application? Follow the trends in your industry through relevant news outlets, publications and associations to get a better idea of what is expected., a resource for technology job seekers, recently shared that 44% of companies hiring Linux software professionals would prefer applicants with Linux certification.

Credentialing programs all involve costs in terms of fees, time and effort, and add to our already busy schedules. So, it’s important to research the opportunities carefully and make the most of the resources available to you. Not sure which credentials are appropriate in your field? CareerOneStop, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, provides a certification database you can search by keyword, organization, industry and occupation. This is a great place to create an initial list of credentials to research further. Don’t forget to talk with advisors in your school’s career center, too. They can guide you to additional resources and help you determine what’s most important in your field.

The National Credentialing Summit, hosted by the Lumina Foundation last Fall, brought more than 90 organizations together to discuss the growing variety of work-based credentials. There is currently no unified system to track these opportunities or verify their value to a student or job seeker. But, there may be in the future. This group is creating a framework to better organize credentialing options and guide the design of new programs. Follow @ConnectCreds and #ConnectCreds for the latest conversations and resources.

Join Melissa Venable on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

Photo by: David Goehring

Source: Inside Online Learning Blog –