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The Degree or the Certification: Answering the Question

Okay, finally, I’m going to answer the question. For some value of the word “answer,” anyway. I’ve spent three weeks thinking through various question you should be asking, along the way making three specific points:

Okay, so how do I actually decide?

First, ask: where do I want to go? Who do I want to be as a person, overall? This question needs to be a “bigger life” question, not a narrow, “how much money do I want to be making,” question. One of those other turning points in my life as an engineer was when Don S said to me one day, “When I’m gone, people aren’t going to remember me for writing a book. They are going to remember me as a father, friend, and someone who built a community.” It’s okay if the answer to this question changes over time — it certainly has for me.

Second, ask: what am I not very good at today? Do a classic gap analysis here — what do you need to get to where you want to go, and what do you need to get there? This isn’t just about technical skills, it’s also about mental skills, mental habits, and even soft skills.

Third, ask: what motivates me to learn? Do I need a professor in front of my face forcing me to read, or do I need a certificate at the end, or am I okay with just picking up a book and reading it? It’s expected that this answer will vary across different skills.

Fourth, ask: what is the best way to learn this? We often narrow our options down to degrees versus a certification, but there are a lot of other ways to learn out there, including certificates, audited classes, and many others.

Fifth, ask: what will have the biggest financial impact? While you don’t want to turn yourself into a widget, you also don’t want to just waste money pursuing the most expensive educational opportunities available.

Finally, ask: what do I already have today? I don’t want to sound like a killjoy, but I’d rather see two or three certifications along with two or three college degrees, backed up with a variety of other experience, on a resume, rather than 5xCCIE and nothing else. If you have bunch of certifications, consider a degree. If you have a degree, consider getting a certification.

Taking all of these into consideration, you should have a better feel for the right answer.

Two final thoughts before I close.

It’s important to balance financial solvency with passion. I tell my kids that there is some intersection between what you’re passionate about and what will make you the most money — remembering that both will change over your lifetime. Pick a path that will make a reasonable amount of money with the highest level of passion and the widest scope of flexibility into the future in terms of life changes and world changes.

If I had to choose a career path, I would choose the certification and work experience first, and then the degree. While it’s not the easiest thing in the world to finish a degree once you’re working, and you have a family, you’re going to learn a lot more in a college classroom after you’ve had a little life experience, and you pick out the pieces that are important, while just working through the rest.

So the right answer is this: be intentional in your education, from start to finish. Don’t think of it in terms of a degree versus a certification, but in terms of what your goals are, and what you should do next.

Degree or certification? All of the above.

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