The Degree or the Certification

Having just come off doing a presentation on “being a great engineer,” I can tell you what the number one question people asked was: Should I get a degree, or a certification? In fact, several people were irritated that Denise and I were even talking about anything else, because it’s the only question that counts.

Let me counter that thought. If you’re asking whether you should get a degree or a certification, you’re asking the wrong question.

It’s not that I don’t have anything invested in certifications. I hold a CCIE (2635), CCDE (2007:001), and CCAr. I’ve written questions for the CCIE. I was on the original SME team that invented the CCDE and CCAr certifications. I’ve taught certification classes, written certification books, and generally been involved in the certification world for a long time.

It’s not that I don’t have anything invested in college, either. I have one four year degree, two Master’s degrees, and I’m currently working like crazy to gain acceptance into an PhD program (Philosophy, in Apologetics and Culture, if you’re curious). I’ve taught as an adjunct in the NC State MS program, and I’m on Capella University’s advisory council. I teach on a regular basis in high school and college classrooms, when I’m given the chance (and I wish I had more chances, because I’m a teacher at heart).

But let me return to the problem at hand — “Should I get a degree or a certification” is a goal question, rather than a process question. If you prefer, the way the question is asked implies getting some outside acknowledgement of your knowledge or skills is a destination rather than the road to get to a destination. It implies that once you’ve done this, you’re done. Wrong! The correct question is:

What should I get NEXT — a college degree, a certification — or some other form of education?

And no, I don’t care if you’re 17 or 70. I don’t care if you’re at the beginning of your career, the middle of your career, or the end. What should I learn next is always the right question to ask.

So now, with a clearer view of the problem in hand, let’s think about a real, and reasonable, answer.

What is my goal? What do I want to be? What do I see my life looking like? For me, I can’t see myself being a full time technologists for the rest of my life. At some point I must face the reality that I’m getting older and jobs for older geeks just aren’t out there — that the job market will dry up, no matter what my skill set is. At some point I must face the reality that I can’t keep up with the rat race forever, the physical toll the technical world takes on my body in terms of hours worked, and the mental toll of sipping from a firehose. At some point I must face the reality that there are other things in my life I want (and need — or am called, to be more accurate) to do — that I don’t want to be on my death bed at 90 years old and say, “well, I was a good engineer, after all… and then I retired and watched television.”

We all need to shift gears some time in our lives. What is your next gear shift, and when is it? Is it having a family? Is it “retirement” (whatever that means any longer), is it… Well?? What is it?

What skills will I need when I get there? What skills will I need to get there?

What is the best way to get those skills? Is it college, or a certification? Or maybe even something else, like a certificate program at a local college, or auditing some class, or getting involved in something that will make you learn those skills (sometimes the best way to learn is by doing, in real life, in front of an audience, and letting the failures fall where they may).

Next week, we’ll think a little about the practical side of these thoughts — and then maybe, just maybe, I’ll think about an answer.

Part 2: The Degree or the Certification: Learn to See
Part 3: The Degree or the Certification: You are Not a Widget
Part 4: The Degree or the Certification: Answering the Question


  1. Alexander Lim on 3 November 2014 at 8:57 am

    Excellent post!!! Thanks for sharing

  2. Mehdi Rashidi on 3 November 2014 at 9:10 am

    Thanks for this fantastic post. You need to read this kind of posts time to time as you get lost with what you intended to do and what you are really doing right now.

  3. Chrissy Dussy on 3 November 2014 at 2:47 pm


  4. Abdel-moniem E. Rezk on 4 November 2014 at 9:05 am

    I believe Russ, Every person needs to live a fulfilling life need to question himself regularly about his/her Vision and his/her Goals to achieve the vision he/she putting to oneself. Making sure that he/she on track.
    Truly the real question is not about what methodology is used to achieve the goal, but what is the goal itself and what would be the next one. A University Degree or a Career Certification can be the methods to achieve our goals, however it should be only a method not the goal.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts here Russ.
    PS: I was wondering about your choice in PhD in Philosophy,Apologetics and Culture. What is the effect of this choice on your professional life as an Engineer? or in your life?

  5. Jeff on 11 November 2014 at 6:20 am

    Thank you for the interesting post..What advice do you have to give to a person who wants to learn a lot of things NEXT and could never really settle down and sit learn something inside out..?
    What could help a person to focus his whole attention on something ?

    • Russ on 12 November 2014 at 1:13 pm

      Attention is a mental skill — it’s hard to say the “best way,” or a “set of tools,” to learn to focus on something specific. I do think, however, that “hard reading,” and putting yourself in a position where you must do something consistently are important. For instance, one of the reasons I started blogging is to force myself to write more consistently. The only real way to do this, I think, is to find things that are challenging in this area and make yourself do them, making the bar intentionally higher over time. I don’t really have a better answer than that.