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IT Certifications vs. Degree: Which is Better for Your Career?

By Tim Stobierski
February 22, 2021

Information technology (IT) professionals play a major role within their organizations, overseeing a range of critical functions that allow them to operate successfully. Depending on the specific position, IT professionals might support network and administration, cybersecurity, database administration, or any number of other duties.

For their efforts, IT professionals are paid a competitive salary and enjoy high levels of job security. According to PayScale, the average entry-level IT professional earns a base salary of $62,571 per year, not including compensation in the form of bonuses or profit-sharing. This base pay can exceed $110,000 depending on an individual’s level of experience, industry, and employer. 

For this reason, many individuals who want to break into the field of information technology often wonder: What is the best path toward reaching that goal? What is the required level of education? Should I earn a degree, a certification, or both?

Below, we explore some of the most common IT certifications you might consider earning, as well as the different degree options that may be a good fit for you.

Benefits of IT Certifications

While IT is often discussed as a monolithic department or discipline, it’s important to note that there numerous different career paths within the industry. For this reason, many professionals choose to specialize by earning certifications in one or more subdisciplines. 

Although many industries typically recommend earning additional certifications beyond your degree, IT often requires them.

“For those just getting started, they may find that their options are limited unless they have that first basic certification in whichever area of IT they’re interested in,” says Lynda Hodgson, assistant teaching professor in the Information Technology program at Northeastern University. 

For individuals looking for entry-level IT roles, having certain certifications will help demonstrate your proficiency with particular tools or frameworks.

For professionals who already have some experience but looking to grow in their roles, earning different certifications can likewise be helpful. For example, earning a higher-level certification such as a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification or International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) certification can demonstrate both managerial and technical skills—helping to position you for a promotion.

When you’re considering earning certifications, make sure you’re looking at high-quality options for the type of IT work you want to do and that the credentials are nationally recognized and accepted.

Common IT Certifications

IT certifications can be centered around different technologies, methodologies, or frameworks. Below is an overview of some in-demand certifications, but it is by no means an exhaustive list. Instead, these are some of the most common IT certifications held by those seeking entry-level positions within the industry. Once you have earned the certifications most relevant to your desired career, it is possible and often recommended that you seek more advanced certifications. 

1. Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)

This certification is offered by the International Information System Security Certification Consortium (ISC)2. The CISSP focuses on cybersecurity and risk management, as well as security architecture and engineering, security operations, and software development security. To earn it, you’ll need to have experienced at least five years of full-time, paid work as a security analyst and pass the exam.

2. Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) 

The Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) certification is offered by the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA). It is geared toward IT professionals interested in managing information security for their organization. These certificate holders’ career paths may include security governance, incident and risk management, information security system development, enterprise-level application management, and more. 

3. Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC)

The Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC) certification is also offered by the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA). This program is designed to certify your understanding of information technology related to business risk and the identification and implementation of useful information security procedures and controls.

4. Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) Foundation

ITIL is a specific methodology that promotes best practices for IT service management (ITSM). Specifically, ITIL is geared toward service design, transitions, and service operation. You can earn five different ITIL certifications to demonstrate your proficiency in the methodology. 

5. Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)

Becoming a Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) demonstrates your ability to assess and secure computer system security by searching for vulnerabilities such as trojans and backdoors, viruses, SQL injection in target systems by using the same tools as hackers, only lawfully.

6. AWS Certified Solutions Architect—Associate

An AWS certification is geared toward architects looking to design available, cost-efficient, and scalable systems on AWS. Note that this exam requires hands-on experience with AWS products and knowledge of AWS architecture.

7. Google Certified Professional Cloud Architect (GCP)

Earning a GCP is ideal for those interested in designing, planning, and managing a cloud solution architecture, ensuring operations reliability, and optimizing technology and business processes.

8. Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA)

According to Microsoft, this certification is best for individuals “intending to build a career in desktop infrastructure, server infrastructure, or private cloud computing.” The MTA is considered entry-level, but opens the door to complete a more advanced Microsoft certified solutions expert and solutions developer certifications.

IT Degree or Certification: Which Do You Need?

When deciding between a degree versus a certification, it’s important to understand that it’s not a matter of one or the other. According to Hodgson, you need both to succeed, as degrees and certifications will play different roles on your resumé.

Earning a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology, for example, allows you to demonstrate your basic proficiency within the industry, in addition to other benefits. Hodgson says one of the most significant benefits of a degree is that it allows you to become proficient in multiple IT areas, compared to a certification that tends to dig deep in just one domain. Having a broader understanding of the industry gives students a more comprehensive skill set than is typically possible through earning a certification. Additionally, a degree can also expose you to related topics that might interest you.

“You get to take a programming class; you get to take a networking class; you get to take a security class; you get to take a database class,” Hodgson says. “You get to try out all of these things and find out which area interests you the most.”

Once you have found your niche, it would likely make sense to earn the relevant certifications that apply to the kind of work you would like to do.

On the other hand, your certifications will allow you to demonstrate specific skill sets related to your chosen specialty and help resumé scanners quickly determine whether you meet the requirements for a given role.

Earning a more advanced degree, such as a Master of Science in Informatics or a Master of Science in Cybersecurity, can also be a sound decision. Doing so allows you to demonstrate expertise in a specific domain once you have decided on a desired career trajectory.

Are you interested in pursuing a career in IT? Learn more about the Bachelor of Science in Information Technology at Northeastern University to understand how earning your degree can empower you to reach your career goals.

About Tim Stobierski
Tim Stobierski is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Northeastern University.