From working as an EMT to driving an 18-wheeler to teaching a kindergarten class, some jobs simply cannot be done without the right certifications. Other careers don’t have core certifications, but they do have a lot of supplemental learning opportunities designed to make you a more qualified professional. While these credentials may not be required by employers, many job seekers use them to bulk up their resumes.
In theory, a professional certificate program could teach you valuable skills to help you stand out in a crowded job market and excel in your industry. In practice, however, professional certifications aren’t always worth it.
Some Certificates Can Help You Excel in Your Current Role
Whether you’ve got your eye on a specific promotion or simply want to sharpen your skills so that you’re positioned for growth, some non-degree certificates could help you get there.
For example, let’s say your employer goes all in on a new software program that also happens to be picking up steam in your industry. Chances are your company will offer some sort of basic training, but taking the initiative to complete a formal certification in that software can help you become your organization’s subject-matter expert while showing leadership that you tackle new challenges with minimal hand-holding. Your employer may even be open to covering some or all of the cost!
It Pays to Understand Which Certificates Are Actually Valuable
If you’re transitioning to a new industry, you may be particularly drawn to certificate programs, especially if you’re hoping to avoid the massive price tag of a formal degree.
The problem is that some certifications don’t have much actual value. Melanie Feldman, career coach and cofounder of Going Places, suggests reaching out to people who are already doing the job you want to be doing and asking for their thoughts on which certificates matter and which are unnecessary. You might be surprised by how many people are open to a quick virtual coffee date.
“Don’t be afraid to have conversations with people to figure out what a perfect candidate looks like,” Feldman says. “You can do that in a very genuine way. How did they get there, and how can you make sure you’re completely lined up to look like the best candidate?”
Certificates Often Require an Upfront Investment
Non-degree certificates are generally thought to be a cost-effective alternative to formal degrees, but they aren’t always cheap. You may need to find ways to cover the cost yourself.
At the very least, getting a professional certificate will require some sort of time commitment. For example, this front-end web developer program from Udacity requires an estimated 5-10 hours per week over a course of four months.
Certificates Are Only Valuable If They’re Relevant to the Job
Will a professional certificate actually move the needle in your favor during the hiring process? That depends.
Feldman recommends taking a close look at the job descriptions you’re interested in. If most of them say they want experience or proficiency in a certain specialty area, having a certificate on your resume could help you stand out from the competition.
Ultimately, it’s all about tailoring your resume to the specific role at hand, according to Feldman. If including a particular certification on your resume makes you more credible and qualified for the role, then by all means include it. If not, leave it off. Those who feel unsure should think about whether there is a way to tie their certificates to the role in question.
“If you decide to get a certificate, it has to fit into your story for that role,” Feldman says. “You chose to earn this certificate, and this is what you learned from it, and this is why you’ll be valuable in the role because of it.”
Underscoring the why is what matters most. Otherwise, you’re jamming up your resume with irrelevant information.
Certificates Can Help Make Up for a Lack of Experience
If you’re applying for new jobs, look at your resume like a hiring manager would. In some cases, adding a professional certificate could make up for a lack of real-life experience.
“In the eyes of a hiring manager, they want someone who can jump right in, add value right away, and become a long-term employee,” Feldman says. “I think if you’re certified in a certain technology that’s going to be used on the job, that shows you can probably jump in faster and ramp up more quickly, because they’re probably not going to have to train you on that.”
Again, it comes down to taking what you’ve learned from a specific certificate and connecting it to the job at hand. If you’re unable to make that connection, the certificate probably doesn’t matter.
While it’s impossible to predict which certificates will ultimately sway a hiring manager, going for ones that teach practical, in-demand skills in your industry is your best bet. Alternatively, if you already have a wealth of on-the-job experience, you may not need a certificate to stand out. It’s all about drawing connections between your skills and knowledge and the role’s requirements.
Marianne Hayes is a longtime freelance writer and content marketing specialist.