140420161As an IT professional, you are undoubtedly aware that earning certifications is an important step toward qualifying for most jobs. While it’s possible to land an entry-level job with a degree, or at least some experience, moving up the ladder to better paying jobs with more responsibility requires demonstrable, verified knowledge. That’s where certifications come in — but with literally dozens of options to choose from, how do you decide which credentials to earn first, and which are worth pursuing in the long term? Certainly any certification is a worthwhile endeavor, but to make the best use of your time and money, you need to consider these important questions.

Where Are You in Your Career?

If you’re just beginning your career in IT, it can be useful to seek out certifications that are relevant to your field. Having certifications can open more doors to you sooner as you can actually prove your knowledge of a particular discipline to hiring managers while you might be lacking in actual job experience.

As long as the position you’re applying for doesn’t require several years of experience, this could put you right alongside other candidates who may only have a year or two more experience than you. For similarly qualified candidates, the certifications could actually put you ahead and earn you that interview or job over others.

But what certifications should you go after? If you are in the early stages of your career, earning a certification like the CompTIA A+ is a good entry-level certification that demonstrates your foundational skills across operating systems and devices. Through online IT training, you can extend your base knowledge to earn the CompTIA Network +, CompTIA Security +, and other foundational certifications while you gain job experience.

By doing so, you position yourself to move forward to additional certifications in various niches, and eventually the higher level certifications like CISSP as you move forward in your career. The bottom line is to choose the certification that aligns with your career phase, and positions you for additional certifications and opportunities going forward.

140420162What Do You Want to Do?

Many IT professionals make the mistake of choosing certifications based on what’s trendy, what their co-workers have, or worst of all, what’s the easiest or fastest to earn. To get the most from your certifications, though, you need to be strategic and choose the credentials that most closely align with your goals.

For many IT professionals, this means deciding whether you wish to work in an engineering/technical or managerial capacity. The specific certifications for each path differ significantly, so having an end goal in mind allows you to choose the right path from the start. Those on a more technical path are well-suited to start with entry-level certifications like those offered by CompTIA, with an eye toward earning mastery level certifications such as the CISSP or Cisco’s CCIE.  Along the way, earning additional niche certifications such as those offered from Microsoft and Cisco can help fine-tune your career and open new doors.

Those on a more managerial track are well-suited to combine training and education in management with certifications in project management, and the management of information system frameworks and risk management. Certifications like the CISSP, as well as related certifications in engineering and technical functions, are necessary for this path.

What Will Be Your Niche?

Most businesses are very specific about their needs and who they want to hire to meet them. They want to hire individuals who have demonstrated, expert-level knowledge, and a certification fills that requirement. Therefore, it’s best to decide on an area of specialization and work toward mastery level in that area rather than seek entry-level or intermediate credentials in a variety of areas. If your experience and knowledge is a mile wide but an inch deep, you aren’t going to have as much luck climbing the ladder as someone who has devoted themselves to becoming an expert in a specific area.

Choosing your niche depends largely on your interests, but you should pay close attention to the trends in hiring, trends in IT as an industry, and to a certain extent, the certifications that others in your field or company are earning. As technology changes, certifications change as well — or even become obsolete — so staying abreast of the latest developments allows you to target your efforts on the most useful courses for your career.