Are Graduate Certificates a Ticket to a Career Change?

Are Graduate Certificates a Ticket to a Career Change?

by Kerry Scott on 23 September 2009


A longtime Clue Wagon reader emailed me this weekend about his situation.  His question is the sort where opinions are going to vary, so I offered to put it out there for the group to answer, since many of you are hiring managers, HR people, or just smartiacs in general.

Here’s the situation:

Joe graduated a couple of years ago with a degree in finance.  He’s had a job or two with big, well-known companies, and…well, to make a long story short, he’s figured out that neither finance nor corporate life are for him (sometimes newer grads have adjustment issues, but I’ve been talking to this guy for some time, and I agree with his assessment—this just isn’t his cup of tea).  Up until now, in his words, he’s “made a lot of choices based on what I felt I should do and not what I wanted to do.”

So Joe’s looking to make a change.  He wants to work for a smaller firm, and he wants to do something other than finance.  He’s especially targeting at an account manager or business development role with a firm that focuses on web design, web marketing, user experience, etc.  He wants to be client-facing, in a tech-related firm.  I think he’d be well-suited to this.

He’s already take a couple of post-graduate courses, in web design and project management.  His question is this:  would a graduate certificate in project management, internet marketing, or business development (from an accredited university) help with the transition? Would it be worth the time and money?  Are there other things he can be doing to make this happen?

I’ve already given him my thoughts.  What are yours?

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Thomas MacEntee September 23, 2009 at 7:37 am

I think that a graduate certificate has great value – especially for someone unemployed like me. With the new Federal Pell Grants scholarships covering up to $5,350 in education and training expenses for the unemployed, it is a great opportunity to pick up Project Management or other skills. has more info.

For me, I’ve decided to call myself “funemployed” – I am pursuing my passion which is genealogy and making it a career after 25 years in the Information Technology field.
.-= Thomas MacEntee´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday September 23, 2009 =-.

Kerry Sandberg Scott September 23, 2009 at 7:50 am

Thomas—wow, I am considering that very same thing. I was typing an email to someone about it just as you were typing your comment. Nice to see someone else making the leap.

Sabrina September 23, 2009 at 8:00 am

Not sure about the certificate but one word on the Pell grant. You still have to qualify for it, just being unemployed doesn’t get you money. I’m unemployed but since my husband makes too much money (what????) I don’t qualify for any financial aid other than student loans. Story of my life!

Ask a Manager September 23, 2009 at 8:03 am

This could absolutely just be me, but I’m not all that influenced by a candidate’s education. I look more at what they’ve done. Maybe this is because so many people go through school without it doing much for their ability to perform on the job, and so as a result, I’m hesitant to factor certificates, etc. in too much. So I would say that Joe should do the certificate program if his main motivation is to gain the skills he thinks he’ll learn there, but not if his main motivation is to help his resume.
.-= Ask a Manager´s last blog ..when a recruiter misleads you and wastes your time =-.

Bill G September 23, 2009 at 8:25 am

I used to agree with the position put forth by Ask A Manager, but then I had a startling revelation: certificates, education, etc. are part of the repertoire of what the candidate has done.

Are they accomplishments in a work setting? No. Could the candidate get the opportunity to have success in a work setting without them? Well, evidently they haven’t yet been able to yet, have they? People don’t tend to pursue certificates in lieu of experience; they pursue them either to increase their skills in their current field or to gain admission to a field of work for which the candidate may have been unqualified heretofore.

Either way, a certificate demonstrates initiative on the part of the candidate. I believe that merits some consideration.

Jessica K September 23, 2009 at 8:39 am

I hope so because I am in the midst of completing one myself. I currently work in broadcast media and am in an Internet Marketing Masters Certification program from a well known university. For me I think it’s the right choice. My bachelors degree, while a perfectly respectable major, does not really apply to the field that I am currently in. This program will allow companies to see that I have been in classes that deal with marketing concepts and have the initiative to learn new technologies. I also think that in that in my particular case since the media world is evolving at a record pace it has allowed me to connect with other professionals who are dealing with these changes as well and see what types of solutions are being developed. Realistically though, I don’t consider it my trump card. I still have to go out and get my hands dirty in the field by interning or freelancing on some small projects to show that I can actually apply these concepts in the real (or in this case virtual) world.

Dawn Kubiak September 23, 2009 at 10:04 am

Yes, I think it’s worthwhile. It reflects that he has taken some initiative on his interest, has some revelant knowledge/experience and hasn’t decided to change “because it sounds interesting and something he could do”. I don’t begrudge anyone for wanting to make a career change but am disappointed when they have not done anything other than apply for a position in the field, there are a few positions that some knowledge and skills are not needed anymore.

Maybe this goes without saying but since this will be a career change for him networking, volunteering and attending local business events are also going to be critical to him finding employment especially in the IT realm. It is extremely competitive right now.

Good luck! Everyone should do what they love and love what they do! (Yes, I do think I read that on a bumper sticker once!)

Sid Prince September 23, 2009 at 10:33 am

The certificate gets you informed about the profession and gets you in the door for the interview.

Once there, it’s up to you to lay down the knowledge and communicate your passion for the job.

Someone engaging in ongoing education always gets a plus mark in my application review, but that’s not enough to get the job. Tell me what you can do for me. Why should I hire you and what will my company get out of it? Will it get someone who’s excited by the work? Will it get someone who brings the positive every day? Will it get someone who makes others feel good about themselves?

Sell me that, and the job’s yours.

As always IMHO.

.-= Sid Prince´s last blog ..This I believe…and it May be Killing Me =-.

Ben Eubanks September 23, 2009 at 11:23 am

Find a mentor who is already doing that for a small organization and get anything you can from them. :-)
.-= Ben Eubanks´s last blog ..20+ Ideas to Inspire Creativity =-.

Amanda Taratuski September 23, 2009 at 12:13 pm

I agree with Bill G that getting a certificate shows initiative and an acknowledgment that the person doesn’t know everything he needs to know to do the job. These are qualities I would look for in an employee. While in some fields on-the-job experience may be preferable to education, the tech field is not really one of those. Companies look for knowledge of programming languages and ability to logically reason through a project. I think in this person’s case, a certificate is a great idea because he’ll gain the skills companies will be looking for.

lloyddabbler September 23, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Certificates mean that someone reached out for information they wanted and didn’t have. Yes, that has value, mainly for it’s open-mindedness and follow-through on a goal. But of greater value than the certificate or training program itself, is what the candidate can do with it in practical application. I suggest your reader DO what he wants to be doing professionally on a project of his own. Create his own website, personal project or sideline business and acquire clients to market it or otherwise develop THAT business. He should BE his first account, BE his own first client, satisfying his own goals and overcoming obstacles… then in interviews, take the opportunity to tie the parallels of that process to account management for the company he’ll work for. Good luck.

Lance Haun September 23, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Yes, certificates are worthwhile and worth doing… at least in certain situations. Me personally? I would skip the project management and biz dev and go for internet marketing. If he wanted to do two, I would do biz dev.

I think in the case of business development and especially in the case of project management, there are legitimate ways to get that experience or education without having to go to an expensive certificate program.
.-= Lance Haun´s last blog ..Being Likable, Kanye West, Motivation and The Future of HR =-.

Sarah M September 23, 2009 at 2:31 pm

As an HR Manager in the Interactive Marketing world. Jessica K. has the right idea. Certificates are great and I do notice them on resumes but they don’t beat out experience. I’ll take a candidate with great specific experience to what we do over a highly educated one with little to no experience. My suggestion would be for him to get involved on some small projects in the non-profit sector to gain some experience while he’s doing his certifications. That experience will make a lot of difference.

Deadhedge September 23, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Since Joe is switching fields, I think that a certificate program will help show employers that he is serious about switching and is serious about their specific field as opposed to just looking to bail on finance.

That’s the main value. My main experience is with the Project Management certificate (other than that, I’m just some schleb who comments on HR blogs), which I have taken a few course and looked at taking the certificate test. I finally concluded that the actual skills learned are minimal and employers have seen enough bad project managers with the certificate to know that it’s not an indication of anything other than some free time and someone who really likes to geek out with project management.

Geeking out isn’t always a bad thing. If the certificate program has monthly meetings or some type of community than it will help with job searching and networking. As far as impressing a hiring manager or learning something that you wouldn’t learn on the job, it’s probably minimal.
.-= Deadhedge´s last blog ..Generation Y Disconnect over Health Care Reform =-.

Curtis B September 24, 2009 at 7:49 am

There’s substantial evidence that proves hiring managers (particularly those who hire for client-facing jobs) place more emphasis on the candidate’s thought process than certificates/accreditions etc. With that fact in mind, a certificate is not needed for Joe to make the transition.

To demonstrate his ability to succeed in his desired fields I recommend Joe document & highlight the achievements of his (internal) customers from his finance assignments and outline his role in the context of those achievements. Then, assuming he understands the objectives of web design/marketing customers, draw the parallels to showcase his potential impact. The investment Joe makes to incorporate this thought process into his transition campaign will be well worth it relative to the alternative(s).

Clare September 24, 2009 at 12:41 pm

I have two comments on this. Firstly, anything internet-related is going to involve fast-paced change. How well would a course of study prepare Joe for this sort of environment? Would his course cover the latest in internet applications, SEO techniques etc? My view is that the course content would need to change every year for this to happen, and course providers don’t generally do this – it’s just not profitable for them to keep changing the syllabus.

My second point is that account management / business development involves communication and people skills. That’s not something Joe is necessarily going to learn on a course, unless there are components of work experience and mentoring. Joe is going to need to know how to manage client expectations, last-minute changes of plan – all the headaches that come from project management or when your client doesn’t really know what they want. He’ll learn these skills on the job, rather than from a text book.

I’d recommend that Joe save his money and get some experience under his belt. He should be reading up on what is currently happening in internet businesses and marketing (a lot is already freely available), and he should be developing his work-related skills on real projects. He also needs to be able to guide and inform his clients, so a good grasp of the technicalites of web design (cost, time etc) would also be helpful.

Qualifications are great, but when it comes down to anything internet-related, I’d go for the experience.

clobbered September 24, 2009 at 3:09 pm

I would absolutely not hire someone in a project management position because they had any kind of paper certificate in project management. Given that he wants to work in a technical field (web design), even as an account manager, I would lean towards him gaining some technical credentials. But, the best way to change fields is to “apprentice” in your new field, i.e. get a position junior to the one you would like to be doing and work yourself up. Granted, it might be hard in this economy.

Also, internet shops tend to be very big on networking – they get a lot of people by talking to someone who knows someone. So getting a foot in the door is more important. For example, if he can survive on not-a-lot for six months or so, I would suggest he find a small pre-profitable startup company and offer his services in exchange for stock options for a while.

No education is substitute for experience.

Bill G October 4, 2009 at 8:05 am


Now that those of us with comments have weighed-in, Kerry, can you reveal the advice you gave him?

Kerry Sandberg Scott October 4, 2009 at 8:25 pm

My feedback was essentially the same as what other people said; that a certificate showed that he was serious about making a change and had given the matter some thought. Mostly, my advice was to solicit opinions from a bunch of people…hence the post.

I appreciate all the feedback (and I know Joe does too). I have awesome readers.

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