Qualification or certification?

How to find balance between a good combination of both theoretical knowledge and practical understanding.

By DevCom founder and CEO, Mari Lee  |  Edited by Laura Potgieter |  1 March 2023

I am often approached for advice by communication and marketing professionals in different stages of their careers, asking me if they should study further and what they should study. I typically probe to understand the need for studying. Usually, it is to get a job or to work towards a promotion. As someone who focuses on a career path of mastery, my advice tends to be more practical and I reiterate that on a path of mastery, you don’t see the milestones as a ladder but rather as a journey and guideline to achieve mastery. Mastery is the goal, not ladder climbing to the top of the organisation to shout, “I have made it!”

A qualification is defined as an official completion of a course, especially one granting status as a recognised practitioner of a profession or activity.

Certification is an official document attesting to a status or level of achievement, that shows you are competent to do the work according to a standard.

Here’s a cheat sheet on how to make the decision between a qualification or a certification:

I believe strongly in certification. Once you have the base knowledge obtained through qualification, you need experience. To build an integrated knowledge and experience base from which you can contribute to the profession, you must do the actual work. Polish your skills. Get some skin in the game. I do not favour students going from undergrad to post-grad without any work experience. I believe research-based qualifications such as Honours, Masters, and PhDs, should be informed by a mutual reference framework, integration of the qualification knowledge, with practical experience, and then researching to build new theory, documented in post-graduate literature. And this is where it is essential for us to close the loop – as a professional, you need to then access the new theories informed by practice (both knowledge and experience), and continuous professional development (CPD) is the best way to do that. Hence – certification as a first step, with CPD points to keep sharp and up to date.

DevCom offers internships for students and recent graduates, giving them practical experience into the communications world of work. Our interns work hand-in-hand with our team. This helps the graduates to find their strengths and working abilities and be able to hone them as well. We guide the interns with meeting etiquette, dress code, time management, managing workload and email writing, to name a few. All skills that you need to have while working but don’t learn at school and university. It is through internships and work experience that you get “grit” and the perseverance to push through tough times.

Certification tests your ability to apply the knowledge you gained in your qualification practically. It is usually a set of industry standards that you are tested against, either in a portfolio of evidence and/or a skills and knowledge test against industry standard. So, my advice is to get the base qualification first (BBK degree in my case). Then, get the certification of the industry (Accredited Business Communicator, in my case). Then map out the adjacent industries (in my case, it was PR, marketing and HR, business management and risk and project management), and get the qualifications in these adjacent industries. Then get certified in those industries.

If you have to choose between a qualification and a certification after you have your first qualification, always choose a certification, as it will enable you to demonstrate your skills against a benchmark, and it is a much more practically applicable process. It is challenging, however, as it asks you to be critical of your own capabilities against what the global standard is. Most people lack the courage to face this and sharpen their pencils. Don’t fall into this trap. Look yourself in the eyes, congratulate yourself on the areas you have mastered, but put on your boxing gloves, get in the ring, box a bit more to master the others! It’s very doable. If you want to stand out, you need to have the hours and certification to back you up in the job market!

When choosing a certification, you are also aligning your career growth in the direction of mastery. As a communication professional there are milestones to the career, the foundation level is the entry point into the career. The generalist/specialist level consists of work experience that leads you to branch out into a role with either a specific focus or a general focus. The strategic advisor level is defined by your expansion into expertise and innovation, as well as increased responsibilities including resource management. The business leader level is reached when you are able to demonstrate the ability to serve at a senior peer level and lead within an organisation by providing counsel and it helps to set organisational direction at a strategic level.

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