Certifications often act as benchmarks for measuring your skills against others with similar experience and background. The best IT certifications offer education and a competitive edge when you apply for a new position, or even when you negotiate raises at your current position.
As you research which IT certifications fit your wallet and your five-year plan, keep in mind that many of these certifications rely on book learning and real-world experience. We’ve also listed a couple of IT certifications specifically designed for beginners to get their foot in the door.
Return on investment (ROI) for new certifications can be measured in multiple ways, but the most tangible way to gauge ROI is through your average yearly salary. While some of the tests can run up to $500, the eventual payoff in salary increase or job market competitiveness make the initial investment worth it.
An industry-recognized Amazon Web Services certification brings you knowledge validation as well as advancement opportunities. AWS certified professionals earn an average salary of $125K because they learn such high-demand skills. Amazon offers three study tracks in Architecting, Developing, and Operations, and you can earn an associate or professional certificate in each of these. AWS also tests for two beta programs in Advanced Networking and Big Data.
If information systems is your thing, getting certified in risk management will propel you to the top of the IT workforce. The ISACA (Information Systems Audit and Control Association) offers this certification, which tests all areas of risk management from identification and assessment through response and design. CRISC professionals take home an average of $122K, making the ROI on this certification one of the highest in the field.
Another ISACA certification, the CISM tests information security from the perspective of a management professional. This includes the ability to connect information security processes to the larger aims of the business, as well as designing and implementing high-level IT initiatives. CISM professionals bring in an average of $122K, right in line with the CRISC annual salary.
The PMP is an internationally recognized, industry-agnostic certification that can be used within the IT sphere but also applies to other business verticals. PMP holders earn up to 20 percent more than their non-certified peers, and annual salaries average around $115K. This certification is based on educational knowledge and project management experience. It requires 60 hours of continued professional education units every three years to maintain.
Cisco is a world leader in networking and IT systems, and gaining any of the Cisco certifications will boost your earning potential. Start out with the Entry certifications, and as you learn, you can move through the Associate, Professional, Expert, and Architect certifications. As technology changes quicker than ever, you should expect to renew your certification every 2-5 years, depending on the subject matter. Associates can expect to start out in the high $50,000 range, but these salaries rise significantly with added certifications or management responsibilities.
These courses give you a little more immediate bang for your buck, because they’re free. You’ll dedicate some time learning the course material, but that education will pay dividends.
This online certification tests your ability to build and operate IPv6 servers and related site items. Hurricane Electric built these course materials to help train IT professionals in IPv6 and facilitate the move from the previous IPv4 framework, opening up millions of IP addresses. In addition to building and operating IPv6 servers, you’ll prove your ability to perform lots of other IPv6 functions, including ping, traceroute, and reverse DNS. Hurricane Electric offers course materials and the test on their website.
CloudU has grown into an IT course marketplace based on the MOOC (massive open online course) model, with 10 free online training and certifications that teach you cloud computing — whether you run a business, work as an IT professional, or are just interested in learning IT. Make your way through the 11-module CloudU certification, or one of their nine other professional courses. These courses offer (mostly) vendor-neutral information on how to build sites, databases, and infrastructure around the cloud.
Best for Newcomers
If you’re just getting your feet wet in the IT sphere, start with these certifications. You’ll find they work best for those new to the IT profession, but who have some experience working with technology. Walk through these to earn your training in basic concepts before you shell out big bucks for the other guys.
This vendor-neutral IT certification validates your knowledge of the most common business technology needs and processes. This 90-question exam includes a combination of multiple choice, drag-and-drop, and performance-based questions. Expect to use your knowledge of operating systems, mobile and cloud technologies, and basic networks in simulated environments throughout the test.
Another vendor-neutral CompTIA program, Network+ tests your ability to design and deploy networks across many business environments. The test also covers how business settings use mobile, virtual, and cloud technologies. Test takers have 90 minutes to complete up to 90 questions on the test, ranging from multiple choice to performance-based questions.
This certification requires you choose a track in IT Infrastructure, Database, or Developer material. You can then take the test in that area when you finish coursework at a college or when you’ve gathered enough experience. Those not in school can schedule to take the test at a Pearson VUE center. Many students and IT professionals use this test as preparation for more advanced Microsoft certifications, including the MSCD and MSCA certifications.
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Remember to check the price for testing and any study materials as you research, although many testing programs also offer free sample questions and online prep materials. You may also want to look into classroom learning in your area if you think you lack some basic understanding. If you’d rather learn in a classroom setting, many local colleges and universities also offer IT and computing classes that culminate in certifications alongside your degree.