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What’s the Difference Between a Certificate or a Diploma in Computer Science in 2021?

When I was looking into getting my first job related to programming, I had no idea what the difference between a certificate and a diploma was. I was terrified that I’d have to go back to school and spend 2-4 years getting a degree in computer science before an employer would even blink in my direction. Unfortunately for me, two degrees in conservation biology aren’t really enough to attract any serious coding employers. Then I learned about boot camps, which eased my concerns some, but I didn’t have the time or money to spend on a 15-week program. 

The thing that ended up helping me get my first programming job was actually an online certificate I received after completing an intro to SQL course – and of course the relevant knowledge that came with my certificate. The good news is that nowadays there are plenty of great options like Qvault that will teach you to code online, and hook you up with the certificate you need to get a job.

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I know what a degree is, but what exactly is a computer science certificate?

A computer science certificate is an informal CS certification that programming professionals can choose to get instead of a four-year degree. Understanding the difference between a certificate or a degree in computer science will help you know which is best for you to get your first job in programming. If you want to get a coding job, you probably already know that your employers want to hire a candidate who has some kind of experience and ideally, solid qualifications. But this is where it’s easy to get stuck. Do you need a formal college degree, or can you learn computer science online and make just get an online certificate to prove your worth to employers?

Both are ways of getting the knowledge you’ll be tested on in your interview, so it’s worth making sure you’ve picked the option that fits your current lifestyle and needs. As a just-graduated cat mom of two and cheese shop floor assistant, I couldn’t go back to school and I couldn’t dedicate months of my life to a coding boot camp – I just needed something to prove I had the chops to do what I said I could.

The good news is that in 2021, many of your potential future employers won’t care if you have an Ivy League degree or if you haven’t left your house all year. If your resume looks stellar and you can prove that you have what it takes to be successful in your job, you’ll be set.

The question now becomes which works best for you when looking at the difference between a certificate or a diploma. Let’s look at the pros and cons of a degree versus a certificate when you’re trying to get a programming job.

Actually, what’s the difference between a certificate or a diploma in computer science?

You might look at both and think there’s no real difference between a certificate or a diploma: they both give you a piece of paper saying you spent time and money to learn something. The difference between a certificate or a diploma in any field comes down to the scope of those three characteristics: time, cost, and specificities. Computer science degrees and certificates are no different.

A degree, as you probably know, is broad. It takes a lot of money and a lot of time to complete a degree in computer science, but what you get in return is a wide knowledge base, touching on several different topics of potential interest, and covering the fundamentals in a way that will make it easy for you to pick up specifics later. 

An online certificate, meanwhile, is narrower in scope. It costs some time and some money to complete, and you get a more specific set of skills and experiences in return. There are certificates at every level: for beginners like me with SQL, all the way to certifying you for a very particular and specialized skill.

Do you know exactly what you want to do in your programming job? 

When I set out to get my job, I had only a very vague idea of what I wanted to do. I only knew it was pretty entry-level and would require some coding knowledge. I noticed many of the job listings I was looking at, no matter what the job title said, had requirements that the applicant is familiar with a few programming languages like SQL, Python or R, so I ended up picking SQL as I already knew some R. 

If you have a more specific idea than me, like you know you want to be a data scientist or that you want to be a front-end engineer, you’ll have an easier time than I did picking a course to complete for a certificate. This is a much more highly specialized knowledge that you can use to prove your worth to employers.

If you’re still unsure and just know you want something programming-related, it’s worth spending some time deciding what it is you want to do before launching yourself into a degree or a certificate. You can do something similar to what I did, and look at several CS job descriptions to see what universal skills would be handy to have or talk to any programmers you know today to see what they’d say. It might even be worth doing an “Intro to X” type course before you sink time and cash into a degree that might not end up being your passion.

How much time and money do you have to learn computer science?

As I said, I already had a job that I needed to keep in order to keep my cats fed, and I’d just finished my second degree. I absolutely did not have the requisite time or money to get a degree in computer science. 

If you do, however, there are definitely advantages. Getting a degree, even if it’s part-time or at night school, will let you cover all the bases of computer science in a way that you can then build on later. The unspoken second advantage is that like every other field, success in computer science often comes down to who you know. One of your classmates might be the next startup success, and getting to broaden your network through a degree is a benefit not enough people talk about in my opinion.

That being said, especially this past year has taught us that it is possible to build any kind of community online, even communities for learning to code. Plenty of courses that offer certificates are starting to offer more community-based interactions like Slack groups, discord chats, and Facebook groups that make it easy to build relationships with your peers. 

A possible path, if you’re really short on time and money, is to spend some time learning the basics of computer science online, through YouTube videos or even Wikipedia, then tactically choosing courses that will give you a certification in the area that matters most for you for your programming career.

Do you have any knowledge of computer science basics?

When I started looking for my job, I was familiar with some mathematical and statistical fundamentals thanks to my biology degree, where we covered a lot of math. That, plus my pre-existing knowledge in R, made it relatively easy for me to pick up some SQL on the side. It took me just a few weeks of my evenings to finish the course and proudly add the certificate to my resume

If you got your degree in something totally unrelated, you might struggle more to jump right into the certificate area. A degree in computer science really is the best choice for a comprehensive grounding in all the fundamentals you need. However, if you’re unwilling or unable to do so, there are still options by using courses to get computer science certificates online that can still accomplish your aims.

One of the brilliant things about existing in this day and age is that there are many generous and clever people online who can give you the knowledge of a degree for free on YouTube, on Medium, or even on Twitter with tutorials and how-tos. All this will give you the skills to shine during your interview – the only thing you need is the piece of paper you can show on your resume to get your foot in the door to start.

By effectively building your own computer science course online and then tactically getting certificates in key areas, you can accomplish the same thing a degree would, for a heck of a lot less money and on a schedule that works best for you.  

Do you have an employer in mind?

This is the only place where I’ll say the difference between a certificate or a diploma is an absolute dealbreaker in some cases. A lot of legacy employers still want that sweet official degree on your resume, and no amount of certificates or demonstrable skills will change their minds if you’re coming to them for your first programming job.

However, as I proved for myself, more and more employers are open to hiring without a degree as long as the computer science math and fundamentals have still been learned. They’ll look for some external validation on your resume, whether a degree or a certificate, and then they’ll test you in your interview to make sure you’re the right person for the job. At that point, as long as you have the skills, it doesn’t matter where they came from. 

If you have your dream employer in mind, it may be worth putting them on hold for 2-4 years. You can use that time to get a computer science degree, or you can use it to get a job with an employer who doesn’t need a degree to prove that you have the knowledge and skills to be successful. Then apply when you’re more mature and experienced in your career track. 

The difference between a certificate or a diploma comes down to you.

There are definite advantages to getting a diploma – some people only respect a prestigious degree, and some connections will only come from those universities. Plus, it’s a great way to be spoon-fed the fundamental information you’ll need to get a job.

At a glance, the two paths may look similar: both take some time and some money in most cases to get you proof an employer will respect before you can get an interview. But depending on your current situation, experience, and resources, there may be an obvious best choice for you.

Speaking for myself, I was relieved that I didn’t need a diploma in order to get started in my programming career track. I think a lot of folks come to programming later in life. There are pre-existing notions of what a programmer looks like that pushed me away from a computer science degree when I was younger that I regretted when I grew older, but luckily, there was another route that worked for me.

When it comes to your potential future job in programming, only you will know how the difference between a certificate or a diploma matters for your career. Assessing your resources, your level of knowledge and your ultimate aims will help you get started on the best one for you.

Have questions or feedback?

Follow and hit me up on Twitter @q_vault if you have any questions or comments. If I’ve made a mistake in the article, please let me know so I can get it corrected!

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