Depending on who you talk to, IT certifications are either the best thing that will ever happen to you or a complete waste of time and money. The truth lies somewhere in between. In some jobs, a relevant certification can set you up for success. But in others, it’s just an unnecessary qualification to take up space on your resume.
So what certifications are worth considering, and how do you know if one is right for you? We’ll share some of the most popular options for sysadmins and help you decide whether certification is the best route up your career ladder.
As a general rule, the best certifications to get are the ones that your company requires. For instance, if the company is looking to work on government contracts, it may need staff who hold specific certifications. However, if you want to start collecting credentials proactively, some certifications are more popular than others.
This certification verifies a professional’s ability to implement cloud initiatives on Amazon Web Services (AWS). To take the Associate exam, participants should have at least 1 year of hands-on experience with AWS. The exam covers designing resilient architectures, high-performing architectures, secure applications and architectures, and cost-optimized architectures.
For the Professional exam, participants should have at least 2 years of experience. Topics include continuous improvement, migration planning, cost control, design for new solutions, and design for organizational complexity.
While AWS Certified Solutions Architect is one of the top-paying certifications, it is also one of the most affordable. The Associate exam costs just $150, while the Professional option is $300.
CISM certification indicates competency in four main areas: information security program development and management, incident management, risk management, and governance. The exam requires 5 or more years of experience in information security management, though waivers are available for up to 2 years.
The exam costs $760, but most CISM certification holders make more than the average sysadmin. ISACA members enjoy a reduced exam registration fee of $575.
A cybersecurity-minded systems administrator may benefit from a CEH certification. This ethical hacking certification incorporates hacking challenges, case studies, malware analysis, and more to help participants understand the techniques of cybercriminals. In addition to the primary certification, you can also work towards CEH Practical certification and CEH Master certification. Individuals are eligible to take the exam if they’ve completed an official EC-Council training or have 2 years of work experience in information security.
Taking the exam typically costs around $1,200.
CISA is a privacy-focused certification that covers five domains: the protection of information assets; information systems operations and business resilience; information systems auditing process; governance and management of IT; and information systems acquisition, development, and implementation. You must have at least 5 years of relevant experience to take the exam. Waivers may be available for up to 3 years of experience.
ISACA members pay $575, while nonmembers pay $760.
The Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) and The Linux Foundation collaborated to develop the CKA program. Kubernetes is an open-source containerization platform that’s rapidly growing in popularity. The curriculum for certification includes troubleshooting; cluster architecture, installation, and configuration; services and networking; workloads and scheduling; and storage. While there aren’t any experience requirements, participants who haven’t used Kubernetes may cry a little.
The online exam costs $375.
CCT certification indicates that recipients are equipped to work with the Cisco Technical Assistance Center (TAC) to resolve support issues, including diagnosis, restoration, repair, and replacement of Cisco devices. CCT certification does not require any prerequisites, but familiarity with Cisco data center systems, routing, and switching comes in handy.
CCT certification is split between three exams, each of which costs $125.
A CCNA certification validates that the recipient has critical networking skills, including the fundamentals of networking, network access, security, IP services, automation, and programmability. CCNA certification doesn’t require any formal prerequisites, but at least 1 year of administering Cisco solutions is beneficial.
This exam costs $300.
If you’re just starting out, CompTIA A+ might help you get your foot in the door of system administration. The exam tests a broad range of skills and knowledge about hardware, networking, mobile devices, operating systems, troubleshooting, virtualization and cloud computing, security, and operational procedures. Since this is an entry-level certification, you don’t need experience to sit for the exam. However, 9 to 12 months in the field may come in handy.
The CompTIA A+ exam costs $239.
If you hope to work in information security for the government, the military, or a business with government contracts, Security+ certification may be right for you. Department of Defense (DoD) Directive 8570 establishes approved baseline certifications. Security+ qualifies for Information Assurance Technical (IAT) level 2, which relates to network environment information assurance. Therefore, Security+ certification is required for some positions.
Security+ helps validate information technology security skills, such as assessing the security posture, monitoring and securing hybrid environments, operating within applicable policies and laws, and identifying and responding to security incidents. CompTIA recommends that participants have at least 2 years in IT with a security focus.
Taking the Security+ exam costs $381.
Server+ validates the recipient’s hands-on skills in installing, managing, and troubleshooting servers in any environment regardless of the platform. This includes data centers, cloud environments, hybrid environments, and on-site servers. Test takers should have at least 2 years of experience working with servers.
There is a $348 fee for this exam.
A Google Certified Professional Cloud Architect understands the ins and outs of Google Cloud. They should be familiar with cloud architecture and able to design solutions, analyze and improve processes, ensure reliability, and manage implementations of cloud architecture and solution infrastructure. Google suggests participants have 3 years of experience in the industry, including 1 year of Google Cloud design and management.
As one of the highest-paying certifications, the registration fee of $200 seems like a bargain.
As the leading Linux certification, LPIC-1 validates real-world Linux system administration capabilities, including maintenance via the command line, computer configuration, and networking configuration. Recipients should understand Linux system architecture, system security, and more. However, there are no formal prerequisites. If you pass the test, you can also continue on to LPIC-2 and LPIC-3.
Each professional-level exam costs $200.
If you’re looking to work extensively with Microsoft Azure, the Azure Administrator Associate certification may be your ticket to success. Topics include the implementation, management, monitoring, and governance of an Azure environment. Those who want to take the exam should have 6 months of Azure administration experience; an understanding of Azure services, workloads, security, and governance; and practical experience with PowerShell, Azure portal, Azure CLI, and Azure Resource Manager templates.
Sitting for the exam costs $165.
While PMP makes the list of top IT certifications, it isn’t technically an IT certification at all. Instead, it’s a project management certification that includes predictive, agile, and hybrid approaches. Still, PMP is one of the leading certifications for IT professionals because it focuses on essential team leadership and process management skills. The requirements to take the exam are pretty steep compared to other options on this list:
36 months of leading projects
35 hours of project management training OR CAPM certification
— OR —
High school diploma OR associate’s degree
60 months of leading projects
35 hours of project management training OR CAPM certification
While this certification may be a little harder to get, sysadmins who hold it often earn significantly more than their uncertified peers. Members pay $405, and nonmembers pay $555.
Red Hat Certified System Administrator (RHCSA) and Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) may both be appropriate Red Hat certifications for sysadmins depending on their goals and interests. An RHCSA-certified professional possesses core system administration skills for Red Hat Enterprise Linux environments. This includes creating shell scripts, configuring local storage, deploying software, and more. RHCE certification builds on RHCSA, adding automation tasks.
The RHCSA certification exam is intended for experienced IT professionals or students who’ve completed previous Red Hat system administration coursework. Sitting for the RHCE exam requires previous RHCSA certification or previous RHCE certification. Each exam carries a $400 charge.
A ServiceNow Certified System Administrator maintains skills and knowledge related to implementation, configuration, and maintenance on the popular platform. To take the exam, participants should complete the ServiceNow Fundamentals course (on demand or instructor led) and have at least 6 months of experience with ServiceNow. The on-demand learning path and subsequent exam cost $300.
If you have implementation, management, and troubleshooting skills in a vSphere infrastructure, VCP-DCV certification can validate them. Certification paths vary depending on whether you hold other VCP certifications. If you don’t, you’re required to take a training course, and you should have experience with vSphere 7.x before sitting for the exam. The exam fee is $250.
According to Skillsoft Global Knowledge’s “2021 IT Skills and Salary Report”, 92% of IT respondents in North America hold at least one certification, and obtaining a new certification was a top factor for 9% of pay increases.
Salary figures from the “2021 IT Skills and Salary Report” also give insight into which certifications may be the most valuable. Here’s how some of the top-paying certifications compare:
|Certification category||Average pay in North America|
|Google Certified Professional Cloud Architect||$160,961|
|AWS Certified Solutions Architect — Associate||$151,730|
|Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)||$146,880|
|Project Management Professional (PMP)||$146,335|
|Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)||$132,026|
|Microsoft Certified: Azure Administrator Associate||$115,353|
|VMware Certified Professional - Data Center Virtualization (VCP-DCV)||$93,297|
Please note that these numbers simply reflect pay trends and are not a direct indication of how you can expect your salary to change. Additionally, other factors also influence how much a sysadmin makes, such as their experience level, location, and industry.
Certifications can provide several potential benefits for sysadmins:
Working towards certification can motivate you to learn more about IT. Even if you already feel you know an exam’s subject matter well, chances are you’ll pick up a few new tips and tricks while you study.
Holding certifications shows employers that you’re knowledgeable in certain areas, giving you instant credibility. While it may seem like your experience should speak for itself, it may be easier for an employer to trust your expertise if an independent third party has verified it through certification. Because of this, some employers require certifications to get the job. Even if the position doesn’t have such a requirement, certification may still give you a leg up on the competition.
At any career stage, a certification can help turbocharge your growth in the IT field. Earning certifications builds a powerful case for promotions and/or pay raises by showing your continued professional growth and commitment to your career. According to Certification Magazine’s 2022 Annual Salary Survey, 79% of professionals felt their skills were in greater demand after certification. Approximately 41% also reported getting a promotion within the first year after their certification, and 56% said they received a pay raise.
Depending on your skill level and the difficulty of the exam, an IT certification may take anywhere from a couple of hours to several years. If you’re already an expert on the topic, you might just brush up on a few key points and then take the exam. However, for more advanced certifications or those that cover less familiar subjects, you may need to invest in a preparatory course and/or dedicate several months to studying.
In general, plan on spending a few months preparing for an exam. Ultimately, ensuring you’re adequately prepared can save you the time, expense, and wounded pride of having to retake the exam over and over again.
The cost of IT certifications varies from around $150 to over $1,500. Entry-level certifications generally have lower price tags than those that require a higher degree of expertise. Don’t forget to also budget for other potential expenses, such as training materials and courses. If you already work in IT, consider asking your employer whether a professional development budget might cover the costs.
Whenever you’re looking to upgrade your skills, a certification may be worthwhile. Here are just a few instances in which you might consider adding one of these credentials:
When you’re just starting out
If you’re trying to break into IT and need to show your skills, a certification might be right for you. This is particularly true if you don’t have much other related experience or education. That said, many certifications require experience, so your options may be limited to entry-level certifications.
When you’re trying to transition to a different specialty
IT is rich in different career fields. If you’ve decided system administration isn’t right for you or you just want to specialize more, a certification can help you pivot.
When you’re looking to advance
Many system administrators report receiving pay increases or promotions after receiving a certification, so it may be the perfect solution to career stagnation.
When your company is willing to pay for it
If your employer wants to pay for a certification program, you might as well get it. You get to look like the hero of the IT department, and it could enhance your future employability. It’s a win-win.
When a job requires it
In some industries, certifications are standard. For instance, DoD Directive 8570 requires baseline certification to validate the skills and knowledge of those in the DoD’s information assurance workforce. IT consultancies also frequently favor certifications as a means of showcasing their staff’s expertise to potential clients.
With dozens of IT certifications to choose from, you have no shortage of options. Unfortunately, that means selecting just one at a time may be nearly as difficult as the exam itself.
Unless your employer requires you to get one particular certification, you might as well learn more about a topic you actually enjoy. Consider what aspects of your job interest you most, what you wish you knew more about, and what IT topics you love enough to skip your nightly PS5 session in favor of studying.
What do you hope to get out of your IT certification? Do you want to improve your skills, advance your career, impress your friends, or do you have some other goal? Understanding your main objectives can help you narrow down your choices.
In a perfect world, you’d have unlimited time and money to learn about whatever you please. But that’s not reality. If you have time and budget restrictions, you’ll also have fewer certification options.
Before you commit to a certification, know what you’re getting into. Read up on what topics it covers, check out any documentation from the certifying body, and peruse Reddit for advice.
PDQ Deploy and Inventory can make your job so much easier, and you don’t even need a certification to use them. These simple solutions streamline patch deployment and systems management to make you look like the world’s best employee. Want more ways to impress your boss? Read the PDQ blog and watch our YouTube channel to keep your IT knowledge on point.
Part writer, part sysadmin fangirl, Meredith gets her kicks diving into the depths of IT lore. When she's not spending quality time behind a computer screen, she's probably curled up under a blanket, silently contemplating the efficacy of napping.