Almost all IT jobs, even those at entry level, require either an associate’s degree and/or some sort of certification, such as CCNA certification. Whether you start with an associate’s degree then pursue CCNA certification, or get your CCNA certification followed by an associate’s degree, or just go with CCNA certification really depends on your career path and the particular job for which you are applying.
Every job description and requirements list is slightly different, and companies also value on-the-job training. Nevertheless, being able to list a degree and/or certification on your resume will help you stand out over candidates without such credentials. A degree and/or certification also increases your chances of negotiating a higher initial salary and future salary increases.
Completion of a CCNA boot camp may also be a worthwhile endeavor, even if you do not immediately take the CCNA certification exam. In addition, you can consider additional certification programs that relate to your computer networking career, such as the Computing Technology Industry Association’s (CompTIA’s)
Network+ certification program and soft-skill certifications such as project management and team leadership certifications. A 2010 study conducted by TechRepublic (an online technical community) revealed that project management certification enabled IT professionals to earn an average of 26% more annually compared to non-certified computer professionals. A study sponsored by Dice Learning (a technical training and certification services firm) showed that Microsoft and Cisco certifications are especially associated with higher annual salaries.
An associate’s degree in computer networking—either an Associate’s of Arts (AA) degree or an Associate’s of Science (AS) degree—is a two-year degree that will provide you with basic knowledge of computer networks and can serve as a basis for obtaining CCNA certification. You will learn how to build, troubleshoot, and maintain computer networks; monitor and analyze networks; use networking protocols; maintain network security; identify, interpret, and evaluate system and network requirements; and so on. According to “The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings,” published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2002, high-school graduates can expect an average annual income of $30,400, whereas those with an associate’s degree can expect a 25% increase over that to $38,200 (earnings are in 1999 dollars).
Many schools offer an AA or AS degree in network administration or network security. Although an associate’s degree isn’t as advanced as a bachelor’s degree, it offers the advantages of being quicker to complete and less expensive than a four-year degree.
When choosing a school for your networking associate’s degree, make sure it is a good school that is accredited both by the U.S. Department of Education in general, and by the Accreditation Board for Engineering & Technology’s (ABET’s) Computer Sciences Accreditation Board (CSAB). To help narrow the school choices, talk to other students who attend schools in which you are interested, and visit campuses to meet instructors and examine the classrooms and labs.
Not all networking degrees are the same, so investigate the curriculum to be sure it covers what you want to learn. One way to do this is to request and examine each school’s list of required courses for the degree. Other criteria to consider include the availability of internships, student-teacher ratio, cost, and post-graduation support such as career counseling, job placement assistance, and resume preparation services.
Associate’s degrees in computer networking can prepare you for various computer networking careers, including the following job titles:
- Computer Support Specialist
- Help Desk Technician
- Computer Networking Technician
- Intranet Networking Technician
- Network Administrator
- Infrastructure Engineer • Systems Analyst Technician
- Field Engineering Technician
- Network Engineer
- Network Support Specialist
- Router Engineer/Technician
- WAN Administrator
Often, an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in computer networking is broadly based and geared toward general networking concepts. CCNA certification, offered by Cisco Systems itself, is more narrowly focused on Cisco Systems’ equipment (which, while similar in many instances to other vendors’ networking hardware, can be quite different in certain cases). Achieving CCNA certification is a good way to demonstrate you possess a solid background using Cisco equipment. IT professionals with a CCNA certification can usually demand higher wages and stand a better chance of being promoted.
Also, computer networking technology changes rapidly, and CCNA certification indicates that you have kept up with these changes, because you have to renew the CCNA certification every three years by taking another exam. Although this can seem daunting and can involve expense (a Cisco exam usually costs about $125 to $250), it is worth it to stay abreast of what’s new in computer networking.
There only prerequisite to taking the CCNA exam is that you be prepared for it. One way to do this is to take classes from Cisco itself through its Cisco Learning Network. Cisco offers two five-day training classes related to CCNA certification: Interconnecting Cisco Networking Devices Part 1 (ICND1) and Interconnecting Cisco Networking Devices Part 2 (ICND2). Taking the classes however, does not guarantee that you will pass the CCNA exam—only that you will be prepared.
It is unlikely that taking these two classes will entirely prepare you for the exam. Another route for preparation is the Cisco Networking Academy. There are more than 2,000 locations in the United States where you can take Networking Academy classes. (Cisco also has Networking Academies worldwide.)
Typically, Networking Academy curricula cover CCNA topics using a modular approach, such as “CCNA Discovery” and “CCNA Exploration.” These modules break down the topics into manageable chunks. Classes at a Networking Academy are usually a few hours each day. This approach can help you concentrate on your studies if you are easily distracted when studying at home. You can learn more about Cisco Networking Academies online.
You will probably also want to buy some books and training videos, experiment with sample Cisco equipment, and perhaps attend a CCNA boot camp. Usually, preparing for the CCNA exam takes about six to nine months—and not everyone passes the first time!
If you have little or no experience with networking, you may want to obtain a more entry-level networking certification before attempting the CCNA exam, such as the Computing Technology Industry Association’s (CompTIA’s) Network+ certification.
CCNA Boot Camp
An “immersion experience” can help you learn something quickly and thoroughly. For example, a person who wants to learn Spanish might learn it from a book, but moving to Spain and having to speak and think in Spanish all day long will provide a better learning environment (if a bit more stressful).
The same is true for CCNA boot camps, which are a popular avenue for obtaining CCNA certification. These intensive training courses are usually six to ten days long and immerse you in networking so that you pretty much live, breathe, eat, and even sleep with networking concepts running through your mind. Before taking a CCNA boot camp, you should be familiar with basic networking concepts such as TCP/IP, IP configuration, subnetting, routing tables, and other network standards.
CCNA boot camps provide a comprehensive and hands-on environment in which to learn networking concepts that would be difficult to achieve if you were studying by yourself. On the down side, CCNA boot camps are pretty expensive—the price can range from $1,500 to close to $4,000 (some financing can be available, depending on the training firm). Boot camps also usually involve travel time and expenses.
There are many companies that offer CCNA boot camps. As with any training material, beware of programs that guarantee you will pass the CCNA exam—read the fine print to see if you really get your money back if you don’t pass!
Online Certification Programs
Although you must take the CCNA certification exam in an actual classroom, many CCNA training classes are offered online. Other computer networking-related certifications, such as the Network+ and A+ certifications available from the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), are obtainable without attending a physical classroom—all the testing is done online.
Online learning, sometimes called distance learning, works well for some people, but not so well for others because people have different learning styles. To do well with a course offered online, you should be good at managing your own time. That is, set goals, determine a schedule to accomplish those goals, and stick to the schedule. You also need to be an independent learner. With online learning, there is no face-to-face interaction with the instructor or other class members (although you may be able to chat real-time with them in some cases).
Taking an online class eliminates travel time and costs. Considering the cost of gasoline these days, this can represent a substantial savings. Also, online courses enable you to take classes that are not offered at local brick-and-mortar schools in your community. On the other hand, because online classes do not include classroom presentations, they do little to develop your oral communication skills.
Every state has many online-learning opportunities for those interested in a career in computer networking, and there are several very good online-only learning institutions. When choosing an online program, consider the following:
- Accreditation: The learning institution should be accredited by a respected accreditation agency, such as the Accreditation Board for Engineering & Technology’s (ABET) Computer Sciences Accreditation Board (CSAB). A certification from a non-accredited school isn’t even worth the paper it’s printed on.
Certification Topics: Obtain the curriculum to see if the syllabus, textbooks, and other course materials cover relevant, up-to-date technology and information. Also find out the credentials of the instructor(s).
- Length of Program: How long a particular online program takes depends entirely on the individual programs. Some can take a few weeks, others six months, still others a year or more. Consider your other time commitments before choosing a program to ensure you can complete the program.
- Prerequisites: Research the prerequisites for any program you are considering. For example, some programs may require an associate’s degree in networking or an entry-level networking certification, while others may not have any prerequisites at all.
- Methodology: The best online educational programs use advanced online features, such as real-time chat, social media communication (such as Facebook), video conferencing with professors and other students, wikis, blogs, and simulations. These alternatives to textbook learning reinforce the material you are covering, give you a chance to ask questions and interact with other students, and extend your knowledge.