Certification in computer science: What you need to know

Learn more about why certifications in computer science, including IT and cybersecurity, are popular, and which certifications are in demand right now.
Written by Nate Delesline III, Staff Writer
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Computer science certifications are non-degree credentials that verify that you have certain skills in information technology or cybersecurity. Earning a certification in computer science proves you have current, practical, and hands-on knowledge.

Salaries for computer science certificate holders average at around $63,000 according to PayScale, but can reach up to six figures. Continue reading to learn more about the process for — and value — of earning a certification in computer science.

How to earn a certification

The time and effort required to earn a certification depend on your experience with a particular software or digital application. For example, one tech blogger suggests a person with some experience with Amazon Web Services could prepare for the AWS Solution Architect exam in about three weeks, but a complete beginner should set aside six weeks.

In contrast, candidates for the Certified Information Security Manager certification must meet prerequisites that include five years of experience in information security management. (You can submit an experience waiver for a maximum of two years.) Once you establish eligibility, register, and pay for the 150-question long exam, you have a full calendar year — 365 days — to take it. 

Most IT or cyber certification exams are offered online. You can even take some exams from the comfort and privacy of your home. That said, some certifications require exams at in-person testing centers. 

Additionally, few certifications last forever. For example, both the AWS Solution Architect and CISM certifications expire after three years.

What's the value of a certification?

Certifications in computer science generally offer a good return on your investment of time and money. One recent analysis found that 52% of people said cloud-related certifications expanded their career opportunities. 

Computer science certifications usually focus on a single, specific skill or role. That's different from earning an academic degree or diploma in computer science. Degrees and diplomas usually require general education coursework. Each year, about 65,000 US students graduate with computer science degrees. In contrast, hundreds of thousands of IT and cybersecurity professionals have certifications. All of these people are part of a US workforce of about 2.1 million computer science professionals.

More than 80% of people with a cloud certification said they earned a higher salary as a direct result of this credential. On average, IT professionals who gained new skills or certifications saw their pay increase by about $12,000.

Some certifications, like the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert, or CCIE, cost about $2,000 to earn. While you may be able to earn that investment back in salary in a short time, it may be more difficult to quantify the value of your time spent studying and preparing for the test.

These certifications are in demand

There are hundreds of computer science certifications to choose from. To help you make your decision, we've rounded up some of the most popular: 

AWS Certified Solutions Architect — Associate

  • Exam: 65-question multiple-choice test
  • Cost: $150

Companies of all sizes use Amazon Web Services, an Amazon-based technology. This solutions architect certification validates that a person has demonstrated knowledge and ability to design and implement distributed systems on AWS. It's ideal for people with at least one year of hands-on experience with AWS technologies.

Certified Ethical Hacker

  • Exam: 125-questions, multiple-choice test
  • Cost: $1,199

People who pursue the Certified Ethical Hacker, or CEH credential, learn the latest professional hacking techniques and methods. You then apply this knowledge in an ethical, professional manner to help organizations improve their security. People with this certification may work in more than two dozen job roles, including information security analysis, network security engineering, or cybersecurity analysis.

Cisco Certified Network Associate

  • Exam: About 120 multiple choice, single answer, and simulation questions
  • Cost: $300

The CCNA certification demonstrates competence in network fundamentals, like automation and programmability. No prerequisites are required, but Cisco suggests that people pursuing this certification have at least one year of working with Cisco technologies. People who earn this certification may have opportunities to work as entry-level network engineers, help desk technicians, or network administrators.

CompTIA Security+

  • Exam: Up to 90 multiple choice and performance-based questions
  • Cost: $370

This global certification validates that you have a baseline level of skills and knowledge in IT security. The CompTIA Security+ certification indicates you have the skills and knowledge to assess an organization's security situation. This certification also validates that you can recommend and implement security solutions, monitor and secure cloud, mobile, and internet of things environments, and identify and respond to security incidents.

Google Professional Data Engineer

  • Exam: 50 questions
  • Cost: $200

As the use of cloud-based technology continues growing, organizations are finding it harder to fill IT positions. This Google certification demonstrates that you have the skills to design, build, manage and scale up a cloud system that's based on Google technologies. Advantages of earning this certification include the ability to opt into a public credential holder directory created for the certified community. This visibility could facilitate connections for employment and professional networking.

Easy computer certifications

Fast and easy are subjective measures. But consider this: There's a lot of computer science certifications that you can study for in about six months. Check out these three popular entry-level IT certifications that cost $125 or less.

Cisco Certified Technician

  • Average certification study time: Six months
  • Exam cost: $125

This certification verifies your ability to perform on-site diagnosis, repair, and replacement of Cisco networking and system devices. Two CCT paths are available: data center or routing and switching. The CCT Data Center certification covers support and maintenance of Cisco Unified Computing systems and servers, while the routing and switching specialization focuses on on-site support of routers and switches.

Microsoft 365 Fundamentals

  • Average certification study time: Four months
  • Exam cost: $99

This certification proves you understand Microsoft 365 applications and services. These competencies include security, privacy, the benefits of the SaaS cloud model, and user support. Microsoft 365 includes the globally popular Office suite of software, along with cloud-based tools and features. Formerly known as Office 365, more than 50 million people subscribed to Microsoft 365 as of April 2021.

Google Cloud Digital Leader

  • Average certification study time: Two weeks
  • Exam cost: $99

This certification assesses three areas of knowledge: Google Cloud products and services, Google Cloud knowledge, and general cloud knowledge. People with this certification are "well-versed in basic cloud concepts and can demonstrate a broad application of cloud computing knowledge in a variety of applications." The company says Google Cloud-Certified professional architects may earn an average salary of $139,529.

This article was reviewed by Brian Nichols

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Born and raised in upstate New York, Brian Nichols began his IT education through a vocational high school where he focused on computer science, IT fundamentals, and networking. Brian then went to his local community college, where he received his associate of science in computer information science. He then received his bachelor of science in applied networking and system administration from a private college. Brian now lives in Kansas City, where he works full-time as a DevOps engineer. Brian is also a part-time instructor in cybersecurity. He's passionate about cybersecurity and helping students succeed. 

Brian Nichols is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network. 

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