The Zen of Certification: When to Study

You get to work at 8am. Five minutes later you are checking that the backups have run correctly. The phone starts ringing five minutes after that. Colleagues interrupt, meetings happen. You look up and its already time to leave, a sandwich over the keyboard the best you’ve been able to manage for a lunch break. When do you have time to study for certification?


The truth of the matter is that at work you probably don’t have any time to study for certification. To effectively study you need to be able to block out 45-60 minutes of uninterrupted time. Getting 45-60 minutes of uninterrupted time at work is pretty rare in the first place, in the second: you’d be better off using that to get ahead in the tasks that you’ve been employed for.

Many organizations don’t see any benefit in supporting your desire for certification. This might be because they have had the experience of people certifying as a prelude for seeking alternative employment. There is a long history of people attaining a certification and then moving on to greener pastures using their new qualification as leverage.


Your organization might not support your desire for certification because they don’t see any benefit for them in you attaining it. Although some certification vendors promote the idea that if you are certified you know what you are doing, if you've been at a place for a while your manager already has an idea of what you know and what you still have yet to learn, a vendor certificate is redundant.


Of course there is an organizational benefit to certification in that employees with access to training often have much higher morale. Most organizations don’t understand the link between morale and productivity and if they do, try to rectify the situation with things like “Hawaiian Shirt Friday” rather than a training budget.


So it is likely that you don’t have time at work, which means that certification training is likely to come out of your own “away from work” time. Adding anything to your “away from work” time means balancing it with your existing family and extra-curricular commitments.


Unless you live by yourself, you should avoid scheduling certification study time during the time that you should be active with your family. An hour spent with your spouse and kids is likely to be more valuable in the long run than an hour spent learning about DHCP. Unless you are a stress-monkey, you shouldn’t cancel your extra-curricular activities for study either. People tend to learn more effectively when they aren’t stressed. If you have a regular Friday night game of Poker, BattleTech, or D&D you shouldn’t cancel it (unless you spend *every* night playing Poker, BattleTech or D&D!).


I’ve found that there are two good times for certification study. Late at night or very early in the morning. Very early in the morning works better if you get into work at a very early hour. When I was studying for my NT4 MCSE I got into work at 7am, even though work didn’t start until 9am. The building was quiet and I got a good hour or so of study done before other people started turning up to work. I did the same for my Windows 2000 MCSE. A side benefit of this was that managers tend to be hardwired into thinking “gets in very early to work and leaves at the normal time = great employee”. Aim for 45-60 minutes study. Only work on one topic a day.


Studying at lunchtime at work is more difficult as there are lots of distractions. There is also a reason why you get a break for lunch, without some downtime after a busy morning you won't be all that productive in the afternoon.


Just as some people are morning people, some people are evening people. If you fall into the second category, you should plan on studying late at night. If you have a family, this can be after your spouse and kids have gone to bed. Again, don’t go nuts. Aim for 45-60 minutes study. If you spend half the night cramming you are going to be a wreck at work the next day.

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