Guide to Professional Qualifications

By Michelle Collett

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Whether you work in industry or a University, want to study, but not an academic qualification, then there is a breadth of professional qualifications available and in many professions they are a lot more than a CV enhancer, but act as a prerequisite for promotion.  

Subjects include Accountancy, Management, HR (CIPD), Aviation, Insurance, Computers, Public Relations (CIPR), Languages, Supply Chain Management, and Marketing (CIM), to name but a few. The length, cost and quality of the courses all differ greatly as does the amount of dedication required to complete and pass them.

Accountancy requires people to join a professional body e.g. ACCA, and study to become certified. The Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS) requires you to be a member while studying and to remain a member after qualifying while undertaking Continuous Professional Development (CPD), as do many others.

How to decide which course is for you

Obviously if you are already in a certain profession and have been for some time, or you have taken a specific degree and wish to stay in that field, then the choice of course is probably obvious. Alternatively you may have a generic degree or be interested in moving into a new profession.

In both circumstances you may find your degree or work experience means you are exempt from parts or complete levels of the qualification. Many institutions are accredited centres to the qualification; therefore strive to ensure the undergraduate or postgraduate diploma covers the necessary material to ensure you are exempt. 

Another major consideration, particularly if there is more than one course in the same field in which you are interested, is the method of assessment, and what your expertise and dreaded types are. The CIPD Postgraduate diploma requires students to sit exams, undertake assignments individually and in groups, presentations and workshops.

The most important thing is to select a course which will motivate you into attending lectures, even in the winter when it is dark and raining! Many people find it useful to allocate some time for reading, also be prepared that occasionally you may need to sacrifice your weekends to study rather than spending time in the pub or at the park with the kids! 

Where to study 

The range of locations to study professional courses has grown greatly within the last decade with Further Education and Higher Education colleges realising the monetary value of the more courses over the more practical/ vocational course they have traditionally offered e.g. flower arranging and bakery short courses.

The best way to locate a course is after deciding which you will benefit/ enjoy the most, (see above) then visiting the relevant website. Most of these have a comprehensive list of the tuition providers (accredited/approved centres) available both in the United Kingdom and abroad. 

Another valid option is to study via distance learning. This obviously will appeal if you need flexibility when you study due to work or home commitments. However this requires even more dedication and self motivation.

It is best to set aside a certain amount of time every week with no distractions. Therefore it may be best to visit a library or barricade yourself in a study away from children! Set yourself targets to meet, particularly as you are likely to have less discipline than you would get from visiting a regular class. 

Most courses offer a range of online tools to support you including a tutor, ensure you read a few reviews of the home study programme before choosing which you will take to guarantee you will get the kind of support you require.

Attend any revision sessions a few weeks before the exams; although they are long and strenuous, everyone there is in the same position as you and may have different experiences of the course. It is also a good chance to get examples from various companies.

Costs & Contracts

The cost is obviously dependant on the course, level and length, plus the sector you work in. As mentioned earlier the courses are usually part-time so although they take a toll on your personal and social time, you can still work and earn a salary.

If the qualification is being demanded for your role or required for you to progress in your career, your company may offer part or full support with the funding.  Increasingly companies are gaining ‘Investors in People' status and have funds available specifically for staff development. As well as offering financial support they may offer additional benefits including away days or exam leave.

A recent report conducted by blessingwhite (www.blessingwhite.com), found that potential employee's top criteria when selecting their next position was Interesting work (work that challenges me, stimulates my intellect, or helps me broaden my knowledge or skills), with 38% overall. This explains why so many companies are willing to pay for courses if they then gain the best employees.

Many people may accept a job where professional development is offered over another particularly when straight out of University as the fees for a new graduate are unlikely to be available. Many graduate schemes also offer internal courses, and most are likely to be mandatory rather than voluntary.

If you are planning to take any course it is worth while asking your manager or HR department what support you will be offered before getting half way through and realising you have no annual leave left but have exams to take!

If you are lucky and get financial support for your course from your employer then you should expect to sign a contract of some kind. Dependent on the employer it could require you to completely reimburse your employer if you leave before a certain amount of time has passed e.g. two years from either commencement or completion of course. In accountancy the contract is usually between 3 and 5 years.

Alternatively you may have to pay back a percentage of the costs dependent on how soon after you leave e.g. if you leave after 1 year of completion you pay back 50%, after 18 months 25% and so on.

How to use your new found qualification

You will find the qualification has monetary and progression benefits. In many professions a certain level of qualification is required before you can take the next step on the career ladder. Some courses including CIPR are recognised by some universities for University programmes.

When completing your qualification it is a good idea to commit yourself to CPD (continuing professional development) in your spare time before you get used to the lie-ins and free time. This can include reading relevant magazines and attending conferences and courses. Look out for the CPD article.

Useful links

Chartered Institute of Marketing

Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply

Association of Chartered Certified Accountants

Chartered Institute of Public Relations

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