What Are Certifications? Definition, Benefits, Types and Examples

Updated March 10, 2023

Professional certifications can help individuals advance faster in their careers, especially in highly-specialized industries such as human resources, accounting or information technology. While not all certifications are created equal, they do provide assurance of professional competence in tandem with a professional degree or work experience.

In this article, we help you differentiate between the three main types of certification and why it's beneficial to you to seek out certification in your industry.

What are certifications?

Certifications are designated credentials earned by an individual to verify their legitimacy and competence to perform a job. Your certification is typically displayed as a document stating that as a professional, you've been trained, educated and are prepared to meet a specific set of criteria for your role. This statement is awarded only after you've passed the proper assessments administered by a recognized third-party credentialing institution.

Read more: Impress Recruiters With These Desirable Professional Certifications

Certifications vs. licensure

Professional certifications are typically earned through a professional organization or educational institution. If you find that credentialing is required by law before practicing your job, this is called licensure. Licensure is different than professional certification in that for one, it's required by law, as stated above, and it's also obtained through a state agency. In many cases, the processes to become certified strongly resemble the processes of becoming licensed, often only differing only in terms of legality.

The importance of choosing a trustworthy-credentialing body

Credentials are often treated as currency in that they can be used to gain favor among clients or prospective employers and can be built upon for exponential growth. For credentials to be taken at face value, the credentialing institutions from which they're acquired must be a universally-trusted body.

Employers must be able to trust that credentialing materials remain accurate and up to date, and use top-quality content. These institutions are trusted to set the standards of an industry and develop the necessary training to prepare individuals to enter or advance in the field of work they're trained in.

Certification as a complement to education

Professional certification is not a replacement for accredited degree work, but instead is supposed to complement your education or professional experience in your field. Once you've earned a certification, you are given a designation that you can use after your name as a way to distinguish certified professionals from their uncertified peers.

To keep your certification, the administering organization will ask for proof that you've obtained the required continuing education periodically (typically one to five years, depending on the certification) before you are allowed to renew your certification.

Read more: 10 Six-Month Certificate Programs That Pay Well

Benefits of certification

Obtaining professional certification displays your dedication to your profession and provides verification that you're well-trained to effectively use the tools of your industry. Taking the time and effort to obtain these certifications can show potential employers that you are a valuable contributor to your profession and help you gain recognition for your commitment to continuous learning and self-improvement.

The top advantages of becoming certified in your profession, the tools of your industry or within your company include:

  • Competitive advantage

  • Efficiency

  • Earning potential

  • Expand knowledge and skills

  • Professional credibility

Competitive advantage

When you pursue professional certifications in your field, you are giving yourself a head start that your competition may not have. This can make you stand out among other applicants when looking for a job, and even be the determining factor in getting promoted over someone else.

It's important to seize every available advantage in today's competitive market, so be sure to keep yourself up to date on advancements in tools of your profession to stay ahead of your competition.


Beginning your career with the foundation that professional certifications provide means that you're already ahead. The extra training, exclusive information and advanced knowledge gained from the additional training can ensure that you're ready for employment and require less training than other recruits.

Employers appreciate this efficiency and forethought, as it saves them money and valuable resources. Overall, earning professional certifications helps you to maximize your efficiency and effectiveness from day one.

Earning potential

Perhaps the most immediately-coveted benefit of being professionally certified in your field is the increase you see in your earning potential. Not only will you be hired in at a higher position (that comes with higher starting pay), you can look forward to receiving better raises and bonuses in the future, especially if you remain up to date on your certification's renewals and new advancements in your field.

Knowledge and skills

Keeping up to date on emerging industry trends and technology can help you seamlessly integrate new methods and processes into your current routine. Making the effort to continue to grow your knowledge and skills can allow you to remain ahead of others in your field in terms of both expertise and efficiency.

You can look forward to being more productive while continuously increasing the quality of your output and even inventing new products, tools or processes that increase your value exponentially.

Professional credibility

Professional certifications are becoming increasingly valuable to employers, leading to many companies actually requiring said certifications in order to be hired as an employee or consultant.

Not only do they consider it a demonstration of your professionalism and adherence to the highest industry standards, but it also shows that you're willing to keep learning. These qualities can help increase your professional credibility within your professional network, with your clients/employer and in your industry as a whole.

Read more: 9 Certifications to Help You Advance Your Career

Types of certification

There are three overarching classifications of certification. They include:


Corporate certifications are internal certifications created by a corporation for certification purposes within that company and are generally not portable to other corporations. Some examples include:

  • Jet.com's Category Specialist certifications

  • Pilot/Flying J's Management Development certifications, offered through Pilot Flying J University

  • Goldman Sachs' New Analyst and New Associates certifications, offered through Goldman Sachs University

  • Enterprise's Management Training certifications

  • Walgreens' retail, corporate and pharmacy certification programs, offered through Walgreens University


These certifications, otherwise known as role-specific certifications, are specific to certain products and are intended to be carried with the holder across companies that use that specific product. This type of certification is common in inbound marketing and information technology (IT) industries, where professionals are certified to work with certain software or hardware products.

Examples of product-specific certifications include:

  • IASSC (Lean Six Sigma organizational structure methodology)

  • Software certifications, e.g. SalesForce, Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite

  • Google (Analytics, AdWords, Publisher)

  • HubSpot (Sales, Content, Inbound Marketing, Social Media), obtained through HubSpot Academy


The broadest type of certification is profession-wide, a type of certification that is portable to wherever the certified professional may work. For example, a Certified Public Accountant can practice as a CPA across the accounting profession. Other examples might include:

  • CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst)

  • CIPM (Certificate in Investment Performance Measurement)

  • RA (Registered Architect)

  • CPL (Commercial Pilot License)

  • CMP (Certified Meeting Professional)

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