Formalized Credentials


A lot may be learned through self-education. The success of attempts to learn on one's own may vary based on factors such as the individual trying to learn something, the method of learning (e.g. reading or trial-and-error), and what resources (e.g. which websites, books, or schools) may be used. However, some employers do appreciate seeing certain formalized credentials.

American Education System

Other nations may differ slightly or even substantially in some areas. Here is a general guideline for an educational path that many Americans have taken.

Recognized Achivement Levels

Pre-K, Pre-school, and Day Care pretty much refer to the same concept. These “schools” are often more about providing babysitting services, rather than providing educational learning from trained instructors. However, depending on the organization providing the services, some teaching may occur, such as familiarizing students with the roman alphabet, arabic numerals, and counting.

Primary Education
Elementary/Grammar school

The most critical steps are often learning how to read (hence the term “Grammer school”), compose writings, and performing basic arithmetic (adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing).

This often includes “Kindergarten”, a year before first grade. Some schools might teach Kindergarten for half-days (and teach some students in a morning session, while teaching other students in a later “afternoon” session).

After first grade, a student moves onto second grade. The highest grade that is in “elementary” school may vary based upon the individual school district. In some cases, elementary school may last up through sixth grade. In other cases, elementary school might not progress beyond fourth grade.

“Jr. High”/“Middle” School
This covers whatever grades are after the elementary/grammar schools, up through (and including) eighth grade.
Secondary Education
“High School/“Secondary” Diploma / GED
High School Equivilency

For those who are expelled from, or drop out of, high school, an alternative may be to get a high school equivilency diploma. An example of this is the well-known “GED”. Wikipedia's article for “General Educational Development” states, “Passing the GED test gives those who did not complete high school the opportunity to earn their high school equivalency credential, but no state awards a "GED" per se.” This type of “equivilency” diploma has often been viewed as a lesser accomplishment than a high school diploma, although still a better accomplishment than being a “high school dropout” without at least getting the GED.


However, officially the term stands for “General Educational Development” (based on the trademark by the American Council on Education). People very often refer to this accomplishment by stating each letter of the abbreviation (“jee ee dee”).

The term “GED” has often meant “General Equivalency Diploma”, or “Degree” instead of “Diploma”. This simply means that one of those terms (either “General Equivalency Diploma”, or “General Equivalency Degree”) is what many people believe those letters stand for when the well-known abbreviation of “GED” is used.

College/“Post Secondary”/“Continuing Education”
Undergraduate Programs
Associate's Degree

An Associate's Degree has traditionally represented about two years of course work, which often means taking six “quarters” that take place during the Fall, Winter, and Spring in each of two years.

Hint: Take classes during the summer! Also, take classes during nights/evenings if that works just as well as other times. Summer quarters are often easier, sometimes being shorter in length than other quarters. Some schools have even reduced the challenges/difficulty during summer quarters, such as requiring that a student three writing assignments instead of four writing assignments. Summer quarters may also be cheaper. Summer classes typically provide as much progress towards a degree than non-summer quarters. Evening/night classes may also be a bit prone to offering some of these types of benefits over daytime non-summer classes. Whether this is true or not can vary based on school calendars/scheduling, as well as decisions made by instructors. However, in case these pleasantries do exist, checking out such courses may often be worthwhile.

Just make sure that any classes taken provide “credit” towards a degree. Some colleges may be more prone to offering a larger number of “non-credit” classes during the summer.

An Associate's Degree often involves studying some broad topics including mathematics, language (including experience with writing a research paper), and art (“liberal arts”/“humanities”).

Classes are often assigned numbers within the range of 100 - 299. There may also be courses which are numbered below 100. They are often “remedial” courses, aimed at helping a student get up to speed.

Bachelor's Degree

This involves declaring a major, which is a subject that the student specialized in. This “major” is generally much more specific to a particular interest. For instance, a university might offer a Bachelor's of Science degree with a major called “Computer Science”.

The courses required to get a Bachelor's Degree will typically require all, or most, of the courses needed for an Associate's Degree. Therefore, students will typically get an Associate's Degree first.

Additionally, the Bachelor's Degree will require additional courses. The courses that are designed for Bachelor's Degree students are often assigned numbers in the range of 300 and higher (up to 499 or perhaps some even higher, up to 599). Those courses are often referred to as “upper-level” courses. These courses are typically related to the student's major. So, getting an Associate's Degree will typically involve studying some various topics, while most of the additional courses for a Bachelor's Degree will often be more focused and typically related to the student's declared major.

Traditionally, a Bachelor's Degree required about four years of study (the two years for an Associate's Degree, and then two years beyond that). However, some college programs have become more aggressive, requiring more than 180 college credits. Therefore, students needing additional time, possibly closer to five years total, have become notably more common. (That is assuming that the student does not stop being an active student.)

Like an Associate's Degree, there can be benefit to seeking out summer courses when taking courses for a Bachelor's Degree.

Graduate School
Master's Degree

This typically represents at least one year beyond what a Bachelor's Degree requires.


Ph.D. stands for “philosophiae doctor”, Latin for “Doctor of Philosophy”. Wikipedia's article on “Doctor of Philosophy” states, “In the context of academic degrees, the term "philosophy" does not refer solely to the field of philosophy, but is used in a broader sense in accordance with its original Greek meaning, which is "love of wisdom".”

Ronald T. Azuma's article called “So long, and thanks for the Ph.D.!”, a.k.a. “Everything I wanted to know about C.S. graduate school at the beginning but didn't learn until later.”, also called “The 4th guide in the Hitchhiker's guide trilogy” (the latter title seeming to be where the web page's filename came from) discusses some of Ronald's findings after completing graduate school. A lot of the article is related to helpful choices when interacting with others. One of the very last sentences of the document states, “if you bother to” ... “learn from the people who have already gone through this process, you might graduate two years earlier.”

The article also describes the general goals that make getting a Ph.D. worthwhile. Money was not heavily discussed. Lifestyle was. Some people enjoy trying to help humanity achieve further goals than what has already been accomplished. The Economist's article “Doctoral degrees: The disposable academic”: “Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time” states:

PhD students and contract staff known as “postdocs”, described by one student as “the ugly underbelly of academia”, do much of the research these days. There is a glut of postdocs too. Dr Freeman concluded from pre-2000 data that if American faculty jobs in the life sciences were increasing at 5% a year, just 20% of students would land one. In Canada 80% of postdocs earn $38,600 or less per year before tax?the average salary of a construction worker.

Some other quotes from that article: “Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master's degree.” “A PhD may offer no financial benefit over a master's degree. It can even reduce earnings”

Industry certifications

One step may be to decide which ”track” to pursue. A “track”, as used in the previous sentence, refers to a series of certifications. Note that getting a certification may involve taking more than one exam.

Be familiar with the consequences of using a “brain dump”. Cisco and CompTIA have both specified that “reconstruction through memorization” is prohibited. Be sure to see industry certifications: brain dump.

Some information that was previously located in this section has been split off to a new section on industry certifications, or sub-sections. Here are some references for specific information that was previously in this section.

More credentials
Many places would love to see a nice cover letter and resume. See marking one's own self for details about how some less formalized credentials can help people to present themselves well.