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Professional Certifications – an Investment well worth the Effort

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

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The defining characteristic of a professional is the constant drive to be as fully proficient as possible in their chosen endeavor. One standardized way of measuring proficiency in Operations Research and several other fields – notably computer science – are certifications.

A Certification is a voluntary credential that professionals acquire to demonstrate their competence in the community. This is distinctly different than Licensure, which are legally mandated to perform a certain type of work. If certifications are voluntary, why pursue them? To my mind, there are three reasons:

First, to demonstrate your competence to your colleagues (and potential employer)

Second, to demonstrate your competence to yourself

Third, as a goal for self-study.

I’ll address each of these in turn, and then speak to the three professional certifications I currently hold: Certified Analytics Professional (CAP, INFORMS), Accredited Professional Statistician, (PStat, American Statistical Association), Chartered Statistician (CStat, Royal Statistical Society).

For professionals in the fields of Operations Research and Statistics, the need to demonstrate competence has never been greater, and was brought into sharp focus during my recent transition from the US Navy. I never needed to demonstrate my competence via certification inside Navy, because the community is small, we all knew each other, and we all routinely saw examples of each other’s work product. Approaching transition, I realized that the field of people currently claiming membership in the OR “Tribe” was far greater than the true size of our profession. The normal means to overcome this difficulty, showing a portfolio of recent relevant work, was not an option because all of the work I did was privileged (a common problem in our field). Certification from INFORMS was a great way to demonstrate professional competence without sharing work examples.

People take certifications for a number of reasons; I will expound on mine below. The common reasons are because it is mandated by an employer or contract, because the individual wants to demonstrate to others that they have a given level of competence, or that they want to demonstrate to themselves that they are competent. As you will see below, my experience is a mixture of desiring to demonstrate my competence to myself, and some good natured, but pointed, encouragement from my mentors in the broader community. It probably doesn’t matter why a person undertakes a course of action if it is, in the long run, good for both themselves and the Profession.

In short, I took the CAP exam for three reasons; first, because I write a recurring article for INFORMS/Analtyics Magazine, and felt that it may be conspicuous to be a regular contributor without having the certification. Second, my family happened to be out of town the week that the test was offered and I had nothing better to do. Finally, I had dinner with a colleague who was a CAP and he essentially told me to ‘man up’ and do it.

I took the PStat certification for two reasons; first, I have been privately concerned for the past few years that there may be negative growth in Analytics in the future. How can I make such a heretical comment? As was mentioned in the keynote address of the 2016 INFORMS/Analytics conference in April of this year, businesses have put a lot of resources against “Analytics” and do not uniformly feel that they have received the expected return. (note: In my own practice I am hyper-attuned to this sentiment.) I felt that it was important to have a second qualification as a hedge against an uncertain future. However, the real reason was that I had lunch with a colleague who was a PStat and he essentially told me to ‘man up’ and do it. Yes, it is the same colleague from the preceding paragraph.

I took the CStat certification for two reasons, and these are not nearly as satisfying as the preceding two. First, I saw advertised in Significance that for a limited time, the Royal Society would automatically confer CStat status to any PStat holder that applied. This is not simply ‘certificate collecting’ but adds my name to a third professional registry, which may prove useful should I ever desire to do business in the United Kingdom. The real reason, however, is so that I can have a meal with my colleague from the last two paragraphs and it will be my turn to do the goading!

The Process

I will now briefly discuss the mechanics of application for CAP and PStat:

CAP. The Certified Analytics Professional currently consists of a verification of education and experience, verification of soft skills, ethics pledge, and written examination. The best reference for exam preparation is the CAP Website. For those looking to take the exam, I will make two comments:

  1. It is a ‘breadth’ of knowledge exam, not a ‘depth’ exam. There were areas of the exam that I had no education or previous contact with. This is a common experience.

  2. The best way to prepare using the materials from the INFORMS website is to understand not only why the right answers are ‘right’ but also why the wrong answers are ‘incorrect’.

PStat. The Accredited Professional Statistician is different in that there is no written exam. Petitioners must demonstrate professionalism in several areas to include: education, practice, commitment to continued education and ethics pledge. I found this to be more daunting than the CAP process. There is an interesting aspect to PStat that I did not know before sitting in a 15 June webinar by ASA’s Executive Director – applicants who fail to achieve PStat standing are mentored by ASA – given career advice, if you will, as to what personal and professional milestones are next in their careers.

CStat. Because of the conferral agreement, for me this consisted of submitting my credentials from ASA for review by the Royal Society.

“Junior” Qualifications

Both INFORMS and ASA offer lower level qualifications – the “Associate Certified Analytics Professional” and the Graduate Statistician (GStat). These are meant to serve as ‘stepping stones’ for early career professionals enroute to eventual full certification.

I’ve covered the external reasons in this note, and would now like to turn to the internal, personal reasons for seeking certifications. Each one for me has led to a personal reckoning of the state of my career, and what ‘next things’ I should be doing – not just in terms of Practice, but also Scholarship and Service. The satisfaction of having attained certification and (re)affirming your commitment to the Profession and the Profession’s recognition of your efforts is immense, and well worth the price of admission, both in terms of money and ‘sweat equity’.

Article by Harrison Schramm, Principal Operations Research Analyst, CANA Advisors

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