Professional development: Books or courses?

Professional development outside of work can come in many forms; some free, some not so free. Under the latter group falls books and courses, and sometimes most people aren’t aware of the subtle differences between the two, or the subtle similarities. Odds are, books are cheaper than courses but is this the only reason to choose them over courses? Or are courses more beneficial because they cost more?

Beyond the factor of cost, it’s important to weigh up the differences and similarities between these two popular options for furthering your career and professional development so that decisions aren’t made in haste or by assumptions.

Before going through these questions on books and courses, it helps if you have a topic or subject in mind, rather than a general enquiry; for example if you’re thinking of learning more about NLP.

Getting the most out of books for professional development

Books are awesome. I read a lot of them on my commute to and from work, or at home on a rainy Sunday.

It’s usually an equal mix of crime thrillers and career development books, and although I’d really enjoy telling you about the most recent whodunit I’ve just read (it was one of victims all along), I want to talk about how to figure out if an industry- or career-related book can sometimes be more beneficial than some courses.

Firstly, you need to really understand the key concepts of getting the best out of your potential book purchase:

  • What does the book promise to do? If this is not clear instantly, then it has no value to anyone
  • Will this provide me the knowledge that I’m looking for? Does this knowledge actually mean something to me, that I can use either now or in the future, or does it just explain what I might already know?
  • Will this level of knowledge suffice? For example, am I happy with the amount of information I’ll get out of it, realising it isn’t enough to warrant a qualification like I would get from a course?
  • Is the reading style to my liking? Grab a random page and read a bit. Is it too serious or does it make too many jokes? Is it poorly paced? Is the typeface too small to comfortably read on a commute for example?
  • Is the price proportionate to the advice I will get from it? It might be a useful book but does it provide £49.99 worth of solid advice, for example?
  • What do the book reviews say?
  • Will the book be handy to use for later referencing, and add to my own personal library? A good book adds meat to your knowledge toolkit (a.k.a. home library) for years to come.
  • Could I get this information from a blog for free? Usually a comprehensive subject or skill is better from a book; a quick bit of advice or ‘how to’ is best from a blog post

Now the last point might seem a low-blow to be written on a blog post but it is something that needs to be considered.

I like books as much as I like looking for information on the internet and sometimes it just makes more sense to read something up on a blog post, for example leading a brainstorming session (ahem, plug), than reading it in a book which I would use for understanding a concept or comprehensive skill, like brainstorming as a general topic but more in depth.

Getting the most out of courses for professional development

Signing up for a course is a big commitment; the benefits it can provide in terms of professional credibility (take a look at this post I wrote about the advantages of paying for your own training) need to be proportionate to the cost (in time, money and mental stamina).

Answering the questions below will help you begin to get an understanding of what the course can offer:

  • What will I be able to do when completing the course? Is this something I will need in furthering my career? Or is it something I only assume I need but isn’t necessary, ie experience is more essential than a qualification?
  • Are the course outcomes aligned to my career aspirations?
  • Is there a chance to test-drive a course – some training providers allow you to see an example of the training material. This gives you a chance to see if the material is any good or matches your expectations in terms of quality and difficulty.
  • Is the course certified ie will there be a recognised qualification at the end of it? Make sure you check that the awarding body is recognised by an awarding standards body like Ofqual or Edexel.
  • If there is a qualification, will this aid me in my career progression and take me to the next step? Or is it not really necessary?
  • Can I afford it? Am I in the position to commit to a finance/instalment plan? Is the price proportionate to the outcomes, and as expected?
  • How long will the course last? Is this a 2 or 3 month commitment or will I still be doing this for the next 2 years?
  • Will I get post-nominals as a result, or once I’ve gained membership to the relevant professional body?

Just to follow on the final point: it’s easy to be attracted to sparkly post-nominals so make sure you’re getting them for the right reasons. The biggest benefit of post-nominals, in my opinion, is that they’re an instant hook for recruiters.

Even if they only see your name in a sea of job applications, they get to see your post-nominals which immediately demonstrate your dedication and level of experience before even looking at the details of your CV.

Make sure that the post-nominals you’re going after will be able to do this, and that they’re relevant. Sparkly post-nominals are great ‘n’ all but not if they don’t contribute to your goals. Refrain from letting your ego make the decision.

MOOCs

It’s also important to explore shorter, free courses – or Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These are mostly free online courses from a range of universities, colleges and vocational training providers.

I’ve used FutureLearn before and really enjoyed working through a couple of their courses so I suggest popping over there and having a look.

So, books or courses?

Once you have worked your way through the questions for both a book and a course, you should have the answers to compare the two together and begin to look at the crucial differences.

Usually as a rule of thumb if the course provides qualifications that you absolutely need then no amount of books can provide you with this. Books provide knowledge but not credentials. Which of the two is more important and aligned to your goals?

The added benefit of courses is that where there’s a course, there’s also tutor support. Books cannot provide further information or elaboration than what’s already provided. Courses on the other hand have tutor support at the end of phone or email.

They can also have an online student community to share ideas, thoughts and questions. The use and standard of these vary considerably and rely on the provider to encourage participation and engagement so don’t be thinking you’ll be making any new bezzie mates if the community isn’t strong.

If the qualification isn’t a necessity and something you don’t particularly fancy, try to not feel compelled to enrol. If you’re looking to expand your knowledge to better aid your decision making or improve your understanding of a particular topic, then the right books can provide a wealth of knowledge quite suitably.

No financial commitment beyond the initial purchase, no lengthy essays, no multiple choice questions. Books are great if you need to expand your know-how, and forking out a huge amount of money on a course isn’t entirely necessary if you aren’t looking to use those qualifications or if they don’t actually contribute to your progression.

Essentially whether you choose a course or a book, the goal is to develop and bring this back into the workplace and this can absolutely be accomplished through books.

And of course, if you’re not a book worm, course-alternatives can expand into podcasts, videos, shorter MOOCs, and other media that can provide you with just as much information.

Whichever route you choose, be aware of your motives and the level of knowledge you need. Not only will this help you make the right choice, it also means the amount of effort you put into developing your professional knowledge is proportionate to the outcome.