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.

 

 

When work won’t pay for training

As avid doers, we love a good course: a structured and linear progression towards a shiny new qualification (and even a shinier post-nominal) which gives us more competence and confidence in a particular topic, and which will lead to promotions, your own executive office and world domination.

Just one snag – work won’t pay for it. It might be development that you can bring back into your job (even at a push, I’m sure the principles behind crochet can be applied to the corporate world) but for one reason or another, work are unable to fund it.

Perfect. By the way, if there was a grammatical way to type a word that doesn’t sound sarcastic, I could have done with it there. It really is a blessing in disguise that work won’t pay for training or a course, or in other words, that you have to fund it yourself. If you have your heart set for a particular course, and a particular topic you want to develop, then you would be doing it one way or another anyway (if you’re as stubborn as me).

You see, funding your own course has so many benefits:

  • you get to choose how you want to take the course (online, classroom, weekends, evening)
  • you get to choose the course to complete. The topic doesn’t therefore necessarily need to relate directly (or at all) to you current role
  • you get to choose the provider. If the topic is offered from a number of course providers, you can choose the one that suits your needs, budget, membership benefits and general preference.
  • you have no obligation to finish the course if it’s a load of pants (I’d strongly recommend you finish it anyway but you won’t feel obliged to do it because work are paying for it)
  • the sense of accomplishment when you complete the course feels so much stronger knowing that it was on your own steam than if you did it as part of work
  • you have no strings attached to your employer. You could leave your company the day after you completed the course without any guilt (or debt if your company has a clause that repayment needs to be made within a certain time after the course if you leave)
  • but the best benefit of funding your own training is that it shows absolute professional determination and initiative to your current, and future employers

Professional determination and initiative 

I cannot begin to tell you how good this will look to your current and future employers as it really illustrates your determination and perseverance. In interviews you get to also explain why you funded it yourself – not “oh, them there wouldn’t pay for it! Grr!” – but that you assessed your own skills and abilities, you understood what was required of you in this, and any future role, and you proactively sought to bridge that gap by taking the course by any means necessary.

It’s also important to remember that taking a course or enrolling on any sort of training doesn’t always have to improve your career prospects. This might initially sound contradicting to the whole ethos of The Avid Doer ie career progression and getting where you want to be professionally. To me though, I believe you can progress and develop yourself without necessarily having better career prospects as an end goal (new job, promotion etc.), but instead so you can progress and develop in your own role. These additional skills help boost your productivity, performance, efficiency and confidence in your current role, and really make it your own.

Unrelated qualifications

This approach also explains to employers why you underwent seemingly unrelated qualifications to the current role as it was appropriate at the time to learn that particular skill even though it wouldn’t have led to better prospects.

For example, if someone wanting to work their way up in accountancy but has a qualification in marketing, it’s still worth mentioning why they decided to train in that, which clears up any doubt of in their dedication to the field but also recognises a qualification they would have still worked hard for.

Of course you will have to be selective in which ones you decide to include, but you need to identify which skills you picked up during, and as a result of, completing the unrelated qualification are transferable to your current or prospective role.

But when it comes to your existing employer not paying for the unrelated qualification, you can still follow this process of identifying the transferable skills and how they will play a part in your existing role.

“But courses are expensive” 

I hear that. Funding your own training does, obviously and non-figuratively come at a cost. It also relies heavily on your personal and financial circumstances.

Luckily, training online, or “distance learning” keeps costs down, and most even allow students to pay for the course in installments. And most will even qualify you to be an actual student ie student card discounts!

Other qualifications also allow people to just sit the exams; the Certified Insurance Institute for example have exam areas around the UK for people to complete their tests. Before this, those sitting the exam would have just needed to buy the relevant books and studied that way, rather than just enrolling in a course. So the total cost would just be the books and the exam fee. However if you’re the sort that needs a tutor to talk you through the content or to motivate you into completing chapters etc. this self-learning approach might not suit you.

I am a huge fan of learning and development (“L&D” in the bizz) and also of distance learning, so much so that it’s worthy of its own post which I will be publishing soon. I’ll be writing about picking the right course, finding the right way of doing it, making the time and tips on self-discipline.

In the meantime look at what’s available out there; I think you’ll find they’re a lot more affordable than you realise. Of course before you commit to any financial commitment like an installment plan, you should always do your sums and seek professional financial advice if appropriate. You should also assess the amount of return on investment ie will the benefits of gaining this qualification outweigh the cost and time it will take to complete it.

If it is an expensive course, the benefits really need to be tangible to your existing role (or your career aspirations) and speaking with your manager will help eliminate the possibility that the course isn’t necessary for your existing role (which might have been the reason why they decided not to fund your course).

So that’s why all is not lost if work decide they’re not footing the bill for your course. Dare I say it’s better they’re not paying for it as by funding it yourself, you add so much weight to the qualification, demonstrating to your current and future employers that you have the get-up-and-go to learn what you need and want to learn come what may. It also demonstrates you’re not one for giving up at the first sign of resistance and instead find other ways to develop yourself.