Grow your skillset: how you can advance your career with a professional certificate | Your career compass

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After leaving school, Kevin Curtis spent 20 years working as a call operator in a security operations centre. It’s a job he’d still be doing now if he hadn’t had his interest piqued in building websites after starting a blog. He took an online course in coding to find out more – and that, he says, “sparked an interest which eventually became an interest in data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence”.

This intrigue eventually led to a career change. Curtis now works as a data entry coordinator for a corporate investment firm, a new direction he sought after studying for the IBM Data Science Professional Certificate on Coursera. “The programme goes through the process of getting information, gathering, preparing and then visualising data and putting it through basic machine learning algorithms,” he says.

For those like Curtis who don’t have many formal qualifications, Coursera offers the opportunity to acquire the in-demand business skills needed to change careers. With 5,200 courses available, there’s plenty of choice. They range from introductory courses for beginners to bachelor’s and master’s degrees from world-class universities – and everything in between.

Anyone who wants to find out more about online learning has the option to take one of the many free courses on offer, but many choose, as Curtis did, to work towards completing a Professional Certificate programme – a course typically lasting a few months, in which learners can build job-specific skills such as project management, digital marketing and cybersecurity. Professional Certificates, offered in partnership with global businesses, such as the Google Data Analytics Professional Certificate, IBM Data Science Professional Certificate and Meta Social Media Marketing Professional, are highly valued by employers and can help you gain new skills that enable you to switch careers.

Although students typically spend about eight hours a week in study, a principal attraction of Coursera is that students can work at their own pace. Curtis has now taken dozens of Coursera programmes, including the IBM Applied AI Professional Certificate. The suggested length of time for study was six months, but he completed it in just one. “I just fly through those things, especially when you have some knowledge already on those areas,” he says.

Learning is asynchronous (you don’t have to attend a lecture or seminar at a set time), and study materials are typically a mix of short videos and set texts, with revision quizzes to test knowledge at the end of each module. You can, however, ask questions to tutors or join an online discussion forum with other students.

Students can pay for each course individually, but Curtis chose the Coursera Plus option, which, for an annual subscription of £329, provides unlimited access to more than 90% of the learning programmes. Whenever he wants to learn a new skill for work, he turns to Coursera. “The annual subscription for me is brilliant because I dip in and out of things all the time. It’s a huge catalogue of different skills.”

Students can study in their own time, using videos and set texts. Photograph: Tom Werner/Getty Images

Like Curtis, John Guinn doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree, but has used Coursera as a way to acquire and expand his professional skills. Guinn started his career as a telecoms engineer before setting up a travel agency. A weekly gig as a travel expert on a community radio show led to an interest in journalism, and he took a master’s degree in online journalism with a university – although this was not done through Coursera. He now works as a local news journalist, reporting on the activities of local authorities.

For Guinn, Coursera has offered him an easily accessible way of gaining the skills he needs to enable him to improve at his job. He has taken seven courses so far, including a short course on scepticism, offered by the University of California, to improve his ability to ask thoughtful questions. “Although my online journalism master’s taught me how to do online journalism, it didn’t teach me how to be a journalist,” he says.

Another Coursera course where he enriched his knowledge, and hence his questioning skills, was the Act on Climate: Steps to Individual, Community, and Political Action course, run by the University of Michigan. This has enabled Guinn to challenge local authorities directly about their policies relating to climate change.

The other courses he’s studied, more technical in nature, such as Visualization for Data Journalism, have taught him how to analyse and visualise data. These have been invaluable in enabling him to spot information tucked away in the spreadsheets that local authorities are legally required to publish. Close analyses can generate important local news stories by revealing information that a local authority is reluctant to publicise. It has enabled Guinn to spot, for example, that, despite making public pronouncements about the importance of recycling, one council’s recycling rate has gone down while its incineration rate has gone up.

Guinn plans to continue taking Coursera courses to sharpen his journalism and data analysis skills and, like Curtis, has signed up for an annual Coursera Plus subscription. He hopes these skills will help him move into more in-depth investigative journalism, focusing, in particular, on climate change.

Both Guinn and Curtis have found that Coursera courses can be life-transforming, contributing to their current positions. “Based on the value I’ve got from it, I’d absolutely recommend it,” says Curtis.

Whether you’re at the beginning of your career journey or looking to enhance your skillset to make a mid-career transition, you can choose from a range of learning experiences on Coursera to find the programmes that are right for you.

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