While certifications and licenses might relate to the same field or share other similarities, they are usually two different things. Certification is proof that a person has successfully completed a program or has satisfactorily met the requirements of an external body. A license legally allows a person to do a certain thing. People with certification have successfully completed specific requirements. They might receive certification after successfully graduating from an educational institution or other program, passing certain tests, or a combination of the two. Organizations such as professional boards grant certifications to people who have met the standards the boards have set for those professions.
In the counseling profession, for example, the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) certifies people who have met its professional requirements. People with this certification are known as National Certified Counselors. Counselors can even earn additional certifications based on their practice specialties. This national certification is recognized throughout the United States and in other countries. Certification is not the same thing as earning a professional counseling license, although it may help a counselor attain a license to practice. In some cases, however, certification and licensing are the same; for instance, in education, a person who has earned a teaching certification from a U.S. state has a license to teach in that state.
States grant professional licenses after people have met certain requirements. These requirements typically involve graduating from particular educational programs and passing an examination or a series of examinations that relate to the profession. The examinations may be the same in several different states, or they may differ according to the state issuing them. In the legal field, most states grant law licenses after bar organizations in the states determine that a person has a law degree and has performed well on different law examinations.
The history of certification and licensing varies according to the field in question. Each professional field has its own certification and licensing processes, and these processes differ by state and between the state and federal levels. Certification and licensing are relatively new phenomena. In the field of education, American schools began offering classes to educate teachers in the nineteenth century, and by the 1950s most states had boards that certified teachers. Teaching certification requirements for most states are similar, although not identical. Beginning in the 1980s, teachers were eligible to earn a National Board Certification, a national, voluntary certification different from the state's mandatory certification that allows them to teach. Another example of voluntary education certification on the national level is the Professional Certification Program offered by the Music Teachers National Association. Supporters of these types of certifications say that the credentials recognize professional work and could lead to higher salaries.
Medical licensing in the United States has a rich history. The U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights allows states to oversee medical matters in their jurisdictions. In the nineteenth century states formally began to license doctors and to establish state medical boards to provide oversight over medical matters. States still have the authority to issue medical licenses, although their requirements differ from state to state.
State-related licensing differences also exist in other fields. In the legal profession, some states require their own legal examinations as part of the licensing process, and some states require that people join the state's bar association in order to receive a law license.
There are several different types of certifications. Some are voluntary. Psychological counselors, for instance, often do not need certification to practice their professions, but many earn certifications because they feel it enhances the professional nature of their own career and the field as a whole. These certifications often allow counselors to receive professional recognition anywhere in the United States, and sometimes higher pay as well. After additional work and examinations, some counselors earn voluntary certifications in specialty areas such as school counseling, clinical mental health counseling, or addictions counseling.
For teachers, mandatory state certifications are required. Professional licenses are also not voluntary, but mandatory. In the state of New York, for example, people need state licenses to work in several professions, including funeral director, barber, nurse, real-estate broker, bus driver, insurance agent, doctor, and lawyer. Licensing allows states to determine if candidates are initially qualified to practice certain professions. It also allows states to regulate the workers’ performance once they are pursuing their professions, even revoking a person's license if his or her professional performance is deemed unsatisfactory.
U.S. states issue a variety of licenses within a particular field, allowing license holders to accomplish different goals. There are a number of types of medical licenses, for example. In the state of Maine alone, there are separate licenses for doctors working through their residencies, doctors who work solely as administrators, doctors who work as volunteers, and doctors working on a temporary basis. Some states have separate licensing boards for medical doctors and doctors of osteopathic medicine.
States also issue different types of driver's licenses, including general driver's licenses known as operator licenses, for motorists driving regular automobiles, and chauffeur licenses, for people who drive vehicles to transport small segments of the public for commercial purposes. In fact, because licensing is such a large part of state operations, states often operate entire departments related to licensing. These departments include the Washington State Department of Licensing, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, and Michigan's Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA).
Whether a person wants to earn a certification or a license, the process is often broadly similar. A person typically has to complete some sort of educational program and then pass one or more tests related to the certification or license that he or she seeks. Certification and licensing boards also often require candidates to have completed work related to the certification or license in question. Such boards also frequently require candidates to pay fees to obtain certifications and licenses.
Once a person has received a certification or license, the process does not end. Professionals must pay fees and complete forms to renew their certifications and licenses on a periodic basis. They can sometimes complete part of the renewal process online. More importantly, professionals often have to work a certain number of hours or earn continuing-education credits to keep their certifications or licenses current. The renewal process allows certification and licensing boards to obtain the most current information on the professionals and encourages professionals to stay current in their fields of practice.
Geography influences licensing and certification. U.S. states do not always have the same criteria for licensing and certifying professionals. In the counseling profession, for example, the amount of educational credit hours needed for people to receive counseling licenses varies from state to state. Individual states also have different laws and regulations regarding the counseling profession.
License portability is another geographic issue relating to licensing. License portability means the holder of a license can practice in different geographic areas, not just in the location that issued the license. Members of professional and certifying organizations often support this portability because they believe that the uniformity of the rules and regulations strengthens the profession in question. License portability also helps logistically, allowing professionals to practice in more than one geographic area at once or to relocate to a different region more easily.
Geography also complicates certification. While the counseling profession's National Certified Counselors have certification in all states of the United States, individual states grant their own types of certification. In the field of education, individual states certify teachers to work in their states. Teachers who transfer their certification to other states might have to meet additional requirements there.
Because there are so many types of certifications, you should research whether you need to earn certification to work in your chosen field, as in the case of state education certifications. You should research whether you want to earn a more voluntary type of certification, such as counseling certification. If so, you should find out what kind of certifications exist and what you need to do to attain them. You could also investigate what certification could mean for your future career and whether your certifications could transfer to other geographic areas.
Several resources are available to help you explore the certification and licensing processes. You could ask instructors and counselors at your educational institution, because they are likely to have considerable experience with students who have gone through the processes recently. Asking professionals about their certifications and licenses could also be helpful. People with such firsthand knowledge may give you useful tips about what does and does not work in the certification and licensing processes.
The Internet has a wealth of information about licensing and certification issues, including sample questions for certification and licensing examinations as well as information on state laws. The websites of professional and state government boards are particularly useful, because they often provide detailed explanations of the certifications and licenses that they grant. You can also use the Internet to find the websites of various companies and contact people at those workplaces to ask them about the certifications and licenses needed for a particular career. Message boards are another way to contact people and ask questions, while general searches on certification and professional licenses could yield useful information. Aside from the Internet, libraries often have magazines and journals that target specific professions. These periodicals may contain information about certification and licensing for those professions.