Starting a Career in Databases

What are employers really looking for?

Server room, computer, technology,
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Maybe you're just starting out in the professional world and have settled on IT as a possible profession. Or maybe you want to switch over after years working in a completely different career. Either way, it's helpful to know what it will actually take to get your foot in the door. Here we explore the experience, education, and professional credentials that employers are likely to be looking for when hiring for IT positions, especially database administration.

Experience

Every job searcher is familiar with the novice’s paradox: “You can’t get a job without experience but you can’t get experience without a job.” If you’re an aspiring database professional without work experience in the field, what are your options?

Zero Experience

If you truly have no IT industry work experience, your best bet is probably to seek out an entry-level job as a help desk agent or as a junior database analyst. These jobs aren't glamorous and won't help you buy your dream home. But this type of "in the trenches" work will give you exposure to a variety of tools and techniques.

After you've spent a year or two working in this type of environment, you should be ready to seek a promotion at your current place of employment or add this experience to your resume and look for a position somewhere else.

A Little Experience

If you have some experience, you have a bit more flexibility. You’re probably qualified for a higher-level position as a system administrator or in a similar role. If your eventual goal is to become a database administrator, seek out a smaller company that uses databases in their day-to-day operations.

Once you’re on the job, gradually begin to assume some database administration roles and soon you’ll be a skilled database administrator through on-the-job training.

Alternative Options

If neither of these options works for you, consider volunteering your database skills for a local nonprofit organization. Seek out a worthy group that could use a database designer/administrator. Take on a couple such projects, add them to your resume, and see if that helps you get more interviews for paid positions.

Education

In the past, technical recruiters would tell you to not even bother applying for a technical position in the database industry unless you held at least a Bachelor’s degree in computer science. The explosive growth of the internet, however, created such a large demand for database administrators that many employers were forced to reconsider this requirement.

It’s now commonplace to find graduates of vocational/technical programs and self-taught database administrators with no more than a high school education holding positions once reserved for college graduates. That said, holding a computer science degree will definitely enhance your resume and make you stand out from the crowd.

If your eventual goal is to move into a future management role, a degree is usually considered essential.

If you don’t have a degree, what can you do to increase your marketability in the short term? First, consider starting a computer science degree program. Check with your local colleges and universities to find one that offers a program compatible with your schedule. Be sure to take some computer science and database courses immediately. Depending on what school you go to, you may need to take general education courses to earn your degree. But you can save them for later to increase your marketability now.

Second, if you're willing to shell out big bucks (or happen to be working for an employer that will cover the cost for your), consider taking database classes from a technical training school. Their programs offer week-long courses introducing you to the concepts of database administration.

Expect to pay several thousand dollars a week for the privilege of gaining this knowledge so quickly.

Professional Credentials

As many aspiring database professionals have discovered the hard way, earning a technical certification alone doesn't qualify you to walk in off the street and claim a job at the employer of your choice. However, combined with other elements of your resume, professional certifications can separate you from the crowd. If you've decided to seek a technical certification, your next step is to find a program that's appropriate for your skill level and career aspirations.

Microsoft Office User Specialist

If you want to work in a small-scale environment with only Microsoft Access, you might want to consider the Microsoft Office User Specialist program. This entry-level certification assures employers that you're familiar with the features of Microsoft Access databases.

The certification process involves only one examination and experienced Access users should be able to tackle it with minimal preparation. If you've never used Access before, consider taking a class or reading through a couple of certification-oriented books before attempting the exam.

Microsoft Certified Database Administrator

If you've set your sights higher, consider a more advanced certification program. For example, Microsoft offers the Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA) program for experienced Microsoft SQL Server administrators. The program involves four challenging certification examinations and requires real hands-on SQL Server experience. If you make it through the certification process, you'll join an elite club of certified database professionals.

Oracle Certified Professional

If you're more interested in Oracle, rest assured that it offers a similar certification, Oracle Certified Professional. This program includes a variety of certification tracks and specialties, most requiring between five and six computer-based exams that demonstrate your database knowledge in a variety of subject areas.

This prestigious program is extremely difficult and requires hands-on experience for successful completion.

Now that you know what employers are looking for, keep in mind that there's no set template for how they view the combination of the above factors. For example, if you have a long history of increasingly responsible positions in a related field, a hiring manager might not be concerned about you not having a college degree. On the other hand, if you recently earned a graduate degree in computer science and wrote a master’s thesis on database optimization, you’re probably an attractive candidate despite the fact that you're fresh out of school.

The key is to take a frank look at your experience, education, and professional credentials, see where there are holes, and do your best to fill them.