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​Building a Better Auditor: Certificates and Certification — Two Keys to Career Advancement

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​For busy internal auditors (or anyone for that matter!) looking to advance in their careers, deciding which path to take can sometimes be confusing. There is no definitive answer because much depends on where individuals are in their careers, their areas of focus, career aspirations, and more. However, one certainty is that both certificates and certifications serve important roles in developing and demonstrating knowledge and skills.

As an internal audit leader and volunteer on several IIA development and guidance committees, I have seen first-hand how these two tools not only support personal development and career advancement, but also how they influence how potential employers see you.

So, should you seek out certificates or certifications? The answer is yes. They both provide value to those who invest the time and energy to earn them, and to their employers. But when deciding which to pursue at different times in your career, it is important to recognize the fundamental differences between the two.

Certificates are assessments based at a point in time, meaning they recognize capacity or knowledge built in focused specialty practice areas or skills. Professional certifications, such as The IIA's Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) or Certification in Risk Management Assurance (CRMA), are earned credentials that demonstrate the holder's knowledge, skills, and competencies. Certifications also typically have qualifying criteria, such as an ethical requirement, work experience, and educational attainment. In addition, IIA certifications require holders to stay current with internal audit practices through continuing education. The distinction can be a little fuzzy, but basically certificates assess knowledge of a specific topic, and certifications validate broader competency as professionals. Unlike with certificates, certification holders are recognized with a professional designation.

Let's delve a little deeper into both.

Certificates provide professional organizations, such as The IIA, the ability to be agile and responsive to changing needs and skills within the profession. A certificate tells potential employers that you have a verified and tested skill in a particular area. However, good certificate programs are not simply acknowledgements of attendance or participation in a course or seminar, they also include tests that accurately evaluate a candidate's mastery of the subject.

The same holds true for certifications, but the rigor, breadth, and depth of the evaluation process is greater still. As a member of The IIA's Professional Certification Board, I sat through hundreds of hours of discussion, evaluation, and debate among highly experienced practitioners to determine how best to measure competencies in key areas of the profession. I was blown away by the level of rigor that goes into creating and maintaining a certification program.

Here's a quick peek at just part of The IIA's CIA process. First, in addition to The IIA's International Standards for the Professional Practice of Internal Auditing and guidance, great emphasis is placed on understanding and keeping abreast of the work typically performed by internal auditors around the world. In accordance with professional standards, periodic job analyses are conducted to identify the essential knowledge and skills required for internal auditors. The results are then shared with practitioners globally through an online survey to obtain additional feedback and ensure they reflect current internal audit practices. This becomes the CIA exam syllabus, which guides development of CIA exam questions and ensures fairness and validity.

That's just the first step. Next, exam questions are written and submitted by individual CIAs and are further vetted by internal audit professionals for accuracy and alignment to the intended knowledge or skill being measured. The questions are then reviewed to ensure they are psychometrically sound. Only then are they submitted to The IIA's global Exam Development Committee for approval. All exam questions are pretested to ensure they are statistically valid and reliable before they are placed on the examination and counted toward a candidate's score.

Because the exams are offered in more than 10 languages, additional precautions are taken to ensure the translations accurately reflect the intent of each question in each language. Add to these procedures strict measures to maintain exam security and appropriate proctoring around the testing process, and you begin to understand the care and exactitude that goes into developing the CIA exam.

So what does this mean for your career? In my career journey, once I determined internal auditing was my calling, I knew I had to pursue the gold standard for the profession — the CIA. I can say with certainty that studying for and earning my CIA made me a better auditor and prepared me for leadership opportunities later in my career.

From my perspective as an internal audit leader, employees or candidates who have a CIA have demonstrated a commitment to the profession, not only in preparing for and passing a challenging exam, but in committing to meet the certification's continuing professional education requirements. It also is one way to exhibit the competence of my team to stakeholders, including the board.

The purpose of this post is to compare and contrast certifications with certificate programs, not to be a celebration of the CIA certification. But the bottom line is that pursuing your CIA will help you be a better internal auditor, and once earned, it will give you instant credibility as an internal audit professional.


Brian Foster, CIA, is internal audit leader for ServiceNow in Seattle and is chairman of The IIA's Global Professional Development Committee.

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