There are many paths to taking on the responsibilities of a network administrator. Some people who set up their own businesses or work for a small enterprise, find themselves performing net admin tasks out of necessity rather than through qualification. Most, however, are not that lucky. Normally, you need to train towards the goal and then look for a junior position that will allow you to get on-the-job training and study for professional exams.
In this guide, you will read about the educational requirements and training opportunities that will get you into a regular network administration role rather than hoping for pure dumb luck.
You will need to get a tertiary education in order to qualify for a network administration job. This means a qualification that you get after you have finished school. So, you will need to check out your local universities and colleges in order to progress.
The best opportunities will come to you if you have a Bachelor’s degree. However, if you don’t have the time, if you can’t afford to be out of the job market for so long, or if you just don’t qualify for a degree course, there are shorter courses that you could take to get you on the ladder to success. In the United States, you need to look for an “associate degree“. In the UK, you should consider an “HND“.
If you wish to use your career to move abroad to work, keep in mind that you will have a better chance of getting into another country if you have a Bachelor’s degree. The United States will only issue work permits to professionals qualified in in-demand specializations. Fortunately, the job of Network Administrator qualifies. However, you will need to have completed a four-year degree course. If your country offers three-year Bachelor’s degrees, as in the UK, a course that includes one year of work experience brings the duration of study up to four years and qualifies you for a US H1-B visa.
If you have a qualification that took less than four years to complete, you will be expected to show three years of work experience for each year that your education was short of four years.
To become a fully-qualified network administrator rather than a perpetual assistant, you will need to continue your study and take vocational qualifications. As you approach your degree final exams, you need to start looking around for work. If your degree course includes an internship, you may get offered a continuation by the employer where you spend your year’s work experience. In that case, it is not unusual for the company to offer you sponsorship for your final year of study, and you will be expected to start working full-time there as soon as you finish your exams. If you don’t get a job sorted out before finishing your education, you need to set your priorities.
Make sure that any job you get will allow you to follow the Cisco Certification Program. There isn’t any point in taking these Cisco courses without a job that gets you in contact with a network because the course plan assumes that you are also working in the industry. The Cisco training path costs a lot of money and requires time for study, so you will need to get a traineeship that will give you study time and in which the employer agrees to pay your fees.
Small company or large corporation
There is no hard and fast rule about whether it is better to get your first job in a small company or in a big corporation.
In a small company, you will be put to work straight away with “on the job training,” which generally means that you will be thrown in at the deep end with a manual and a phone that never stops ringing with complaints to sort out.
Large corporations understand career paths and training programs and so they will be more likely to integrate Cisco qualifications into your training. However, large businesses are much more cautious about who they let loose on their networks and the first couple of years in this environment may see you pigeonholed in a seemingly dead-end and monotonous niche. You get less breadth of experience working for a large company because such a place usually has a large team to manage the network.
In both scenarios, think about your goals before you go to the interview. If you tell the manager of a large network that you want to have a go at all aspects of administration, they might not hire you. If you tell the manager of a small company that you are only interested in focusing on one aspect of the network, then you probably won’t get that job either.
Whichever type of company you end up working for, just remember that mistakes in network administration can ruin a company and so your managers won’t be very forgiving if you do something wrong. If you are the type of person that loves a challenge and can succeed under any conditions, you might be better suited for the “Jack of all Trades” work pattern offered by a small company. If you are error prone, or just downright unlucky, focus more on “booth jobs,” such as first line support where you will be interacting with users and fixing simple problems by following scripts. Once you become familiar with the network and the regular solutions to standard problems, you will be more confident to apply for positions that require deeper technical skills such as second line support, or technical developer.
Cisco training path
Even if the company you work for doesn’t have any Cisco network devices, you need to get on the Cisco course because the certification that they provide is the industry standard. Once you can alter the settings on a Cisco router, you can do the same on just about any other make of router. The only difference is that the menu structure in the console might be a little bit different. However, on the Cisco courses, you will learn about how to set up DHCP and DNS servers, how to plan subnetting, all about IP address management, cable types and capacity, and network monitoring messaging systems, among other topics.
Much of the course material applies to practical network skills in general rather than specifically how to use Cisco products.
The first level you need to achieve is CCENT, which is the Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician qualification. Many networking-related IT degree courses integrate this qualification, so if you take one of those, you will already have this certification under your belt before you start work.
An alternative to CCENT is the Cisco Certified Technician (CCT) course. If you hope to become a network administrator with some authority, don’t allow your employer to put you in for this course instead of CCENT. CCT doesn’t qualify you to progress to CCNA.
CCNA stands for Cisco Certified Network Associate. All employers out there want CCNA, so if you want to make the big bucks, you are going to need that certification. Even if you don’t want to switch jobs and work for another company, the fact there is a queue of employers looking to hire CCNA-qualified technicians will keep your current employer on its toes and keeping your wages in line with the offers you could get elsewhere.
If you want to get a job abroad, having a couple of years experience, a degree, AND CCNA means that overseas companies will hire you after just a telephone interview, and also possibly pay for your flight and relocation costs. Basically, CCNA should be your career goal.
Unfortunately, in the past few years, the CCNA landscape has become quite complicated. There is no single CCNA course; instead there is a specialized course for each aspect of networking. So, before you start studying for CCNA, you need to decide which area of networking you want to go into. Here is a screenshot from the Cisco Learning Network website that shows all of the different career paths that you can follow with Cisco certification.
As you can see from the chart, there are many versions of CCNA:
- CCNA Cloud
- CCNA Collaboration
- CCNA CyberOps
- CCNA Data Center
- CCNA Industrial
- CCNA Routing and Switching
- CCNA Security
- CCNA SP
- CCNA Wireless
At the CCNA level, you have arrived as a network administrator. If you want to progress further up into senior management, or even get up to the boardroom, there are even higher qualifications that you could go for.
See also: CCNA: The Ultimate Guide
A Cisco Certified Network Professional job will help you get up to a senior management position. However, if seniority is what you are looking for, the CCNP qualification will not be enough. Your company will also need to give you training in project management, staff management, employment law, and budget planning. Another career path that you could choose with the CCNP on your resume is subject specialist, consultancy pre-sales and bidding, and government legislation roles, or you could set up your own business.
The CCIE certification will take you to the top of your field of specialization. This is why the qualification is called the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert. Not many people take Cisco certification up to this level. In fact, most network administrators stop the Cisco education path with the CCNA. If you go to CCIE level, you should be aiming to be the lead consultant or a partner in a consultancy.
If you become an independent freelancer, the CCIE would be considered overqualified. You won’t really be able to increase your rate from what you would earn with a CCNP, or even the money people with a lot of years experience and a CCNA qualification.
If you went into network administration to make money, the big pay only really kicks in once you achieve CCNA. Once you have the qualification, you can expect to be making $55,000 per year, but this qualification will take you up to $90,000 or even up into six figures within three or four years, according to Payscale.
The money you make depends on where you live and the type of company you work for. You will make the upper end of the wage scale in big cities, such as New York City or San Francisco, but keep in mind that the cost of living in those places is very high. Generally speaking, the consultancies pay even more. However, you will be expected to take up any placement anywhere in the country, which could mean living in a hotel, away from your family for months on end.
One you have CCNA and a few years’ experience, you could also consider going freelance. This will pay even more in terms of monthly income, but you won’t get non-wage benefits, such as paid training, sick pay, or paid vacation.
Over in the UK, a CCNA will earn you from £37,000 to £52,000. Again, the location that you work in will influence the wages on offer with London offering the highest wages, but incurring the highest living costs. Wages scales don’t fully express the earning potential for network administrators in the UK, however because it is very common for highly-experienced technicians to go independent.
The high non-wage benefits offered to employees in the UK means that there is a big differential between employees’ wages and the rates that freelancers make. A CCNA freelancer outside of London can expect to make about £350 per day and in London the rate is around £450 per day. If you want to stay employed, look for an opening at one of the big consultancy firms in order to get your wages up. Also, security specialist companies tend to pay a lot more than average for experienced network administrators.
Get started on your career
There is never a dull moment when you are a network administrator. Your first port of call should be the possible course that you could follow in order to qualify for a job. Although there are a number of online courses available, employers really look for people who have university or college qualifications. So, search the web for the educational institutions near you and find out which courses they offer.
Did you go to university to get into network administration or did you find a different opportunity to get into the field? Are you sitting CCNA exams now, and are you happy with the specialization stream you chose? Have you been able to travel or move abroad thanks to your career choice as a network administrator? Share your experiences by leaving a message in the Comments section below.