I work in a mid-sized, non-profit organization as a network administrator. My only education is an associates in...
net admin from 6 years ago. What should I do to prepare myself for the job market? Certs? A degree? In What? Are there any free online courses that will do me any good?
Given your experience -- though you don't say how many years you've put in so far, based on when you earned your degree (6 years ago), I'm guessing you've got 4-6 years in your current job -- you may be able to find other employment purely on that basis. Before investing any time or money in training of any kind, be it either certs or another degree, the first thing you should do is discreetly investigate opportunities in the Philly metro area. I'm guessing you'll find that, properly presented, what you already know how to do will be enough to allow you to make a lateral move (to the same kind of job somewhere else, hopefully with less hours and more money to show for it) at the least, and perhaps to do better than that.
This means you'll want to sit down and document your work experience in some detail to include the various operating systems and major applications you've worked with, and what kinds of duties you routinely perform in your current job. You'll also want to speak to the kinds of problems you've encountered, what role you've played in solving them, and what you've learned from your experiences. My gut feel is that with 4-6 years in the trenches, you've probably learned enough to be useful and valuable to other medium sized organizations with more or less the same kind of IT infrastructure as where you presently work.
That said, if this strategy fails to produce any results, then it's time to start weighing your training and credentialing options. Another degree (assuming you'll want to move to a bachelor's) will cost significantly more, and take significantly longer, than even two or three certifications. So, to make that decision, you'll need to budget the time, effort, and costs associated with pursuing a bachelor's part time versus that for going after your preferred collection of certs (given your current background and experience, I'd suggest the MCDST, MCSA, MCSE sequence).
Given that there are so many community colleges in your part of the world, I'd urge you to budget your time and expenses based on their offerings for both degree- and certification-related stuff. That's because such institutions routinely give the best "bang for the buck" when it comes to the costs versus the value of the training received. As for free online offerings, if you have the time and energy to spend with a search engine looking for items that cover specific cert exams, you can almost always find free supporting materials of some kind -- but only rarely will you find entire courses available for free online, nor do I know of any online clearinghouses where such information is housed in "one place" as it were. Thus, I'm not sure that "free training" (online or otherwise) is a viable option for the paths you're considering here.
Once you've weighed your options and decided which path to follow, feel free to post again (or to e-mail me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have further questions or concerns.
Good luck with your investigations, and your decision-making process.
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