Microsoft's MCSE track consists of three main certifications: the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA), and, of course, the MCSE. Frequently, those new to the certification process immediately reach for the gold ring of this track (the MCSE) without considering the consequences.

The MCP, which is "for professionals who have the skills to successfully implement a Microsoft product or technology," is Microsoft's entry-level certification. You must pass just one exam to become an MCP. The MCSA is the midrange certification for network administrators who have 6 to 12 months of experience with a network of Microsoft OSs. The MCSE is for those with more than a year of experience who want to certify their ability to "plan, design, and implement Microsoft server solutions and architectures."

If you're just beginning a career with Microsoft technologies, you shouldn't necessarily make obtaining the MCSE your initial goal. Many students set their sights on this premium certification before they even begin looking for their first IT jobs. These students see classified advertisements that include phrases such as "MCSE required" and assume that they'll be a good fit for the jobs once they pass all the exams required for the certification. In reality, as these students will soon discover, this strategy doesn't work.

Employers looking for MCSEs to administer their networks are also looking for experience. Their businesses rely not only on working networks but also on the data and applications that reside on those networks. No company wants to place so much responsibility on the shoulders of a network administrator who has no real-world experience. Would you take your brand new Lexus to a shop whose only mechanic took a few classes but never worked on customer cars under the tutelage of an experienced mechanic?

So what's an effective strategy? Start looking for an entry-level computer-support job immediately—don't wait until after you've earned the MCSA or MCSE to get serious about your search. Don't be too picky about your first IT job. Even if you have numerous collateral assignments that have nothing to do with computers, you're off to a good start if your responsibilities include maintaining a company's computers. While you're looking, begin work on entry-level certifications such as the MCP or Computing Technology Industry Association's (CompTIA's) A+ and Network+ certifications. After you've earned a certification or two, expand your job search.

After you have a job, it's time to start adding to your certifications. The MCSA is a good next step. While you're gaining experience on the job, you're gaining knowledge in a variety of technologies, and the MCSA helps to demonstrate that knowledge to your employer. The MCSA also shows your employer that you're serious about your career path and increases your chances for promotion. At this stage in your career, you have a better grasp of your career goals and your technology preferences. You might discover that you want to move in a completely different direction—perhaps toward a Cisco Systems certification, database administration, or even programming.

If you wait until you've gained some work experience before tackling the higher-level certifications, you can save yourself a lot of time, effort, and, most important, money. For more information about Microsoft certifications, see the Microsoft Training & Certification Web site. Also, see CompTIA's Web site for information about its entry-level certifications.