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After earning a bachelor’s degree and getting some professional experience under your belt, you might discover there’s more you need to learn. Whether you want to qualify for higher-level positions, change careers or specialize in a niche topic, earning a postgraduate credential—such as a master’s degree or graduate certificate—is a great next step.
Graduate certificates aren’t master’s degrees, but they do permit you to enroll in graduate-level classes at reputable universities. After finishing a set series of classes, you receive a certificate to show your achievement. At some colleges, graduate certificates can also count toward a full master’s degree.
Choosing between a graduate certificate vs. degree program comes down to your career aspirations, budget and schedule. Read on to learn more about the benefits of both educational paths and how to determine which is the right fit for you.
Master’s vs. Graduate Certificate
Master’s degrees are generally longer, more comprehensive and pricier than graduate certificates, which take less time to complete and focus more narrowly on a niche subject. Read on to compare and contrast these credentials.
What Is a Master’s Degree?
A master’s degree is a postgraduate degree; you must hold a bachelor’s degree to enroll in a master’s program. In some fields, a master’s degree is the highest level of education. For other career paths, such as academia and research, graduates may continue on to a doctoral program.
While graduate programs vary in format and length, master’s degrees typically take one to two years to complete. Enrollees complete 10 to 14 courses offering advanced insights on their chosen subject, building on the foundation of their undergraduate education.
While deepening students’ knowledge of their field, graduate courses also allow learners to specialize in a particular interest area. While pursuing a master’s in accounting, for example, learners might specialize in taxation, supply chain management or data analytics. In this way, they can personalize their education and define their career path by choosing and customizing a program to fit their goals.
What Is a Graduate Certificate?
A graduate certificate is not a degree, but it’s still a quantifiable achievement that can boost your résumé. Accredited universities offer graduate certificates as an alternative—and sometimes a starting point—to a full master’s program.
Graduate certificates differ from master’s degrees in both time and scope. Certificates typically consist of three to five courses and do not include a thesis or capstone component. The curriculum is highly specialized, covering a much narrower scope of information than a two-year program would.
Benefits of a Master’s Degree
If you have the time and budget, a master’s degree can be a worthwhile investment in your future. While a bachelor’s degree is enough to get started in many fields, earning a graduate degree qualifies you to take on leadership roles, paving the way for promotions or upper-management positions. Some industries, like finance, research and education, prefer a master’s degree, and many roles require one.
Graduate programs can empower you to make a career change, too. Completing graduate coursework can increase your confidence and develop the skills you need to apply for new roles. Even though master’s degrees allow for specialization, many are comprehensive enough to provide a basis for various career paths within your chosen field.
Increase Your Earning Potential
Advanced degrees typically lead to higher-level positions with higher earnings. In 2022, workers with master’s degrees reported median weekly earnings of $1,661, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In comparison, those with bachelor’s degrees earned $1,432 per week.
Build Your Network
In addition to their academic benefits, graduate programs create opportunities for professional connections. During your program, you can forge relationships with your peers and professors, as well as industry professionals. These interactions may not pay off immediately, but building an extensive network may open unexpected doors.
Demonstrate Your Skills
Master’s degrees often involve a thesis or capstone project. Completing a thesis or an independent research project allows you to dive into a subject that interests you. The goal is to prove your mastery of the subject area, along with your writing skills, logical reasoning and research capabilities.
In a capstone course, students synthesize and apply everything they’ve learned in their coursework. An MBA capstone project, for example, might involve analyzing and developing solutions for a real-world client.
Benefits of a Graduate Certificate
With a shorter, more focused certificate, you can refine your skills in a particular area or close a gap in your knowledge. Certificates allow you to stay competitive in a constantly changing market by keeping on top of developments in your industry, such as new technology or environmental considerations, without going back to school for a full degree.
A few benefits set graduate certificates apart from master’s degrees:
If you’re working full time, earning a graduate certificate may suit your busy schedule better. While each graduate-level course still requires a significant time commitment, with a graduate certificate program, you can take just one class at a time and complete the credential at a slower pace. Some programs even let you skip a term and finish when you have more time.
Plus, certificates are commonly offered online, allowing you to complete them from anywhere.
Since graduate certificate programs are run through universities, you’ll have to pay per-credit tuition for each course. But with fewer credits required, graduate certificates are much more affordable than master’s degrees. You’ll also pay for fewer associated costs, such as textbooks, housing and transportation.
As an example, Stanford University offers an online master’s degree in computer science, which could take up to five years for part-time learners to complete. Earning the degree’s required 45 credits would cost $65,520.
Alternatively, students could take a smaller selection of courses to earn a graduate certificate in artificial intelligence or advanced software systems from Stanford. With fewer credits, part-time learners could complete the program in one or two years for less than $24,000.
Enrolling in a graduate certificate program is usually fairly simple. You may need to submit a statement of purpose, your academic history and your professional experience, but you won’t need to take the GRE. Some schools are more competitive, but the application process and turnaround is generally quicker than applying to grad school.
What Is the Difference Between a Graduate Certificate and a Professional Certificate?
Unlike graduate certificates, professional certificates aren’t academic programs. Professional certificate programs may include coursework, but not graduate-level classes offered through a university. Rather, industry and professional development organizations usually run professional certificate programs, which can still advance your career depending on your field.
Some jobs require you to earn a professional certification, which is a more intensive process than obtaining a certificate. For example, the Certified Public Accountant and Chartered Financial Analyst certifications each entail initial education and experience requirements, a professional exam, ongoing fees and continuing education. These professional certifications are considered industry standards recognized by all employers in their respective fields.
To learn more, check out our guide exploring certificates vs. certifications.
Master’s vs. Graduate Certificate: Which Is Right for You
Completing either postgraduate credential is a big achievement, and both signal your commitment to learning and excelling in your field. But how do you choose between master’s vs. graduate certificate programs? Ask yourself these questions to help determine the right fit:
- How specialized do you want your education to be? Even with a specialization, a full master’s program covers a wide breadth of knowledge. This can be useful if you’re switching to a new career, but if you just need to brush up on a particular topic, you might prefer a short, focused graduate certificate.
- What are your career goals? Some jobs, especially in mid- and upper-level management, require master’s degrees. A graduate certificate is a good starting point, but it does not equate to a graduate degree. Similarly, research and academic positions may require a doctorate. Dedicating your time and resources to a master’s program with a thesis component is usually the best way to gain admission to a doctoral program.
- How much time can you commit to this program? Master’s degrees take one to two years for full-time learners to complete. Since graduate certificates require far fewer courses—about one-third, in comparison—they’re more attainable for many professionals. Graduate certificates are less likely to involve in-person components as well.
- What’s your budget? Earning a master’s degree often pays off, but it’s still a hefty investment. In the 2020-21 academic year, graduate tuition and fees averaged $26,621 at private schools and $12,394 at public schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Graduate certificates offer a more affordable option for learners who don’t need a graduate degree.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Graduate Certificates vs. Degrees
What is a graduate certificate equivalent to?
A graduate certificate isn’t the same as a degree, but it does certify that you passed a series of graduate-level courses at an accredited university. While not equivalent to a full master’s degree, a graduate certificate demonstrates advanced knowledge of a particular topic.
Do employers care about graduate certificates?
Yes, earning a graduate certificate can be valuable to employers. Certificates cover various topics, such as technology, leadership, environmental issues, IT, and diversity and inclusion. Earning a graduate certificate demonstrates an ongoing commitment to learning.
Is a certificate equivalent to a degree?
No, a graduate certificate is not a degree. Most certificates require students to take three to five courses, while a master’s degree requires 10 to 14.