Question: What Are the Benefits of Earning a Graduate Certificate? Should I Get a Graduate Certificate?
Updated: June 4, 2020
Answer: There are many potential benefits to earning a graduate certificate, including professional development, career and/or academic advancement, and the satisfaction that typically comes with cultivating new skills and proficiencies. In addition, for some professions, completing graduate level credits may directly lead to an increase in compensation, while in other fields, graduate certificates may prepare students for additional responsibilities that can lead to an increase in compensation. Graduate certificate programs can typically be completed in less than a year and are therefore less time consuming and more affordable when compared to graduate degree programs.
Graduate certificate programs offer career-oriented training and instruction in a focused area of study, providing students with knowledge and skills that have immediate practical applications and which may help program graduates qualify for a professional credential, license, or certification. These programs are comprised of several graduate-level courses that focus on the practical application of advanced knowledge in a particular field or subfield. Certificate programs are offered by accredited colleges and universities and are designed to prepare recent college graduates and early- and mid-career professionals to take on additional roles and responsibilities in their current field or to enter in a new area of practice. By fostering professional development, offering a formal means of acquiring new skills, and conferring an academic credential that is meant to demonstrate that the graduate has competency in a particular field or specialization, certificate programs can increase an individual’s earning potential, broaden his or her career options, and lead to a higher level of professional achievement.
As an additional benefit, many graduate certificate programs are designed with working professionals in mind. Graduate certificate courses may be offered online or in the evening and on weekends so as not to conflict with traditional work hours. Some graduate certificate programs are 100% online and do not require any campus visits. And graduate certificate programs commonly have flexible enrollment formats that allow students to manage the number of courses they enroll in per term, a feature that gives students the option of moving quickly through the curriculum and earning their certificate in four to six months, or taking longer to complete the program’s coursework while working full-time.
Depending on the program and the courses taken, it may also be possible to transfer credits accrued in a graduate certificate program to a master’s or doctoral program for students who are interested in continuing their studies after completing the certificate. Finally, depending on the field, students may be able to earn continuing education credits in addition to completing a graduate certificate program.
Graduate Certificate Programs as an Alternative to Master’s and Doctoral Degree Programs
Graduate certificate programs are offered at the post-baccalaureate and post-master’s levels and are a typically shorter, less costly, and a more narrowly focused alternative to pursuing a graduate degree in most fields. While graduate certificate programs do not lead to the conferral of a formal degree, they do allow students to take credited graduate-level courses in a specific field or area of study, such as biotechnology management, business analytics, cybersecurity, data science, digital marketing, environmental policy, family counseling, gifted education, healthcare informatics, laboratory science, organizational leadership, pediatric nursing, real-estate investment, or website development.
These courses, as noted above, confer academic credits that may be applied to the pursuit of an eventual master’s or doctoral degree in the same or a related field of study. However, graduate certificate programs typically limit the scope of their curricula to graduate courses that have specific practical applications rather than delving into the broader theories and concepts that are commonly part of master’s and doctoral program curricula. For this reason, graduate certificate programs often consist of three, four, or five courses, whereas master’s programs typically require ten or more courses for the conferral of a degree.
Master’s programs often require students to complete a capstone project (e.g., master’s thesis or applied project) and/or a comprehensive examination in order to earn their degree. Most graduate certificate programs do not have this requirement as students only complete courses unless the program is in a field that requires clinical hours in addition to didactic instruction.
Career-Focused Training and Instruction: Graduate Certificate Programs vs. Master’s and Doctoral Programs
Master’s and doctoral programs are generally designed to accommodate a range of different types of students, including students who intend to pursue careers in private industry, academia, and/or the non-profit sector; students who want to conduct research in a particular field; students whose aim is to practice professionally; students whose goal is to gain eligibility for licensure or certification; and students who are already licensed/certified. In contrast, graduate certificate programs are designed specifically for students who want to learn discrete skills, cultivate career-oriented proficiencies, and gain practical knowledge in a narrowly focused field. Indeed, many graduate certificate programs are geared toward particular careers and/or job descriptions, such as addiction counselor, adult-gerontology Nurse Practitioner (AGNP), elementary school reading specialist, forensic accountant, geographic information system (GIS) analyst, information security officer, and social media manager.
This is another reason that graduate certificate programs are more streamlined, less expensive, and require fewer credits/courses than graduate degree programs. As a result, graduate certificate programs are often a good option for recent college graduates and mid-career professionals who are interested in entering a new field, adding a new specialization, and/or advancing in their current field without having to take several years to complete a graduate degree program.
The Benefits of Earning an Academic Credential vs. Non-Academic Industry Training
Graduate certificate programs in a particular field are, as noted above, typically comprised of graduate courses offered by a college or university that offers full graduate degree programs in that field. This means that some programs allow students who complete a graduate certificate to transfer the credits directly into a master’s degree program in the same field. So, while there are other ways to gain technical and professional training in many fields, such as through non-academic programs offered by industry groups, graduate certificate programs offered by accredited colleges and universities bring with them the advantage of graduate-level credits that may be applied to a master’s or doctoral degree program in the future.
For example, a graduate certificate in finance or accounting may consist of four or five courses that are commonly offered by master’s in finance and accounting programs. Students who complete a graduate certificate in accounting or finance may be able to get credit for courses taken as part of the graduate certificate program when and if they opt to pursue a master’s degree in accounting or finance. This is especially true if the student decides to pursue the master’s degree from the same college or university from which they earned the certificate. In this way, graduate certificate programs offered by accredited colleges and universities can serve as a steppingstone to future academic and professional advancement.
Summary of the Benefits of Graduate Certificate Programs
The list below is designed to provide an overview of some of the major reasons that earning a graduate certificate may be advantageous. It is not meant to be a comprehensive catalogue of the benefits of graduate certificate programs, as those vary by field and by the individual pursuing the certificate.
- Professional Development: Graduate certificate programs provide early- and mid-career professionals with academic training programs that facilitate the cultivation of advanced skills and additional proficiencies in a particular field, which are meant to have practical, job-focused applications.
- Career Advancement: Graduate certificate programs provide recent college graduates and working professionals with a formal means of demonstrating competency in a particular field or area of study through a graduate-level academic program offered by an accredited college or university. This formal proof of advanced professional competence can indicate to employers that a person holding a graduate certificate in a particular field is qualified for advancement in that field.
- Academic Advancement: Graduate certificate programs can function as a midway point between a bachelor’s degree and a master’s or doctoral degree, providing students with a means to earn graduate credits that may be transferable to an eventual graduate degree program without requiring students to commit to several years of study. Prospective students should note that the number of credits that are transferable from a graduate certificate program to a master’s or doctoral degree typically depends on the courses taken for the certificate, the specialization and course content of the desired master’s or doctoral degree, and students’ academic performance in their graduate certificate classes. Credits earned in a graduate certificate program are not guaranteed to transfer towards a master’s or doctoral degree, so students should reach out to a program administrator to determine if they will transfer or not.
- Licensure/Certification: In fields that require state licensure or professional certifications, certain types of graduate certificate programs are designed to prepare students for specific licenses and/or certifications that may be required to work at an advanced level in that field. For example, Nurse Practitioners (NPs) and other types of Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) are required to hold specialized licenses in their field of practice. These licenses require at least a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) and specialization training. Post-master’s NP certificate programs provide Registered Nurses (RNs) who have master’s-level training with a way to add an NP specialization without having to go through a full master’s degree program. Similarly, master’s-trained mental health counselors who are interested in expanding their scope of practice can earn graduate certificates in addiction and substance abuse counseling, marriage and family counseling, school counseling, and other specializations that may qualify them for additional licensure.
- Continuing Education: Some professions, such as teaching and education, require or incentivize the pursuit of continuing education that may consist of workshops, conferences, seminars, and other non-credited learning experiences. In these fields, courses taken as part of a graduate certificate program typically count toward continuing education requirements, which can lead to salary increases and promotions.
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