Question: What Are the Major Differences Between a Graduate Certificate and a Master’s Degree?
Updated: January 12, 2021
Answer: There are several key features that distinguish a graduate certificate from a master’s degree, including average cost, time to completion, and the number of courses/credits that each require. A graduate certificate is awarded to a student who completes an academic program comprised of a relatively small number of graduate-level courses offered by a college or university in a focused area of study. It is not a graduate degree. A master’s degree, in contrast, is a full program of graduate study that may require two or three times as many credit hours as a certificate program, and which culminates with the formal conferral of a graduate degree in a particular field or discipline.
Graduate certificate programs and master’s degree programs are both offered by accredited colleges and universities. According to the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in 2017-18 (latest available data), 68,911 students completed a graduate certificate program. While this is still significantly less than the number of students who completed a master’s degree that year, the number of students who pursue graduate certificate programs has more than doubled over the last 15 years.
Graduate certificate programs take less time to complete, are typically more affordable, and generally have a narrower scope than master’s programs. They are designed to provide students with focused skills and knowledge they can use to advance their careers in a particular area. Master’s programs require more coursework and a greater commitment of time than graduate certificate programs, but depending on the program, they can prepare students for careers in academia, industry, or for further studies at the doctorate level. Master’s programs accomplish this through the combination of courses in theory, research, and applied skills development. In addition, some professions expect individuals to have earned a master’s or doctoral degree in order to qualify for advancement in their field of practice. For example, social workers, therapists, and nurses are examples of people in professions that generally require practitioners to earn a graduate degree in order to step into more advanced roles and earn relevant professional licenses.
In contrast, graduate certificate programs typically focus on teaching students skills they can apply directly and immediately to their workplace. Oftentimes, students of graduate certificate programs can choose from a menu of graduate-level courses that are also part of that particular school’s master’s or doctoral degree program. In many cases, this enables students to take what would otherwise be the elective courses in a full master’s or doctoral degree, and gain the relevant skills from those classes, while not having to take the theory and research courses that often form the foundation of graduate degrees at the master’s and doctoral level. For students who do not wish to earn a full graduate degree, and who are also not interested theory and research, a graduate certificate program allows them to take only the career-focused courses they desire.
There are two basic types of graduate certificate programs: post-baccalaureate certificate programs, and post-master’s certificate programs Like master’s programs, post-baccalaureate graduate certificate programs require applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree and are designed to offer advanced training and instruction in a specific academic discipline or field of professional practice. Post-master’s certificate programs are different in that they are designed for students who already hold a master’s degree and thus do not need to repeat master’s-level coursework in a particular field in order to gain new skills and proficiencies. However, both types of graduate certificate programs are similar in that they allow colleges and universities to offer more streamlined, less expensive alternatives to master’s programs.
Graduate Certificate Programs vs. Master’s Programs
The structure, format, and requirements of graduate programs vary by field and by school. However, there are common features that apply to most programs across different fields and to the types of programs offered by most colleges and universities. Typically, master’s programs require students to commit to more than a year and up to three or four years of graduate studies, which in addition to didactic coursework may include internships, practicums, a comprehensive exam, and/or a capstone or thesis project. Master’s programs are a significant commitment in terms of both time and money, and often have selective admissions with an extensive application process.
Graduate certificate programs require fewer courses than master’s programs and thus take less time to complete. For example, it is typical for master’s programs to require ten or twelve or more courses, or a total of 30 to 60 graduate credits. Graduate certificate programs, in contrast, are generally comprised of three, four, or five courses totaling nine to 18 graduate credits. A 30-credit master’s program may take 15 to 24 months of full-time enrollment to complete, while a 60-credit master’s program can require up to two or three years of full-time study. Graduate certificate programs can generally be completed in less than a year, depending on the type of program and its format.
While the admission process for graduate certificate programs varies by university and by program, some schools have a much more streamlined application process for certificate programs. For example, while master’s programs typically have minimum GPA requirements, require applicants to submit letters of recommendation, require a personal statement, and potentially require students to submit test scores (e.g., from the GRE or GMAT test), some graduate certificate programs only require students to have earned a bachelor’s degree and meet minimum GPA requirements or have earned a bachelor’s degree and submit a personal statement plus a resume. However, there are schools that make prospective applicants to graduate certificate programs complete the same application materials as students applying to a master’s program.
It is also the case that many graduate certificate programs are designed for early- and mid-career professionals who intend to continue working while going to school. As a result, graduate certificate program courses are commonly offered in the evenings and on weekends so as not to interfere with the traditional workday, and many graduate certificate programs are offered mostly or entirely online. There are also master’s programs that are designed for working professionals, including 100% online master’s programs, part-time master’s programs, and master’s programs that offered some or all of their courses in the evenings, and/or on weekends. However, there are a greater number of master’s programs that are formatted for full-time students who are able to attend campus-based classes during traditional work hours.
Finally, because graduate certificate programs require less coursework than master’s programs, they are generally more affordable, as the cost of a graduate program depends to some extent on the number of credits that are required. While the cost of a master’s degree varies greatly by school and by program, it is possible to earn a graduate certificate for as little as $8,000-$15,000 in most fields, and master’s programs are generally in the $20,000-$60,000 range.
The table below summarizes the key differences between graduate certificate and master’s degree programs.
|Credential||Graduate Certificate||Master’s Degree|
|Time to Completion||8-12 months||1-3 years|
It is important to note that while graduate certificate programs provide a more manageable, affordable, and convenient alternative to master’s degree programs, a graduate certificate is not equivalent to a master’s degree. This can be a critical consideration in fields that require a master’s degree for state licensure, professional certification, and/or to apply for certain jobs. In addition, even outside of professions where master’s and/or doctoral degrees are a requirement for practitioner licensure, employers might weigh a graduate certificate in a particular area differently than they would a master’s degree in that same field.
However, graduate credits earned in a certificate program can in many cases be applied toward an eventual master’s degree in the same field, if those credits were earned from an accredited college or university and were comprised of courses that align with the desired master’s program curriculum. In this way, a graduate certificate program may function as a steppingstone to an eventual master’s degree provided they are both in the same field of study.
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