Question: How Long Does It Take to Complete a Graduate Certificate Program?
Updated: June 9, 2022
Answer: Most graduate certificate programs can be completed in less than one year, and some students may be able to finish a graduate certificate program in as few as five or six months. The exact length of time required to complete a graduate certificate program is dependent upon a number of variables, including how many credits/courses a program requires, how often those courses are offered, and how many courses a student is able to complete per term.
There are several variables that determine how long it takes to earn a graduate certificate, and completion time often depends on a program’s structure. Some programs are formatted for part-time enrollment and have a sequential curriculum in which students take a specific number of courses per term and graduate in a prescribed number of semesters/months (e.g., three semesters, or nine months). A subset of these programs utilize a cohort model in which groups of students begin and progress through a specific number of courses together and thus complete the program at the same time. Other programs offer a more flexible structure, allowing students to enroll in one, two, or three courses per term, thereby lengthening or shortening the time to completion.
Finally, while there are variations among graduate certificate programs within fields and disciplines, in some areas of study it is common for graduate certificate programs to take more time than in others. For example, Nurse Practitioner (NP) graduate certificate programs, which typically require a master’s degree in nursing, and programs in other clinical fields (e.g., counseling and psychology) may require internship and/or practicum hours that can extend the time to completion to one year or more. In contrast, programs in fields in which internships are less common (e.g., computer science, marketing, and public administration) typically have shorter completion times.
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How to Determine the Likely Completion Time for a Graduate Certificate Program
As noted above, some graduate certificate programs are relatively rigid in format and have a scheduled plan of study with clear starting and end dates, which are fixed as long as students adhere to the prescribed plan of study. However, many graduate certificate programs are more flexible in structure, which means that the time it takes to complete the program depends on choices made by each student, as well as on external variables that are built into the program’s structure, such as the length of a program’s academic terms, the frequency with which required courses are offered, and the number of courses students are permitted to take per term.
Schools, colleges and universities generally provide prospective applicants to graduate certificate programs with an expected range of time in which most students should be able to complete a program’s requirements. Nonetheless, there are several key questions that individual students may want to consider when exploring program options and attempting to determine the likely completion time for a specific program:
How many credits/courses does the program require? Graduate certificate programs require students to complete fewer credits than graduate degree programs and are thus shorter in duration than master’s and doctoral programs. Crediting requirements for graduate certificate programs vary but are generally in the range of nine to 24 credits. This typically translates to three, four, five, or six graduate courses. Programs that require fewer courses may take less time to complete than programs that require more courses, although this can depend on the length of each course.
How long are the program’s academic terms? Many graduate certificate programs adhere to the traditional academic calendar, offering courses twice per year in semesters that last for 15 weeks (these programs may or may not offer courses in the summer semester as well). However, some programs use alternatives to the semester system. For example, there are programs that offer courses quarterly, in ten-week terms. There are also schools that now use modified academic calendars that have four-, five-, seven-, and eight-week terms with courses that follow an accelerated format. By taking fewer courses per term, students of these programs can potentially focus more on each course in turn, allowing them to complete a single course faster.
Students researching programs may notice that some schools offer split semesters with two spring sessions (e.g., A and B, or I and II), two fall sessions, and two summer sessions (i.e., up to six terms per year). For these programs, students may complete one course per session which equates to two courses per traditional 15-week semester (as opposed to taking two courses simultaneously during a traditional 15-week semester). Students should note that shorter terms do not mean students receive less instruction, cover less material, or complete fewer assignments per course; they complete the same amount of material in a more concentrated and accelerated format. Depending on the school and program, modified academic calendars may allow students to complete a graduate certificate program in five to six months.
How often are required courses offered? Graduate certificate programs often consist of a small cluster of courses that overlap with graduate degree programs in the same or a similar field of study. These courses may be offered on a rotating basis, once every year or every third semester, or they may be offered every term that classes are in session. Students who are planning to complete a graduate certificate program in one year or less should review the course catalogue of the graduate school or department offering the program to determine how often each of the program’s required courses are offered and/or contact a program representative to determine when and how often courses are taught.
How many courses can be completed per term? Some graduate certificate programs may put a cap on the number of courses students are able to take per term or semester, while others may recommend that students take no more than one, two, or three courses at a time. There are also programs that do not put an explicit limit on the number of courses that students can take per term, either because no more than one or two of the program’s required course are offered per term or because it is unlikely that a student will be able to complete more than two or three courses per term.
A program that uses six-week terms but which limits students to one course per term will take a minimum of 24 weeks to complete if it has four required courses, while a program that requires four courses but allows students to take two courses per eight-week term can be completed in approximately 16 weeks. A four-course program that uses 15-week semesters may take a minimum of 30 weeks to complete, but students in such a program may be able to take three courses during the first semester and just one course in the second. While that does not change the overall time to completion, it does mean that students can opt for a plan of study in which they have significantly less coursework during the program’s second semester.
Does the program incorporate internships, practicums, and/or other types of site-based field education requirements? Graduate certificate programs in clinical fields, such as counseling, nursing, and psychology, as well as programs in fields that have state licensing requirements, like teaching and educational administration, may incorporate supervised internships, practicums, and other field-based work-study components. These requirements are typically comprised of a minimum number of hours that students must log at a work site approved by the program.
While internships, practicums, and other field education experiences, such as student-teaching assignments, are generally included in a program’s curriculum in order to help students meet state licensing requirements, they can add to the overall time it takes to complete a graduate certificate program. However, schools may waive these requirements for students who do not need additional supervised hours in order to qualify for licensing. For specific questions and concerns regarding internship placements and field education requirements, prospective applicants to graduate certificate programs should confer with a program administrator prior to submitting an application.
Is the program offered in an online format? Many schools offer graduate certificate programs via online instruction. This is one way that schools are able to maximize the convenience and flexibility of a program for students who want to add new skills and proficiencies via graduate coursework in a particular field without having to interrupt their career or take significant time off from work. Many students in online graduate certificate programs can complete all or most of their coursework at home, work, or another convenient location by logging on to an internet-based distance-learning platform that gives them access to live and/or pre-recorded lectures, virtual class sessions, and other instructional materials.
While online programs require the same number of courses and time commitment per course as traditional campus-based programs, they do not require students to spend time commuting to a school’s campus. This, in turn, may free up enough time for students to be able to complete two courses per term rather than just one, or for students to engage in internship/practicum hours while also taking one or two courses. In this way, the convenience and flexibility afforded by an online program can reduce the overall time it takes to complete a graduate certificate program.
Examples of Graduate Certificate Programs That Can be Completed in Under One Year
Each of the schools listed below offers a graduate certificate program that can be completed in fewer than twelve months by eligible students who hold a bachelor’s degree and meet other admissions requirements. These examples are drawn from research into programs offered by accredited, non-profit colleges and universities in a broad range of fields.
Boston University (BU) offers a number of graduate certificate programs in online and campus-based formats through its Metropolitan College division. One example is an Applied Business Analytics Graduate Certificate program that consists of 16 credits of graduate coursework, for a total of four graduate courses. These courses can be completed in roughly eight months by students who take one course per eight-week term. However, students who have no prior training in business and analytics may be required to take one prerequisite course in the foundations of business analytics, thereby extending the time to completion by an additional eight-week term. For more information on this and other graduate certificate programs offered online and/or on-campus by BU, visit BU’s Metropolitan College at www.bu.edu/met.
The University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) offers more than a dozen graduate certificate programs in an online format, including an online Strategic Communication Graduate Certificate program. The program consists of three courses that confer 18 graduate credits that can be completed less than one year by students who enroll in one course in the fall term, one course in the spring term, and one course in either the winter or summer term. For more information on UMGC’s graduate certificate programs, visit UMGC at www.umgc.edu.
Arizona State University (ASU) offers numerous graduate certificate programs through ASU Online, including a Homeland Security Graduate Certificate program. The program consists of six courses for a total of 18 graduate credits. Classes are offered in 7.5-week terms, six times per year. As a result, students who take one course per term can complete the certificate program in 45 weeks, or just under one year. Students who are able to complete two courses per term can finish the program in less than six months. For more information on ASU Online’s graduate certificate programs, visit ASU Online at asuonline.asu.edu.
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