Question: What Is a Graduate Certificate?
Updated: June 3, 2020
Answer: A graduate certificate is an academic credential indicating that the holder has successfully completed a cluster of graduate-level courses that provide training and instruction in a specific area of study or professional field. Graduate certificate programs typically consist of three, four, or five required courses and are designed to equip students with specialized knowledge and proficiencies that have practical, career-based applications. These programs, which are offered in many fields and in a variety of convenient formats, provide college graduates and early- and mid-career professions who hold a bachelor’s or graduate degree with a more affordable and less time-consuming alternative to full graduate degree programs.
Colleges and universities offer a broad range of graduate certificate programs that provide career-focused training in fields like healthcare and nursing, business and marketing, and counseling and education. Indeed, many certificate programs target highly specialized subfields within larger professions. For example, there are graduate certificate programs in data science and business analytics, digital and social media marketing, addiction and substance abuse counseling, gifted and special education, and advanced practice nursing specializations, including family nurse practitioner (FNP), pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP), and adult-gerontology nurse practitioner (AGNP).
These programs represent an effective and efficient means for college graduates and working professionals to position themselves for career advancement and/or a career change while earning graduate credits from an accredited college or university. In some fields, such as education and nursing, completion of a certificate program may fulfill state requirements for additional licensure or certification. In other fields, such as data analytics, cybersecurity, and public health, earning a graduate certificate can help students prepare to apply for professional certifications. And in most fields, the coursework completed and credits earned in a graduate certificate program may be transferable, which means they can be transferred toward an eventual graduate degree if and when a student opts to an enroll in a master’s degree program in a discipline that aligns with the content of the certificate program.
Curriculum for Graduate Certificate Programs
Graduate certificate programs are commonly housed within academic divisions and/or departments at colleges and universities that offer degree programs in the same field as the certificate program. They are generally comprised of graduate-level courses, some or all of which may also be offered as part of a master’s or doctoral program. However, instead of requiring coursework in broad theoretical concepts or in related subjects, certificate programs offer a targeted curriculum consisting of several courses designed to teach students specific skills and provide career-focused training.
A typical graduate certificate program requires students to complete three to five courses, or a total of 9 to 18 graduate credits. Graduate certificate programs vary in terms whether they offer a set curriculum of three to five career-focused courses, or whether they allow students to choose their three to five courses from a menu of classes offered within the respective department. In contrast, depending on the program and the field of study, a master’s degree curriculum may have ten to 20 required courses, including core coursework, electives, field education and/or internships, and a final capstone or thesis project, totaling 30 to 60 credits. Graduate certificate programs omit many of these components and focus more narrowly on a limited number of courses that provide focused training and instruction in a narrow area of professional practice.
For example, graduate certificate programs generally do not require a thesis or capstone project, and students complete fewer courses on general theoretical concepts or research methodologies, in order to focus more exclusively on real-world applications of practitioner knowledge and skills. This means that students can complete a graduate certificate program in six, eight, or twelve months instead of the two to three years that is common for a master’s degree.
Structure of Graduate Certificate Programs
Graduate certificate programs are designed to accommodate early- and mid-career professionals, including those who intend to continue working while taking graduate courses. As a result, many certificate programs offer courses online via distance-learning platforms and/or hold classes in the evenings and on weekends so as not to interfere with the typical workday. Some programs are designed to be completed on a set schedule, while others offer flexible enrollment options, which allow students to take as few as one or as many as three courses per term. This translates to a completion time of roughly six to 18 months, depending on the field of study, the design of the program, the curriculum, and the number of courses a student is able to take per term. In comparison, as noted above, a master’s degree can require a commitment of two to three or more years, and doctoral programs commonly require six or more years of post-baccalaureate study.
In addition to early- and mid-career professionals, recent college graduates are another group of students that may benefit from pursuing graduate certificate programs. This is particularly true in fields that do not require professionals to hold an advanced degree, like data science and analytics, finance, marketing, and management. For specializations that require practitioners to hold a master’s degree, such as advanced practice nursing and school and clinical mental health counseling, graduate certificate programs provide an option for master’s-trained professionals who want to add new skills or apply for licensure and/or certification in a new specialization without having to complete a second master’s program.
While many graduate certificate programs are open to students who hold a bachelor’s degree, there are some fields, like nursing and counseling, that may require applicants to graduate certificate programs to hold a master’s degree in an applicable field of study. These programs are commonly referred to as post-master’s certificate programs but are otherwise structured similarly to post-baccalaureate certificate programs, with three, four, or five required graduate-level courses that can be completed in six to 18 months.
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