Professional Education and Career Blog

The Alternative to the Graduate Degree: The Graduate Certificate. Are They Worth It?

handoffHigher education costs are growing more expensive every year, and with that, people interested in gaining advanced education are more careful about ensuring that skills they gain is worth the money they potentially invest in it. Many employees are looking for an edge to keep themselves competitive and up-to-date in today’s fast-paced world. While the two-year master’s degree program is often a good choice, the idea of a shorter-term graduate certificate should not be overlooked. They can sometimes offer the best bang-for-the-buck for professionals looking to enhance their career.

A Growing Trend

According to the Institute for College Access and Success, about 51,000 people earned a certificate in 2010, an increase of 46 percent over 2005. About 4 million workers, or 3 percent of the total workforce have certificates.

Certificate or Graduate Degree?

Both Master’s Degrees and Graduate Certificates can make sense for people in difference circumstances. It’s helpful to look at the differences:

  • A master’s degree is typically a two year, full-time program beyond a bachelor’s degree. The graduate certificate is a shorter program of study in a more specific topic. Also called a diploma, these programs can typically be completed in a year or less, and usually consist of three to seven courses. The certificate usually requires a bachelor’s degree, though sometimes schools will accept equivalent work experience.
  • A master’s degree is typically a more broad education when it comes to the specific major, and will give you a more in-depth knowledge. Certificates aren’t intended to replace a graduate degree; they are typically provide a more focused, practical approach to a narrower topic.
  • A certificate is nearly always more economical than the graduate degree. A UCLA Extension certificate in business administration takes on year of part-time study and costs $5,000, while an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management can run upwards of $90,000 and takes two years of full-time study.

It should be noted that some people choose to do both. Sometimes a graduate degree in a specific topic can be a great addition to a more general Master’s Degree.

What to Know About Graduate Certificates

A wide variety of certificates are available for the adult looking to either enhance their current career, or potentially move into a new career. Because the graduate certificate is intended to get people up to speed quickly and make them more employable, they are typically oriented toward fast-moving industries in great demand. Some examples are 3-D animation, Construct Management, Financial Markets, Accounting, Game Design, Human Resources Management, Leadership, Project Management, etc. In fact, reviewing the certificates available at universities can often be a good way to determine what’s currently hot in industry. Graduate certificates, unlike graduate degrees, are often offered year-round, starting in the fall, winter, spring or summer terms. The flexibility can be a big benefit for the working professional who might not be able to carve out the time for a full-blown graduate degree. resumeOne thing graduate certificates have in common with graduate degrees is that they can be a great way to grow your professional contacts and network. Many industry professionals on an upward track enroll in certificate programs and can be a great way to open doors, especially if you’re looking to change careers. What’s the downside of a graduate certificate? While it can be a boost to your career, it isn’t going to have the same status and prestige of a graduate degree. All other factors being equal, a firm is going to prefer hiring an MBA over someone with a business certificate. It depends on the field; some fields are much more focused on someone having a degree, such as science, math or engineering fields. Fields where a certificate can pay off are the arts, media, journalism or public relations, where a graduate degree doesn’t typically translate into significantly higher earnings. In the end, you have to take a look at your field and see what makes sense, along with your personal factors. If a master’s degree is not financially viable for you, the certificate may make sense to give you a bit more of an edge.