Should I Get a Certificate or a Master’s Degree?

Achieving a bachelor’s degree is a great feat. After graduating college, you can take your education to the next level by enrolling into a master’s degree program or obtaining a graduate certificate. The differences between getting a master’s degree vs. a graduate certificate are characterized by cost, time, courseload,  and career benefits. Both options are designed to help you become a more skilled professional in your field. There are many factors to consider when deciding which path to pursue, but first, let’s dive into the differences between graduate certificates and master’s degrees.

What is a Graduate Certificate?

A graduate certificate is a non-degree award that typically focuses on sharpening one particular skill or expanding knowledge of an individual subject. Those who pursue a graduate certificate are interested in refining their current skill set or changing careers entirely. You can pursue certificates in many different fields, from mathematics to marketing. With a graduate certificate, you demonstrate to current or prospective employers that you have a credible amount of subject matter expertise. Getting a certificate is also ideal for those who are interested in interdisciplinary learning opportunities. For example, someone who majored in business can get a statistics certificate to further develop their analytical skills.

Graduate certificates usually take less time to complete compared to a master’s degree program since they only require 12 to 15 course credits. With the coursework involving just three to five classes, most students are able to complete a graduate certificate in a year or less. Graduate certificates are also more affordable than master’s programs due to the reduced amount of required credits. 

While certificate programs aren’t quite as expensive as pursuing a master’s degree, students interested in a certificate program may still qualify for financing options, such as grants. All certificates vary in their enrollment and completion requirements, so consider reviewing that criteria closely during your research process to find a program that best meets your needs. 

What is a Master’s Degree Program?

A master’s program awards a student with a graduate-level degree from an accredited educational institution upon completion of an intensive course of study in a specific area that extends beyond subject matter covered by a bachelor’s degree. A master’s degree holds more academic weight than graduate certificates. 

Master’s programs cost more than graduate certificates due to the high level of academic rigor involved. A master’s degree allows you to gain advanced knowledge about an entire discipline as opposed to a single subject of study. You can pursue a master’s in a plethora of fields such as mathematics, public health, chemistry, and business administration — to name a few subjects. The three types of master’s degrees include:

  • Master of Science (MS)
  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)

The curriculum structure of a master’s degree program includes a combination of foundational courses to build core knowledge, and elective classes to delve into specific concentrations. Those who pursue a master’s degree typically finish the program in one to two years. Depending on whether the school follows a semester-based or quarter-based system, a master’s program usually requires at least 30 to 36 credits to achieve the degree. Specialized degrees such as a master’s in business administration (or MBA), however, involve more coursework and can require at least 40 to 50 units in order to graduate. The amount of credits necessary for degree completion varies by school and field of study, and it’s recommended to research this in-depth to be cognizant of program requirements.

Are Graduate Certificates Worth It?

If you are interested in skill advancement and/or switching careers without having to commit to a degree program, then a certificate may be the better path forward. Graduate certificates are beneficial for those who prefer a more affordable education option that takes less time to complete. Other advantages to getting a graduate certificate include:

Acquiring new skills in a desired field

As previously mentioned, a graduate certificate helps you develop skills that can enhance your resume and overall value as a professional. You can become an expert in a particular subject field and obtain credentials that can potentially unlock other work opportunities. Someone who majored in marketing, for example, might be interested in pursuing a data science certification to be considered for more data-driven marketing projects at their company.

If you have a desire to switch careers, getting a certificate is a step in the right direction and works to your advantage when building a new skill portfolio. 

Fulfilling licensure requirements

Some graduate certificates are necessary to fulfill licensing requirements for a particular job, such as teaching. A graduate certificate in science, for example, would fulfill one of the requirements for teaching biology if you only have a bachelor’s degree. Nurses will typically pursue graduate certificates when preparing for credential exams, or if they are interested in pursuing a master’s program later in the future.

Are Master’s Degree Programs Worth It?

In evaluating which option has been proven to yield successful professional outcomes, a master’s degree undoubtedly triumphs over a graduate certificate. While obtaining a graduate certificate leads to skill refinement, a master’s degree builds on that and takes it a step forward by making individuals become more qualified candidates for employment or salary increase opportunities. A master’s degree requires a lengthier and more intensive academic commitment and, by nature, is ultimately regarded with more value than a graduate certificate (depending on the field of study).

In deciding whether a master’s program is right for you, you’ll want to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What level of education is typically required for your desired industry?
  • How much time, money, and commitment are you willing to give to advance your education?
  • Will a master’s degree help you climb up the professional ladder with a current or prospective employer?
  • What will a master’s degree enable you to do in your professional endeavors? What new doors will this degree open for you and what would be your return on investment (ROI) in terms of a salary boost over time?
  • How will getting a master’s degree provide more value than getting a graduate certificate? (And vice versa?)
  • Think about the professional role you’d like to have 5-10 years down the line. Will a master’s degree help make you a stronger candidate for that position?

Take the time to reflect on the pros and cons of getting a master’s degree vs. pursuing a graduate certificate. When considering both options, it may be helpful to connect with others who have gone down similar professional paths. Gaining insight into what they find most valuable about master’s degree programs and how they’ve applied those skills in the workforce can help you discover the ways either track can potentially benefit you.

Learn more about the most employable master’s degree programs.

Take The Next Step for Your Education

Now that you have an understanding of what graduate certificates and master’s degree programs are, it’s time to turn your goals into reality. Both educational paths can help you become a more knowledgeable professional in your field – it’s just a matter of deciding which option is most beneficial for you.

Take the next step in advancing your career and learn about the admissions requirements for a graduate program at National University.

Already have a program in mind? Browse through our list of graduate programs to find out what we offer.


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