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Graduate Certificate vs. Master's Degree: What's the Difference?

Image:  graduate certificate vs masters degree

Pursuing an education takes time and money. And for many professionals, weighing the opportunity cost and the rate of return can determine whether they pursue a graduate certificate vs. a master's degree.

A graduate certificate, sometimes called a "professional certificate," offers professionals the option to gain needed skills, typically in a shorter period, through a course of study in a specific area. Meanwhile, a master's degree is a graduate degree granted through a recognized, accredited institution that shows a candidate has achieved mastery in a particular field of study.

If you're deciding between the two, it's best to understand the differences between a graduate certificate and a master's degree and understand the benefits of each to clarify which path is best for you.

Why Pursue a Graduate Certificate?

Professionals seek a graduate certificate to build skills in their industry or gain skills to transition to a new field. A healthcare professional might pursue a healthcare management certificate to develop additional knowledge and skills in the field, while a new business owner planning to scale her business might seek a business management certificate.

The biggest reasons professionals choose a graduate certificate vs. a master's degree typically come down to time and budget requirements.

  • Certification programs typically take a shorter amount of time. Depending on the industry and certification, coursework can take anywhere from weeks to one to two years.
  • Graduate certificates can be less expensive than a master's degree, which can be appealing to those who already have number of financial responsibilities.
  • Certificate programs may help in advancement for certain industries and fields. Paralegals must earn a graduate certification, for examples, and a teacher can gain a graduate certificate (sometimes called an ESOL) to qualify to teach English language learners.

But while this option may afford you more opportunities in your field or a new one, there's a significant difference in graduate certificate and master's degree employment requirement rates. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), about 30 percent of jobs were in occupations that "typically require a post-secondary education" in 2012, whereas just 6 percent of jobs required a post-secondary non-degree, such as a graduate certificate.1

Is a Master's Degree More Beneficial?

Given these statistics, simply put, a master's degree can better position you to pursue more career opportunities. Though you're required to have an undergraduate bachelor's degree to apply for both a graduate certificate and master's degree, a master's degree can hold more weight.

  • According to the BLS, people who have a master's degree earn 20% more per week than those with a bachelor's degree.2
  • Certain fields and higher-level positions require or prefer a master's degree.
  • Nowadays, institutions increasingly offer more flexible pathways for busy professionals to earn a master's degree. You can earn an MBA in less than a year, even choosing a specialization in your field of interest, such as marketing or finance.

Consider Your Career Goals

Before you take the leap into a graduate certification or commit to a master's degree, it's best to have an idea of your end goal: Are you satisfied with your field and career track, with the idea that additional certifications will increase your value in your current position? Do you find that your desired next step feels just out of reach because other candidates often hold a master's degree? Do your research. Decide whether the benefits outweigh the cost to make the choice that best fits with your long-term career plans.

Ready to learn more? Explore master's degree programs at AIU.

1 Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Education and Training Outlook for Occupations, 2012-2022, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_edtrain_outlook.pdf (visited 9/16/15).

2 Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm (visited 9/16/15)

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