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

A degree may open the door to a variety of opportunities and diverse career paths. The degree programs offered at AIU will not necessarily lead to the featured careers. This collection of articles is intended to help inform and guide you through the process of determining which level of degree and types of certifications align with your desired career path.

Pursuing an education takes time and money. 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," is awarded for completing an educational program in a specific field and offers professionals the option to develop the desired skills for a profession and may be attained faster than a degree.1 A master's degree, however, is a graduate degree that shows a candidate has achieved a certain level of 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 to be aware of the benefits of each to help clarify which path may be best for you.

Why Pursue a Graduate Certificate?

Professionals typically seek a graduate certificate to build skills in their industry or gain skills to transition to a new field.1 For example, 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.

Common reasons why professionals may choose a graduate certificate vs. a master's degree may come down to time and budget requirements.

  • Certification programs typically take a shorter amount of time. Depending on the industry and certification, they can require taking anywhere from four to eight targeted, graduate level courses.1
  • A graduate certification program may be less expensive than a master's degree, which can be appealing to those who already have a number of financial responsibilities.
  • Certificate programs may help in advancement for certain industries and fields such as paralegal studies or internet marketing for example.1

Yet while this option may afford you more opportunities in your desired field, there's a significant difference in graduate certificate and master's degree employment requirement rates. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), about 37% of jobs were in “occupations that typically require some type of post-secondary education for entry" in May 2016, whereas just 6% of jobs at the time required a postsecondary non-degree, such as a graduate certificate.2

Is a Master's Degree More Beneficial?

Given these statistics, it seems that a master's degree may put you in a better position 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 may hold more weight.

  • Certain fields and higher-level positions require or prefer a master's degree. Examples include Financial Managers,3 Medical and Health Services Managers,4 and Computer and Information Systems Managers.5
  • Nowadays, institutions increasingly offer more flexible pathways for busy professionals to earn a master's degree. You may be able to earn an MBA in less than a year, even choosing a specialization in your field of interest, such as marketing or finance.
  • One-year master's degree programs at AIU are designed for busy professionals. These accredited MBA programs can be completed in less than 12 months.

Consider Your Career Goals

Before you take the leap into a graduate certification or commit to a master's degree program, it's best to have an idea of your end goal: Are you satisfied with your field and career track, and with the idea that additional certifications may 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.

Are you ready to learn more? Explore master's degree programs at AIU today.


1. “2 Reasons Why A Certificate Is Better Than An Expensive Graduate Degree.” Forbes.com. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/gingerdean/2017/05/31/2-reasons-why-a-certificate-is-better-than-an-expensive-graduate-degree/#5f518bac36fd (Visited September 10, 2018).
2. “37 Percent of May 2016 Employment in Occupations Typically Requiring Postsecondary Education.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2017/37-percent-of-may-2016-employment-in-occupations-typically-requiring-postsecondary-education.htm (Visited September 10, 2018).
3. “Financial Managers.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/financial-managers.htm (Visited September 10, 2018).
4. “Medical and Health Services Managers.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/medical-and-health-services-managers.htm (Visited September 10, 2018).
5. “Computer and Information Systems Managers.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/computer-and-information-systems-managers.htm (Visited September 10, 2018).

AIU cannot guarantee employment or salary. For important information about the educational debt, earnings and completion rates of students who attended these programs, go to www.aiuniv.edu/disclosures.
1361691 9/18

Take the next step. Classes Start October 24, 2018

Request Information

* Please correct the following errors:

By clicking the button below you agree to be contacted by AIU about education services (including through automated and/or pre-recorded means, e.g. dialing and text messaging) via telephone, mobile device (including SMS and MMS), and/or email, even if your telephone number or email address is on a corporate, state or the National Do Not Call Registry, and you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. You understand that your consent is not required as a condition to purchase a good or service.

Classes Start October 24, 2018