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Graduate Certification vs. a Master's Degree: Which is Better?

Jan 2, 2013 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

So what’s the difference between these two degrees—and which is the better investment? They do have a few things in common. They’re both courses of study completed after you earn your Bachelor’s. Both can be used to advance your career, hone your qualifications in a specific area, and stand out from other job applicants. But they’re also quite different—and each makes more sense in different circumstances.

A Master’s degree can take two or sometimes three years to earn if you’re going to school full-time. It’s a big commitment, and it demonstrates in-depth knowledge in a field of study. Many students earn Master’s degrees to qualify for management-level work, sharpen their qualifications in a specific field they may not have
majored in, or just pursue an academic passion further.

A graduate certificate—sometimes referred to as a “diploma”—takes less time to earn. Some graduate certificate programs consist of only three classes, while others may include as many as seven. Most graduate certificates can be earned in a year or less.

Here are a few things to consider when deciding whether a Master’s or a certification program is right for you.

Your financial situation and timeframe

A graduate certificate program, either from a traditional school or an accredited online college, typically costs less than a Master’s degree to earn—a lot less. Plus, it takes less time—so you won’t have to spend as much time out of the workforce or scrambling to juggle a full-time job and school. Even in industries where a Master’s degree is usually preferred, having a graduate certificate may be better than a Bachelor’s alone.

See Also: Online Certificate Programs

Your state or national licensing requirements

Some professions require a certain type of certification as part of licensing requirements—such as teaching in public schools, for example. In these cases, many people are required to earn a postgraduate certification.

See Also: Online Teaching Certification

Your industry’s education expectations

In some industries—such as business or finance—employers will usually hire an MBA or Master’s degree holder before a certificate holder, given the choice. However, in other industries, the education expectations are lower—and while a postgraduate certification can help you stand out, a Master’s may make you look a bit overqualified.

See Also: Online Graduate Degree Programs

Your goals

If you’re looking to fulfill the education requirements for a specific job fast—to qualify for a promotion or help your company earn a high-profile contract, for example—a postgraduate diploma may be a better chance. A postgraduate certification can help you demonstrate your credentials much more quickly than a Master’s.

Your field

Some fields are so new that there aren’t many Master’s degrees in this area—or degrees as focused on what you need. In fields such as homeland security, green energy, or social media marketing, for example, graduate certificate programs are still more common than Master’s degrees—although there are Master’s-level programs in these fields as well. However, some more traditional fields don’t hold graduate certificates in high esteem—such as the fields of law and medicine.

Your potential payout

In some fields, a Master’s degree can boost your earnings considerably—by as much as $30,000 per year or more. This is true particularly in the fields of science, engineering, and math, but can also be true in business, social work, and psychology. However, some fields don’t pay significantly more for those who hold Master’s degrees—such as media and journalism, public relations, and the arts. In these areas, it may be more cost-effective to earn a certificate if you want to improve your credentials.

Which one is better for you depends on your situation—and how specialized your qualification needs are. A graduate certification is not a replacement for a Master’s degree, but in some cases, it may be better suited to your workplace needs. In large part, which one will work best for you depends on your goals, your industry, and the potential payout.



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