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Graduate Certificate or Graduate Degree? How to Choose

Your educational needs and career goals can help you decide whether to earn a degree or a certificate.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the more education you attain, the higher your earnings are likely to be.1 But that doesn’t mean everyone should rush out and earn a doctoral degree. Different careers require different levels of education, and different employers expect different kinds of credentials.

While earning a bachelor’s degree is a good idea no matter what your professional aspirations might be, your next step should depend on your personal circumstances. For some, a graduate certificate could be just what is needed for career progression. For others, a master’s, PhD, or professional doctoral degree might be a better choice. Which path is right for you? Understanding what differentiates a graduate certificate from a graduate degree can help you decide.

Graduate Certificate or Graduate Degree? How to Choose

The Core Difference

Graduate certificate programs typically consist of three to five courses and provide enhanced knowledge of a specific topic within a broader field. Most graduate certificate programs are career oriented, focused on helping you gain real-world skills and/or prepare for professional certification exams. For example, a Graduate Certificate in Government Management can help you gain the academic background you need to pursue a career as a manager in a government department or agency, while courses from a Graduate Certificate in Applied Project Management program can be applied toward Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification.2

Graduate degree programs consist of many more courses than do graduate certificate programs and provide in-depth knowledge of the field as a whole. While many master’s and doctoral degree programs can academically prepare you for a specific career or job, graduate degree programs can also help you gain broad expertise that you may be able to apply to a variety of careers within and even outside of your field.

Requirements Difference

Graduate certificate programs require you to hold at least a bachelor’s degree. However, some graduate certificate programs are specifically designed for those who hold a master’s (post-master’s certificates) or a doctoral degree (post-doctoral certificates).

Graduate degree programs also require you to hold a bachelor’s degree. Some colleges and universities offer options such as Walden University’s Accelerate Into Master’s (AIM) track that allows you to get a head start on your master’s while earning your undergraduate degree. While you don’t always need a master’s degree to enroll in a doctoral program, many professionals earn a master’s first before deciding to further their education.

The Time-Commitment Difference

Graduate certificate programs are often designed to take under a year to complete. The small number of required courses makes these programs ideal for those who want to improve their knowledge and gain new skills more quickly.

Graduate degree programs vary in length. Most master’s programs are designed to take two years to complete, based on full-time enrollment. A doctoral degree program can take from three to eight years, though actual time to completion depends on many factors. Because of this, graduate degrees are better suited to those willing to commit significant time to their education—although online degree programs can make this time commitment easier to handle (more on online education below).

The Career Difference

Graduate certificates focus on a specific topic, making them well suited for those who want to specialize in one aspect of their field in order to gain knowledge to advance within their current career.

Graduate degrees are much more in-depth than certificates. As such, they are good for people who want to advance in their current career and for people seeking to change careers. A master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited university can provide you with the academic background to explore opportunities in your field.

How Online Education Can Help You Earn a Certificate or Degree

When conducting your college search, make sure to consider accredited online colleges. Online degree programs and online certificate programs can give you a top-level education while allowing you to take advantage of online learning’s many benefits.

A standard college comparison will reveal some major advantages to online education. For one, when you earn a degree or certificate online, you don’t have to worry about living close to a good college or even driving to a campus. Instead, an online certificate program or an online graduate degree program offered through a quality institution can allow you to complete the majority of your coursework from anywhere you have internet access.

Additionally, online universities offer flexible learning platforms that let you complete coursework at a time of day that works best for you. When you choose to enroll in a graduate degree or graduate certificate program online, you’re choosing a more convenient way to learn, which can help you better keep up with your studies—even if you’re working full time.

Your educational needs and career goals can help you choose between a graduate certificate program and a graduate degree program. And online education can help make earning your certificate or degree a real possibility.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and graduate certificate programs online. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


<p class="small-text">1Source: www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm<br/>

2Eligibility for the PMP® credential requires individuals to first attain specific educational and project management experience, including 35 contact hours of project management education and a minimum of three years, or 36 months, of project management experience, during which at least 4,500 hours were spent leading and directing project tasks. The final step in earning the PMP credential is passing the PMP exam. For more information, visit the Project Management Institute (PMI) website at www.pmi.org.</p>

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission, www.hlcommission.org.

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