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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.

We have long known that the more education you attain the higher your lifetime earnings are likely to be.* 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 they need to progress in their career. For others, a master’s, PhD, or professional doctoral degree could be the 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 consist of three or four courses and seek to 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 knowledge and credentials you need for a career as a manager in a government department or agency, while a Graduate Certificate in Auditing can help you prepare for the Certified Public Accountant exam, the Certified Fraud Examiner exam, or Certified Internal Auditor exam.

Graduate degree programs consist of many more courses than do graduate certificate programs and seek to provide in-depth knowledge of an entire field. While many master’s and doctoral degree programs can prepare you for a specific career or job, graduate degree programs can also help you gain broad expertise that you can 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, although some colleges and universities offer programs such as Walden’s Accelerate Into Master’s that allow 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 most doctoral programs, some professionals earn a master’s first before deciding to further their education.

The Time-Commitment Difference

Graduate certificate programs

are 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 credentials quickly.

Graduate degree programs vary in length. However, most master’s degree programs are designed to take 2 years to complete while most doctoral degree programs are designed to take 4 to 5 years. Because of this, graduate degrees are better suited for 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 tightly on a specific topic, making them well suited for those who want to specialize in one aspect of their field in order to gain the knowledge and credibility they need 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 remake your résumé and open doors throughout any industry associated with your degree field. Additionally, graduate degrees can remain highly valuable even if you change jobs or careers later. A master’s degree alone can help you earn $12,000 more a year than a bachelor’s degree, with higher earnings being particularly notable in the business, education, healthcare, social service, and STEM fields.

How Online Education Can Help You Earn a Certificate or Degree

When conducting your college search, don’t leave accredited online colleges off your list of colleges to consider. 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 several 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 can allow you to complete the majority of your coursework from anywhere you have internet access.

Additionally, unlike most campus-based universities, online universities offer flexible scheduling so that you can attend classes and take care of your studies at the 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 complete your degree or certificate faster—even if you’re working full time.

Your educational needs and career goals can help you choose between a graduate certificate and a graduate degree. 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.

*Social Security, Office of Retirement Policy, Education and Lifetime Earnings, on the internet at

†E. Torpey and D. Terrell, Should I Get a Master’s Degree?, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, on the internet at

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,