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What Is a Graduate Certificate and What Are Its Benefits?

A man in a suit making a presentation as part of his graduate certificate course.

A graduate certificate is a credential that equips you with foundational knowledge and skills in a particular field. Some of the benefits to earning one include the ability to:

  • Adapt to changing work environments
  • Validate your skill set
  • Demonstrate professional development
  • Jumpstart your master's degree

A graduate certificate is a credential that equips you with foundational knowledge and skills in a particular field. Although it doesn't replace a master's degree, it can still prove competence in an area and be featured on your resume.

Campus and online certificate programs are geared toward those who wish to advance their skills to remain competitive in the workforce, according to Christina Dumeng, an associate dean of business programs at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

Anyone with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree can apply for a graduate certificate program. Whether you’d like to delve deeper in your current field or learn about something new, there's a broad range of programs to choose from. Some include:

Clare GreenlawThese programs supply you with skills and broaden your industry knowledge. “It’s a constant sign to your employer that you’re available and learning,” Clare Greenlaw, a lead faculty at SNHU said.

More employers are covering the cost of certificates now, too, because they reap benefits for the workplace, according to Greenlaw.

"A certificate is often experiential learning, and it covers theory, but it moves quickly from academic study to application and use," he said. "So, you’re very hands-on, and employers appreciate that because they’re assuming when you come out, it will be an immediately useful skill set for them."

Benefits of a Graduate Certificate

Anyone who wants to the ability to stay relevant in their field, validate their skill set, earn professional development or sample the course load of a master's degree program can benefit from completing a graduate certificate.

Adapt to Change

According to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum, some of the most in-demand jobs today did not exist 5-10 years ago, and the 2018 report confirmed that the pace of change has only accelerated. Earning a graduate certificate is a fast way to adapt to the change.

With a graduate certificate, you’ll gain up-to-date expertise and get an edge on the competition, even if it’s been years since you earned your degree. This could be especially beneficial for industries that are constantly changing, such as technology.

Validate Your Skill Set

Based on a 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Employee Tenure survey, workers have been with their current employer for a median of 4.2 years. This means it's likely you will work in a number of roles throughout your career. While your work experience may propel you forward, a graduate certificate will give you the credential.

Christina Dumeng“Let’s say you’ve been doing something for... 6 years, but you don’t have a formal degree in it because you’ve evolved into that role in your workplace,” Greenlaw said. “How do you transfer to a new employer and show with some immediate validity… that you have those skills?” Earning a certificate is one solution, especially if you already have a master’s degree under your belt.

BLS reported that there were 6.9 million job openings at the end of November 2018, and Dumeng attributes this number to a skill-gap. She said enrolling in a graduate certificate program is a way to develop the skills employers are seeking. “They are hands-on, they’re immediate and (they) can help to bridge that gap,” she said.

Demonstrate Professional Development

Even if you’re satisfied in your current role, enrolling in a certificate program is a form of professional development that may just be the boost you need for a promotion or raise.

“It does signal your readiness for promotion," Greenlaw said. "You’re demonstrating an additional grit and an additional interest in furthering your own capabilities which will result in your employer’s benefit.”

Jumpstart Your Master's Degree

Learners enrolled in a graduate certificate program will often find themselves in the same courses as those pursuing a master's degree, completing the same tasks and objectives. Because of this, many of the credits are transferable, and people will often use their certificate program as a stepping stone to a full-fledged master's degree.

Earning a certificate first may give you the confidence to pursue a degree, and it allows you to explore program options if you're not quite sure where you'd like to focus your graduate studies.

Sometimes, colleges will even bundle a certificate with a master’s degree program, and graduates will leave school with two new credentials. That's what happened when Dumeng pursued her MS in Organizational Leadership. Some of the required courses and electives she took amounted to a Human Resources Management certificate. Now, she can boast both credentials on her resume.

The Difference Between a Graduate Certificate and a Master’s Degree

Although graduate certificate and master's degree programs share rigorous course loads, there are several differences between the two programs, including time, cost and skills.

Time

A graduate certificate can be earned in less time than it would take to earn a master's degree, allowing you to move quickly from theory to application. They typically range from 12-21 credits and can be finished in as soon as 4 or 5 months, depending on the certificate program. Master’s degree programs often require 36 credits or more.

Cost

Since a certificate program takes less time to complete, it’s also more affordable and more accessible to pay out of pocket than a master’s program. While federal financial aid generally does not cover the cost of a certificate, employers sometime will.

Skills 

Learners who complete a certificate can expect to become equipped with concrete skills in a particular field, while those who earn a master’s degree can demonstrate mastery.

“A graduate certificate does carry less weight than a full graduate degree and therefore would be considered a lesser credential comparatively,” Dumeng said. “However, both a graduate certificate and a graduate degree have a place in the workforce and are used for professional growth.”

Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 is a writer and editorial coordinator at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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