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What is a Graduate Certificate and What Are Its Benefits?

A woman working on her online graduate certificate courses from her laptop

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 the functional and academic effectiveness team 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 into your current field or learn about something new, there's a broad range of programs to choose from. Some include:

Clare Greenlaw with the text 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, an associate dean of business programs 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," Greenlaw 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."

4 Benefits of a Graduate Certificate

If you want the ability to stay relevant in your field, validate your skill set, earn professional development or sample the courseload of a master's degree program, then you may benefit from completing a graduate certificate. You can even transfer the credits you earn from your graduate certificate program toward a master's degree.

Adapt to Change

According to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), some of the most in-demand jobs today did not exist 10-15 years ago (WEF 2016 PDF source). Another WEF report confirmed that the pace of change has only accelerated (WEF 2018 PDF source).

With a graduate certificate, you can 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 to keep up with industries that are constantly evolving, such as technology.

Validate Your Skill Set

Based on a 2022 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Employee Tenure Summary, workers have been with their current employer for a median of 4.1 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 a credential.

Christina Dumeng with the text Christina Dumeng“Let’s say you’ve been doing something for... six 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?”

One solution is to earn a graduate certificate, especially if you are interested in pursuing a master's degree later. And you may be able to transfer credits from your graduate certificate program into your master's degree program to help shorten the time needed to complete your degree.

BLS reported that there were 10.7 million job openings at the end of September 2022, and a skill gap may contribute to that growing number. Jobs are continuing to change, and there is a perceived barrier when it comes to workers adapting to new technologies. According to a 2020 WEF survey, 55.4% of companies believe there is a skill gap in the local labor market (WEF 2020 PDF source).

Dumeng 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

If you enroll in a graduate certificate program, you will often find yourself 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 you may use a 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 allow 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 master's 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.

Is a Graduate Certificate the Same as a Graduate Degree?

Although the two graduate programs share rigorous course loads, there are several differences between graduate degrees and certificates, 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 four or five months, depending on the certificate program. Master’s degree programs often require 36 credits or more and typically take two years to complete.

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 sometimes 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.”

Education can change your life. Find the SNHU online certificate program that can best help you meet your goals.

Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 '22G is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.