Select Page

Post University Blog

After earning a bachelor’s degree, students who want additional training in their fields have choices. One is to pursue a graduate certificate. Another is to pursue a master’s degree. Both options have merit, and students need to weigh them out to make the right choice. This starts with a better understanding of the differences between certificate and degree programs.

Graduate Certificate vs Master’s Degree—How to Choose

Before a student can choose between a graduate certificate and a master’s degree, the two terms need defining. For most colleges, both a master’s degree and a graduate certificate require the student to have a bachelor’s degree before they apply, but sometimes work experience can be used in place of the degree.

What is a Graduate Certificate?

A graduate certificate is a non-degree program that requires the student to complete specific higher-level courses. It tends to be focused on one particular aspect or area of the field. This is often used when a student needs to add an additional skill, upgrade technology knowledge, gain continuing education points, or hold a professional certificate for a particular position.

Sometimes, graduate certificates can act as steppingstones toward the completion of a master’s degree. Often, they can be built right into a master’s degree program. Graduate certificates are sometimes called diploma programs.

What is a Master’s Degree?

A master’s is a professional-level degree pursued after earning a bachelor’s degree. Most of the time, master’s degrees require between 30 and 36 credits to complete. For most, this is two years of full-time study, though accelerated programs offer a faster track for motivated students.

There are a number of different types of master-level degree programs. The most common of which are a Master of Arts or a Master of Science degree. However, there are a number of graduate degrees at this level, including familiar programs such as the Master of Business Administration (MBA) or the Master of Social Work (MSW).

Master’s degree programs have fewer general education requirements than bachelor’s degrees, so most of the higher-level coursework found in them are centered on the student’s desired area of expertise or professional development.

Which Is Right for You?

If you need to advance in your career or crave more knowledge in your subject area, which program—a graduate certificate or a graduate degree—is the right choice? The answer depends on your current needs. When choosing, you should consider your:

  • Career Goals

Do you have a specific career path in mind? If you do, look at that career path to determine what would best help you achieve it. Many careers require a master’s degree for advancement or promotion. Or, they may already have a crowded field of master-level candidates. On the other hand, if you are content in your career but need to meet state or national licensee requirements, you may just as well off with a certificate.

  • Interests

If you haven’t decided on your career path, then take a moment to consider what interests you. Are you interested in veering into a different field or niche within your field? This might determine if you need a certificate or a degree.

  • Professional Field

The field you work can dictate which type of graduate training is needed. Take a look at the talent pool as well as the quality of leadership in your field. Determine what training they have. This will tell you which option is more valued in your field.

  • Budget

While you might not want to make your decision based on money alone, you should know that a certificate is often an affordable option compared to a degree. It might be wise to start with certification, then decide if you wish to pursue further training.

  • Time Frame

How much time do you have to pursue your graduate-level training? Again, graduate certificates can be completed faster than degrees, so this could impact your choice.

  • Big Picture

Finally, take a look at your long-term goals and plans. If you have the time and money now to pursue a degree rather than certification, will it help you at some point down the road? Even if you don’t have a specific career change or advancement step in mind right now, you can use a degree or certification to prepare you to stand out in the future.

Keep in mind that the question of graduate certificate vs master’s degree is not an either/or scenario. It’s possible to have both types of graduate training in mind for your educational and career goals. By understanding how to use each one and what benefits they bring, you can make wise choices about your graduate training.

The Benefits of a Graduate Certificate

Why would someone choose a graduate certificate over a master’s degree? Are graduate certificates worth it? For many students, yes, a certificate is often the perfect tool to advance their careers. There are several benefits to graduate certificates that make them a valid option for some professionals and students.

Shorter Time Frame

Because graduate certificates are so highly targeted, they require fewer courses to complete. The length of time depends on the program you pursue, but it can often be completed between four to eight graduate-level courses. This means you can attain your graduate certificate in just a few months of focused study. Almost all certificates take less than 12 months to complete.

Career Shift Opportunity

Sometimes an individual wants to make a career shift but lacks the qualifications or credentials necessary for a new position. Sometimes a graduate certificate is all that is needed to pursue the new career path. Similarly, a certificate can be the stepping stone for a promotion or advancement within the same career field.

Less Expensive

Earning a graduate certificate, because it takes less time, is generally less costly than a graduate degree. This can make it easier to get additional training at a price you can afford, helping you stick to a budget and maintain your fiscal responsibilities outside of education.

Required for Some Industries

Some professional industries, such as medical fields and legal fields, require graduate certificates for state and national licensure. A student often earns certificates while in a graduate degree program but earning them independently may be all that is needed to enter or advance in the field.

The Benefits of a Master’s Degree

A master’s degree offers a more detailed education in the field that interests you. It has some benefits to consider over a graduate certificate, and knowing these will help you choose between the two.

May Be Required for High-Paying Jobs

Some fields actually require a master’s degree for entry-level positions. This is particularly true for management positions within the financial, legal, and medical fields. Some high-paying jobs are also on this list. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you will need a master’s degree for each of these positions:

  • Statisticians
  • Political scientists
  • Computer and information research scientists
  • Mathematicians
  • Physician assistants
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Economists

Each of these careers has a median annual wage of over $102,000, making them careers well worth embracing.

Flexible Pathways Make Degrees More Attainable

Many who decide to back to school to earn their graduate degree are already working in their career area. This can make the education more challenging. However, many of today’s colleges and universities offer options for a flexible education, including hybrid and online programs, evening and weekend classes, and accelerated degree programs.

Graduate Degrees Often Have Certificates Built-In

Some graduate degrees have graduate certificates built into the program. This means you can attain needed certificates now while also earning a degree that could provide advancement opportunities down the line. If you have the time and money to invest in a degree, it traditionally has greater potential to help you achieve long-term success.

Start Planning Your Graduate Training Today

If you are looking ahead to graduate-level work, Post University has a number of grad programs for your consideration, including online graduate degree and graduate certificate programs that can help advance your career. Reach out to the team at Post today to learn more about your graduate training options.


Thank you for reading! The views and information provided in this post do not reflect Post University programs and/or outcomes directly. If you are interested in learning more about our programs, you can find a complete list of our programs on our website or reach out directly! 

Please note jobs, career outcomes, and/or salaries highlighted in this blog do not reflect jobs, career outcomes, and/or salaries expected from any Post University program. To learn more about Post University’s program and their outcomes, please fill out a form to speak with an admissions representative.