Graduate Certificate vs. Master's Degree: How To Choose

Updated February 3, 2023

A graduate certificate and a master's degree are advanced credentials available for people who have already earned a bachelor's degree. The programs may seem similar, but there are some distinct differences. Learning about the differences between a certificate and a degree can help you determine which is best for you.

In this article, we explore the differences between a graduate certificate and master's degree, detail the benefits of each and provide steps you can follow to determine which is best for you.

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Graduate certificate vs. master's degree

graduate certificate is a graduate-level educational credential. Graduate certificate programs are highly concentrated and are designed to meet the professional or supplemental needs of people pursuing specific careers. There are graduate certificate programs and topics of interest for people in a wide variety of disciplines and industries.

master's degree is a graduate-level academic credential awarded to those who have completed a program that concentrates on a specific subject. To earn a master's degree, you have a bachelor's degree and complete a curriculum that focuses on your major. Depending on the subject you choose, full-time graduate students usually take between two or three years to complete this type of degree.

Related: 11 Postgrad Degree Options (With Tips for Choosing Yours)

Why pursue a graduate certificate?

While there are many benefits to earning a graduate certificate over a master's degree, here are six of the main advantages:

1. The curriculum is highly concentrated

Graduate certificate programs are highly specialized and focused on specific subjects pertaining to a person's career. People attending these programs have already completed their bachelor's degree and likely have some level of professional experience. These programs do not include a set of basic core classes. Instead, certificate programs focus on providing advanced information on one or two specific topics within an industry.

2. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) isn't required

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a test that measures a student's writing, reasoning and critical thinking skills. Most graduate certificate programs do not require a person to take the GRE. This can save students a considerable amount of time and money on registration and tutor fees.

3. The program takes less time to complete

Graduate certificate programs usually take between six and 12 months of full-time study to complete. Because certificate programs do not involve basic core level classes and do not provide in-depth classes surrounding multiple facets of academic study, they take less time to complete than graduate degree programs. This can make certificates better options for those with full-time careers or other responsibilities.

4. A graduate certificate can prepare you for a master's degree

Graduate certificate courses are graduate-level classes, and include the same challenging content. Undergoing a six- or nine-month graduate certificate program allows people to get a feel for the types of assignments and level of study involved in pursuing a master's degree. If you complete a graduate certificate, you can learn more about learning approaches and how to study for graduate level content.

5. Earning the certificate indicates a growth mindset

Getting a graduate certificate shows employers your commitment to learning and development. It can also provides a measurable way to measure your advanced understanding of material pertaining to a specific job. Adding a certificate to your resume can show your commitment to learning and expertise in a subject.

6. Completing the program can expand your professional network

A person's professional network is the sum of their professional, academic or social contacts, and people within these networks regularly work together to find jobs or further each other's careers. Most people attending graduate certificate programs are professionals who seek to learn more about the fields they work in and advance their careers. For this reason, graduate certificate programs often connect people who are in similar industries that may have similar professional goals.

Related: 11 Tips for Success if You Have a Master's Degree and Can't Find a Job

Why earn a master's degree?

There are many professional advantages to earning a master's degree. Here are four of the main benefits:

1. A master's degree provides in-depth subject knowledge

A master's degree is a high-level academic pursuit. Those who complete these two- or three-year degree programs gain in-depth knowledge and expertise regarding a specific subject. Many master's degree programs also involve hands-on learning experience to develop skills for the workplace.

2. Earning a master's degree may increase job opportunities

Every career, job title or employer has a unique set of academic requirements. While a bachelor's degree is often required for entry-level or mid-level positions, many industries require a person to earn a master's degree for mid-level jobs, specialized roles or leadership positions within a company.

3. Holding a master's degree improves your potential for higher-paying jobs

Many employers offer higher wages or salaries to people who have completed a master's degree or doctorate. These degrees indicate a high level of expertise in a field, and many employers pay more and provide more benefits to people with that level of skill and knowledge.

4. A master's degree is a prerequisite for further degrees

Some doctorate or Ph.D. programs require a person to have earned a master's degree in a related subject as an academic prerequisite. Having a master's degree is necessary for people who have academic or career goals that require postgraduate education, and it affords people the opportunity to pursue higher learning degrees later in their careers.

Related: 10 of the Best Master's Degrees for the Future (And Jobs To Consider)

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How to choose between a graduate certificate and a master's degree

Here's how to choose between earning a graduate certificate and a master's degree:

1. Decide if your pursuit is academic or professional

An academic pursuit is research-oriented and centers on advanced learning. Students interested in pursuing academia often have theoretical, intellectual or speculative interests relating to a subject. Those with professional reasons for furthering their education seek to advance their careers.

If your interest in a subject is more academic, you may find that a comprehensive master's degree program is more suited to your needs. However, if you are interested in learning more about a subject for the purpose of developing your career, you may consider choosing a graduate certificate program.

2. Consider your career goals

Some careers require a person to have a master's degree or a doctorate degree, and earning a master's degree is sometimes a prerequisite for earning a Ph.D. If the career you're interested in requires that you earn a master's degree or a doctorate, earning a graduate certificate may not meet the needs of your career goals.

Even if the Ph.D. program that you are interested in doesn't require a master's degree as a prerequisite, there are benefits to completing this type of degree program prior to applying. If you are applying to a Ph.D. program in a field unrelated to your bachelor's degree, you can fulfill prerequisite requirements by completing a master's degree.

Additionally, most Ph.D. programs are highly competitive. Having a master's degree and earning a high grade point average during that time is likely to boost your chances of admittance.

3. Determine how much time you can commit

Graduate certificate programs typically take between six and 12 months to complete, while master's degrees often take between two or three years of full-time study. If you are working full time, or have other personal or family-related obligations, it is important to consider how much time you can commit.

Both graduate certificate and master's degree programs are regularly available for part-time learners. However, this typically doubles the time it takes to complete either program. If you are able to commit two to five years as a part-time learner, then consider earning your master's degree. However, if you are more comfortable with a part-time commitment of one to two years, then a graduate certificate program may better suit your lifestyle.

4. Decide if you want to take the GRE

The GRE is a standardized test that many colleges and universities use for admission into graduate-level programs. The exam assesses a person's ability in the areas of verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. Each college or university has its own requirements for minimum scores for admission.

Many students take months to study and prepare for this test. If you're interested in learning more about a subject, but do not want to take the GRE, you may find that a graduate certificate program more closely fits your needs. Also, some master's degree programs do not require that applicants take the GRE. Research the admission requirements for the school or program you are interested in to see if taking this exam is necessary.

Related: Tips for Choosing the Right Master's Degree Program

5. Research the thesis requirements

Earning a master's degree is contingent on the completion of a large final project. In academia, this project is referred to as a person's final master's thesis. A master's thesis is typically between 100 and 200 pages long and demonstrates a person's research, findings and expertise in a particular area within a subject.

It is important to research the thesis requirements of a master's-level program before applying, so you can determine whether the degree program is something you are interested in.

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