Graduate Certificate vs Masters Degree

Graduate certificates and master’s degrees offer a next step after a bachelor’s degree. But otherwise are distinct in focus, credit requirements, length and appeal.

A master’s degree often consists of about 10 to 12 courses. This usually takes a fulltime student about two years. Though many online master’s programs offer an accelerated route.

To enter a master’s program, one may need a specific GPA, GRE/GMAT scores and a bachelor’s degree. Sometimes too, a specific undergraduate major. Don’t worry though, there are many masters with no GRE requirements also.

Graduate Certificates vs Master's Degrees

What is a Graduate Certificate Equivalent To?

A graduate certificate (GradCert, GCert, GradC) is also called a diploma. As a non-degree award, it offers courses at the same level as a master’s degree. But is not the same academic weight because it is not a degree.

Most grad certificates cover one subject in about 3 to 4 courses. This usually takes one year or less depending on the student and certificate.

To qualify for a graduate certificate, you must already have a bachelor’s degree. In some colleges there are also post-master’s certificates. These are for students with both a bachelor and master’s degree.

Earning a certificate while in a master’s program adds depth to your knowledge base. But many people pursue a certificate instead of committing to a master’s degree.

A popular reason is a GCert takes less time and money. While adding relevant, resume-enhancing skills. This may appeal to people who have experience but lack a formal education. Or do not need a master’s to land a job in their chosen field.

Is it Worth Getting a Certificate? 8 Questions to Ask Yourself

When deciding between a grad certificate and a master’s there are a few things to check.

  1. What education do you need to pursue a career in your career field?
  2. How much time and money do you have?
  3. Is the industry one of high growth and opportunity?
  4. Does a master’s degree translate into more money in your career field?
  5. Do you need certification to pursue an occupation?
  6. Might a graduate certificate help you carve out a career niche?
  7. What credentials do job postings in your career field look for?
  8. Do you want to pursue a master’s degree but not now?

Keeping your finger on the pulse of jobs and employability is a useful rule of thumb.

Why Pursue a Graduate Certificate?

A certificate does not take the place of a master’s degree but may be a useful and affordable option. Here are 3 common reasons why people pursue a graduate certificate.

1. Gain Marketable Skills for a Current Career Field

A certificate may help you gain marketable skills. If you earned your bachelor’s degree some time ago this may make a difference. You might study to further a current career or find a new job in the same industry.

One example is a Graduate Certificate in Data Science. This kind of program may provide a practical way to keep pace with technology. You might learn how to leverage big data to make intelligent business decisions. Plus, you might earn credits towards a master’s degree at the same time.

2. Gain Skills to Switch Careers

A graduate certificate may be a practical way to get skills to change careers. It won’t take the place of a degree. But it still offers a university-level credential to tack onto your CV.

Many graduate certificates in business are cases in point. One might study to ‘master’ key components of management, leadership, marketing and beyond.

In career fields where a bachelor’s degree is the entry-point this may be a practical option. One that may help you transition to a new field. Plus, you don’t have to give up the job you have while you add potentially employable skills.

3. Meet State or National Licensing Requirements

Some graduate certificates fill a graduate credit hour gap for an industry license.

These certificates are much like study guides. Though they may involve hands-on practice too. Some are post-bachelor’s certificates. Others are for students with a master’s degree.

One example is a Graduate Certificate in Mathematics. This kind of post-bachelor’s certificate may allow you to study what you want to teach. Like applied math, statistics, algebra or data analysis.

Certificates like this may involve 18 credits. They might appeal to teachers who are not seeking an MS degree. But do need graduate credits to teach math per state laws.

Grads meeting qualifications may then pursue new opportunities. Like teaching community college level or dual-credit high school courses.

Another example is an Applied Behavior Analysis Certificate. While a non-degree option, many pursue an ABA certificate to prepare for licensure.

Most programs of this nature take about one year and are for master’s prepared applicants. Fulfilling requirements may ready you for the Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) exam. This is a rule if you want to become a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).

Nursing graduate certificates often achieve the same goals. They often prepare nurses for credentialing exams. These programs may be longer than the average certificate. But offer an option to a master’s degree that may enable career mobility.

Is a Master’s Degree More Beneficial?

With all the benefits of a grad certificate, you may find a master’s degree offers even more. This may include wage premiums as well as opportunities. Here are a few reasons why this is so.

  • Earn your degree from a university with a “Whole Human Education” approach that focuses on assisting you in all aspects of your education: academic, emotional, career, financial, and family.
  • Choose from 75+ programs: Whether you’re starting fresh or seeking advancement, our career-focused programs are designed to help you make an impact in your chosen field.
  • National University is regionally accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).

A Master’s Degree is a Higher Academic Award Than a Certificate

For one, a graduate certificate is not the same as a master’s degree. A master’s degree program leads to the award of an academic degree.

A graduate certificate requires you to complete courses as a non-degree seeking student. It confers a credential but not a degree in a target area of study.

A Master’s Degree is an Entry Point for Many Fast-Growing Careers

This fact may make a difference when it comes to entering or advancing a career. There are many occupations where you need a master’s degree to pursue an entry-level role.

Of all occupations those that need a master’s degree to get a foot in the door are growing the fastest. Here are 5 examples of the fastest growing careers where you need a master’s degree.

Fast Growing CareersAverage Projected Employment Change to 2022
Physician Assistants37%
Nurse Practitioners36%
Genetic Counselors29%
Information Security Analysts28%

If one of these fields is your goal, a certificate is not enough. But you might begin with one if your credits will transfer later. Caveat – not all master’s programs feature certificate options.

Employment by Education Level

Education LevelAverage Projected Employment Change to 2022
Doctoral or Professional Degree16%
Master’s Degree18.4%
Bachelor’s Degree12.1%
Associate’s Degree17.6%
Postsecondary Non-Degree Award15.6%


A Master’s Degree May Help You Earn More Than Having a Bachelor’s Degree

In some careers, people with a master’s degree earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree per the BLS.

One example are financial managers. Those with a master’s (or MBA) earn 41% more than people in the same field with a bachelor’s degree.

A Master’s Degree Builds on Generalist Skills

Studying at the master’s level usually shifts students from general to expert knowledge.

There are more courses than in a certificate allowing you to dive deeper into material.

While building quality research and analytic skills you may grow as a professional.

A Master’s Degree May Pave the Way to a PhD

If you plan to take your studies further, a masters may prepare you for a PhD. You do not always need a master’s to enter a doctoral program. But having one may show your level of readiness to focus and apply yourself.

A Master’s Degree May Help You Get a Promotion

Since it is a degree level above a bachelor’s degree, having a master’s degree may help you advance a career. For instance, many people in C-suite jobs have an MBA. Creative directors often have a Master of Fine Arts (MFA).

So, if managerial skills pave the way to a promotion in your field, a master’s may be worth thinking about. If all you need is experience, a certificate may be the ticket.

Types of Graduate Degrees

Going to grad school provides the chance to pursue many types of graduate degrees. Aside from a spectrum of majors, a graduate degree may address a specific goal. Like preparing grads to enter a career, pursue a career or study at a higher level.

Is a master’s the same as a graduate degree?

A master’s degree isn’t different from a graduate degree. It’s one type of graduate degree.

Many associate graduate degrees with master’s degrees.

This is in part because going to graduate school often follows a first degree. First degrees are bachelor’s degrees A.K.A undergraduate degrees.

Some thus refer to master’s degrees as second degrees. They enable students to pursue a focused course of study after a bachelor’s degree.

Is a doctorate a graduate degree?

The other type of graduate degree is a doctorate. Doctorate degrees often represent the most advanced college degrees. Hence the nickname “terminal degrees”.

You might enter some PhD programs with a bachelor’s degree. But many also need you to have a master’s degree and research skills.

Master’s Degrees

Many master’s programs take two years of graduate study and may entail from 30 credits up. To complete the requirements of a master’s program one may need to produce a final capstone or thesis.

Some programs also have students complete an internship. Or in the case of teaching, a supervised practicum. Together these requirements may help meet state or federal licensure requirements.

MA vs. MS

Master’s degrees are versatile and serve a wide range of professional and academic aims. The most common master’s degrees are Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MS).

In most cases, the major determines the award conferred. For instance, you might earn a MA in areas such as liberal arts and humanities. While an MS might apply to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Additionally, there are three types of master’s programs:

  • Professional Master’s
  • Research focused Master’s
  • Terminal Master’s

Professional Masters Programs

Professional master’s degrees usually ready grads for a specific occupation. They often introduce practical skills and frameworks to solve issues in that field.

A professional master’s may also qualify a person to practice in their field. These may offer a kind of study guide to post-degree licensure exams. A Master of Social Work (MSW), Master of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) and  Master of Accountancy are some examples.

People who pursue a professional master’s may later decide to pursue a doctorate. Practice doctorates are the highest form of professional degrees.

One example is someone who already has an MBA but wanted to take the next step. This might be a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) which is for executives.

Research Masters Programs

Research Master’s degrees are usually for academic and applied research disciplines. A Master of Arts in English is an example of an academic degree. This type of program consists of literary review and usually, a thesis.

An example of applied research is a Master’s in Biology. This kind of program often covers the ins and outs of analysis, statistics and research methods. Plus, the finer points of interpreting and presenting data in a professional manner.

Most students who pursue a research master’s (or choose a thesis option) plan to pursue a PhD. A PhD is the highest research degree. It is often for those who want to teach, impact policy or innovate through thought leadership.

Terminal Masters Programs

Terminal Master’s degrees are the highest academic degree in their field. These offer as high a level of study as you can get for academic accreditation in a discipline. One example is a Master of Library Science. The MFA is another.

Those pursuing a terminal master’s degree want to start or advance a career once they graduate. Such programs often provide a solid knowledge base and a toolbox of methods. They usually offer some type of professional development too.

Students who want to add quality research skills may opt for a dual degree. Many schools offer joint Master’s and PhD programs that cover these bases. It is also possible to stack two master’s degrees. Dual MBA programs are one example.

When deciding which master’s degree to work towards, make sure to check industry norms.

Schools With Masters & Graduate Certificate Programs

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