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

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published November 27, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

If you have a bachelor's degree and want to further your knowledge, you may consider getting a graduate certificate or master's degree. While the two types of programs have similarities, they also have distinct differences that may impact your decision. Learning about the differences between a graduate certificate and a master's degree can help you determine which is best for you. In this article, we explore the differences between a graduate certificate vs. master's degree in terms of what is involved, discuss why you might pursue either of them, and provide steps you can follow to determine which to pursue.

What is involved in a graduate certificate vs. master's degree?

You might be interested in learning about the difference between what's involved in a graduate certificate vs. master's degree to make an informed decision between them. A graduate certificate is a graduate-level educational credential. Graduate certificate programs have a strong focus and aim 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, like project management or accounting. Graduate certificate programs are typically short, consisting of a few classes that students can complete in a semester or two.

A 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 first need a bachelor's degree and complete a curriculum that focuses on your major. To complete a master's program, you complete a certain number of courses, but the focus is on preparing for your final project, called a thesis. A thesis demonstrates the research you conducted throughout your studies and summarizes your findings. Depending on the subject, full-time students usually take between two to three years to complete this type of degree.

Related: Certificate vs. Degree (With Differences and Benefits)

Why pursue a graduate certificate?

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

The curriculum has high concentration

Graduate certificate programs have high specialization and focus 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 don't include a set of basic core classes. Instead, certificate programs focus on providing advanced information on one or two specific topics within an industry.

Related: Tips for Writing a Personal Statement for Graduate School

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is not a requirement

The GRE is a test that measures a student's writing, reasoning, and critical thinking skills. Most graduate certificate programs don't require a person to take the GRE. This can save students considerable time and money on registration and tutor fees.

The program takes less time to complete

Graduate certificate programs usually take between six and 12 months of full-time study to complete. This is because certificate programs don't involve basic core-level classes and don't provide in-depth classes surrounding multiple facets of academic study. This can make certificates better options for those with full-time careers or other responsibilities.

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 learn more about 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.

Earning the certificate indicates a growth mindset

Getting a graduate certificate shows employers your commitment to learning and development. It can also provide a measurable way to assess 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.

Related: What Is a Growth vs. Fixed Mindset? (With Characteristics)

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: How to Network for a Job (Flawless Tips and Steps)

Why earn a master's degree?

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

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.

Related: 14 of the Best Master's Degrees to Consider (With Tips)

Earning a master's degree may increase job opportunities

Every company and role has different academic requirements. Many companies hire candidates with a bachelor's degree for entry-level or mid-level positions, but may want a candidate with a master's degree for executive or specialized roles. This means earning a master's degree can increase your job opportunities and improve your ability to advance your career.

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

Employers may offer a higher wage or salary to candidates with a master's degree, as it indicates a high level of expertise in their field. Some employers may even provide additional benefits, such as stock options or professional development credit, to candidates with a master's degree. If you have a master's degree, you may also negotiate a better job offer that suits your credentials.

A master's degree is a prerequisite for further degrees

If you want to pursue a more advanced degree, like a doctorate, you typically need a master's degree. Even if you're not ready to further your education now, getting a master's degree gives you the option to do so in the future. You can research doctorate or Ph.D. programs that you're interested in and assess their prerequisites to help you decide whether to obtain a master's degree.

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

Here are the steps you can follow to help you decide whether to obtain a graduate certificate or a master's degree:

1. Decide if your pursuit is academic or professional

To help you choose between a graduate certificate and a master's degree, consider whether your goals are more academic or professional. If you have theoretical, speculative, or intellectual interests related to a certain subject, your goal for pursuing a certificate or degree may be more academic. If you want to advance your career by furthering your education, your goal is professional. Those with academic goals may benefit more from a master's degree program, as you can learn more specialized knowledge about your subject of interest. A graduate certificate program can be more beneficial for those wanting to advance their career.

2. Consider your career goals

Determine what your career goals are so you can assess the prerequisites for the position you're interested in pursuing. For example, if you want to become a therapist, you typically need a master's degree. Assessing these prerequisites can help make deciding between a graduate certificate and a master's degree much easier.

3. Determine how much time you can commit

Completing a graduate certificate can take between six to 12 months of full-time studying, while getting a master's degree may take two to three years. If you're already working or have other obligations, you may not be able to commit as much time to your studies, which can impact your decision. You can complete either program part-time, but this can double the time it takes to get your graduate certificate or master's degree.

4. Decide if you want to take the GRE

While the Graduate Record Examination is a standardized admissions test, not all universities require you to take it. The test assesses your quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and verbal reasoning skills, giving you a score out of 340. It can take months to study and prepare for the test, so many students want to avoid it.

Graduate certificate programs typically don't require you to take the test, which may make it a better option for people with limited time. Some master's degree programs don't require test results either, so ensure you check the admission requirements for programs you're interested in to help you make an informed decision.

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