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Considering going back to school for an advanced degree? You’re not alone. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates nearly 3 million students were enrolled in post baccalaureate degree programs in Fall 2017.

But the decision to enroll in graduate courses isn’t easy. Grad school is expensive and time-consuming. And with the numerous degree options available (MS, MBA, MFA to name a few), how can you be sure you’re making the best personal and financial decision for your future? 

While a master’s degree may seem like the natural next step in your academic journey, an increasing number of students are choosing to enroll in graduate certificate programs over full-fledged degree programs.

What’s the difference between a certificate and a degree?

“A graduate degree program, such as one leading to a master’s degree, usually requires 10 to 12 graduate-level courses and may have a research component requiring independent and original research and the defense of a thesis. A student with a master’s degree becomes proficient in advanced knowledge of theoretical and applied topics spanning a whole discipline,” explains Dr. Costas Tsatsoulis, Vice Chancellor of Research & Dean of Graduate Studies at Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T).

It’s also important to note that admission into a graduate degree program may require the applicant to submit standardized test scores including the GRE or GMAT. Graduate certificates usually don’t require these tests for admission.

Graduate certificates often zero in on a certain topic instead of providing a student with a broad scope of instruction in their area of study. At Missouri S&T, Psychological Science and Engineering Management are two of the areas from which a student can select a graduate certificate program.

“A certificate usually requires four to five graduate-level courses focusing on a limited area of expertise in an engineering or scientific discipline. A student completing a certificate has developed expertise in an important subset of a discipline, gaining depth in a specific disciplinary topic,” says Tastsoulis.

Graduate degree vs. graduate certificate 

So what are some factors you should consider when determining which pathway (degree vs. certificate) is right for you?

“Students should consider their career goals,” says Dr. Elaine Turner, Dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at University of Florida. 

Students pursue advanced degrees for a variety of reasons. Identify your exact reasoning for going back to school. Are you making a career change? Interested in updating your knowledge in a specific area? Working towards a promotion? Your answer may affect your decision.

“Sometimes, advancing in a career may require the completion of a master’s degree. In other cases, adding specific knowledge and skills, such as in geospatial analysis or urban pest management, may allow career advancement through completion of a certificate program,” adds Turner.

There’s also the possibility that graduate courses completed as part of a certificate program may be transferred into a degree program later. Check with your school and program for clarification on these requirements.

Test the waters

Certificate programs can help you decide if you’re ready to commit to a degree program in a non-threatening way. 

“One reason a student may wish to pursue a certificate may be to determine if graduate studies are really what they want to pursue. In a way it is getting one’s feet wet: the student does not make the financial and time commitment for a multi-year graduate degree, but can quickly determine if pursuing such a degree is what they want to do,” says Tsatsoulis.

If you complete a certificate program and decide a master’s degree is not for you, you will have the security of walking away with a certificate as a credential.

Discuss the benefits with your employer

Will getting a master’s degree outweigh the benefits of getting a certificate? There’s no harm in asking your boss and coworkers for their input.

“Talk to your employer to see how additional education would be of benefit. Talk with people who have a career you are interested in to find out their background and ideas for how you can best prepare. Current students can visit their career center to explore options,” says Turner.

Research financial assistance

Before filling out your application to any program, make sure you’ve done your research. Certificate programs aren’t usually eligible for financial aid, so be prepared to pay out of pocket. Some employers offer tuition assistance to help defray the costs of continuing education. Make sure to review your employer’s policy on professional development and education benefits. 

There are also plenty of scholarships, loans, and depending on the program, assistantships available for degree-seeking students. Opportunities for financial assistance will vary by school, so check with your program’s department for more information.