What You Should Know About Master’s Degrees vs Graduate Certificates

When you’re in college, sometimes you can get too comfortable settling into the years before you finally graduate. Before you know it, you’re applying for graduation and suddenly freaking out, especially if you don’t have a set plan about what comes next. Trust me, I’ve been in that position and I know how scary it can feel. Before you completely start stressing out, I’m here to help you distinguish two kinds of postgrad paths that can help you to further your education and hopefully give you a leg up in starting your career: master’s degrees and graduate certificates.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty, just know that master’s degrees and grad certificates are both valuable postgraduate certifications. Plenty of successful, intelligent people have varying degrees in education. What matters is what you do with the education you receive.

Now, it’s time to break both of these grad paths down. 

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Master’s degree

A master’s degree is probably the most popular postgraduate certification. According to the 2018 U.S. Census, it was reported that 21 million Americans earned their master’s degrees in 2018. Having a master’s degree allows you to gain an educational leg up in a specific course of study and could also allow for a higher increase in income. 

Logistics

Master’s degrees are similar to a bachelor’s degree in that you can choose from a variety of programs, though they are usually more specialized than bachelor’s degrees. In addition, a master’s program only lasts about one to two years, depending on the program. According to GradSchools.com, this would equate to “completing around 36 to 54 semester credits or 60 to 90 quarter semester credits; equivalent to about 12 to 18 graduate-level courses.” The most common master’s degrees are a Master’s in Arts, Science, or Business Administration.

In terms of tuition, costs vary per institution and program. However, GradSchools.com also notes that the average for public institutions can be around $8,000 per year compared to a private program, which is around $34,000 or more. Pretty similar to a standard bachelor's degree. 

Benefits

In terms of whether or not a master’s degree is worth it, based on the 2018 U.S. Census, those with a master’s degree earn thousands more compared to those with just a bachelor's degree. This is definitely not to say that you can’t earn more with just a bachelor’s degree — these are just the statistics. Many high-paying jobs require a master’s or associate’s degree, and you typically receive greater credibility if you have a master’s. So if you want a competitive advantage in the workforce no matter your chosen career path, a master’s can definitely open more doors for you. It can improve your chances of being hired to a position and provide more job security. 

In addition to advantages in the job market, getting a master’s is another way to advance your education. As master’s degrees are more specialized than a bachelor's degree, this is your chance to choose a field you want to excel in. Depending on the field, you could even contribute to bigger research projects based on your field and provide access to developing your own research projects for publishing. Many master’s degree programs are essentially bachelor’s degree programs on steroids, so prepare for a shorter, more intense program that will help you gain more insight into the future career you want. 

One last point to note is that many master’s programs in the social sciences have research-based degrees, where you do more hands-on projects, rather than just listen to lectures. In addition, grad school is a great way to get to know people in the field who can advance your career via networking later on. This is a huge reason a lot of people continue on to grad school.

Downsides

The main downsides to a master’s are the cost and the length of time. Unless you’re comfortable riding out your education for a couple more years to really figure out what you want to do and establish more relationships with others in your program, it might be better to hold off and save your money, or to consider another option: getting a grad certificate.

person wearing gray taking notes in meeting Photo by Anna Earl from Unsplash

Grad certificate

Grad certificates are a cheaper, shorter way of gaining a postgraduate degree. A grad certificate program is more focused than a master’s program, and it’s gradually becoming a more popular form of postsecondary education. According to Northeastern University, more than four million workers have earned a graduate certificate in the United States. The statistic has only doubled since the year 2000. Grad certificate programs provide an additional education boost that usually lasts about a year, in comparison to a master’s, which is often double the length of time.

Logistics 

According to Study.com, grad certificates typically only last a year depending on the program with only three to six courses required which equates to about nine to 21 credits. Think of this as a stepping stone to a master's program if you still want to consider shooting for a master's degree, because these credits can be applied to some grad school programs. In addition, since it isn’t as strenuous as a master’s degree program, tuition is much cheaper. Business Insider states that tuition costs vary between $1,000 to $5,000.

Grad certificate programs are increasingly becoming more widespread in many fields of coursework and offer more accessible and online programs, which is especially helpful during the pandemic. Also, grad certificate programs require fewer credits and are therefore more flexible, which is perfect for students with additional responsibilities. Definitely a major pro if you plan on working right after getting your bachelor’s degree but still want an extra academic credential. 

Benefits

Aside from the shorter program and cheaper tuition, grad certificates are great because they provide a more specialized form of education that will jumpstart your career. Depending on the program and institution, you’ll learn specific skills to enhance your knowledge and technical abilities that can help you form a strong portfolio or repertoire of your accomplishments from the certificate program. Having a refined skill set right out of the program can help push you closer to your desired career sooner.

Many programs for grad certificates are also connected with companies that are looking for employees, so if you’re eager to start your career, this is a great avenue for that. Even though it isn’t a master’s degree, you can still be considered competitive thanks to that additional credential and the work you can provide to demonstrate your accomplishments from the coursework. 

Downsides

Because of the low cost of grad certificates, many programs do not offer financial aid, which can definitely be a deal breaker for some. In addition, unlike a conventional degree program, you have less freedom in choosing classes, and must take specific required courses. However, considering the short length of the program, it is a small price to pay, in my opinion. 

One last downside is that grad certificates do not necessarily carry the same academic prestige as a traditional master’s degree. Depending on your field, it may not help at all. Typically, grad certificates are geared towards employment, so if you enjoy academia, this may not be for you.

No matter what you choose to do after graduation, I hope that you have people and resources to guide you such as alumni and professors, articles, and even friends who took on various post grad paths to help you on your postgrad journey. I know that it can be scary and the world is full of unknowns, but you are not alone in this. There are so many things you can do. And if pursuing further education right after your bachelors degree isn’t for you, that’s fine too. Education will always be available to you. So take a deep breath. Hopefully this guide settles your anxiety a bit, and I wish you luck on your postgrad endeavors.