Graduate Certificate vs. Master’s: Understanding the Differences and Job Outlook
The employment outlook in the U.S. is slowly rebounding from the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when unemployment in the country rose to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Along with just about everyone else, recent college graduates felt the impact of the pandemic on the job market as an increasing number of organizations reconsidered their hiring plans.
For those new college graduates and college seniors, the unemployment situation made enrolling in a postgraduate program a more attractive option and reinforced the longstanding benefits of such programs.
If you’re one of the many recent or soon-to-be graduates considering a return to school, you likely have questions about which credential is best for your career goals: a graduate certificate vs. master’s degree. While graduate certificates typically can be earned more quickly and at less cost than a master’s degree, deciding between these postgraduate options entails many other factors.
What is a graduate certificate?
You’re probably familiar with a master’s degree but may be wondering what is a graduate certificate and how can it benefit your career? Graduate certificates serve two principal functions:
● They allow a college graduate to demonstrate proficiency in a specific field or area of study. Graduate certificates tend to be more tightly focused than master’s degree programs.
● They serve as a bridge to a full-fledged master’s degree program by helping students fill any gaps in their undergraduate education to meet the requirements of the master’s program.
In addition, graduate certificates require less coursework to earn than a master’s degree, so certificate programs can be completed in less time and at less expense.
Graduate certificates teach new skills to support career transitions
You may be preparing to transition to a new field in light of changing trends in employment. A graduate certificate serves as a fast, affordable way to learn the specific skills that will qualify you for positions in your target profession.
Graduate certificate programs allow you to focus on master’s-level courses that pertain directly to your short- and long-term career goals. The certificates let prospective employers know that you’ve studied subjects and gained skills that you can apply on the job from day one.
Graduate certificates help you meet entry requirements for a master’s program
Once you’ve earned a bachelor’s degree, you may choose to pursue graduate study in an area other than your undergraduate major. Graduate certificates are useful for filling gaps in your skills that may prevent you from qualifying for your chosen master’s program. For example, you may have a bachelor’s in a nontechnical field and need to take mathematics and science courses to prepare for a master’s program in data analytics or computer science.
Graduate certificates prepare you for interdisciplinary master’s programs, such as taking management and finance courses to complement a master’s degree in engineering or other science fields. Often, you can select a subject area and specific courses for the graduate certificate in consultation with prospective schools based on the requirements of the master’s programs you’re targeting.
What is a master’s degree?
Defined simply, a master’s degree is an advanced degree in a specialized field. What is a master’s degree’s purpose though? Falling between a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate, it signifies that the degree holder has demonstrated in-depth understanding of a subject through the successful completion of upper-level coursework. The two most common master’s degrees are:
● Master of Arts. MA degrees are offered in nearly every category of liberal arts and humanities study, including language arts, English, social studies, and teaching and early childhood education. Popular types of MA degrees include liberal studies, humanities, and interdisciplinary studies.
● Master of Science. MS degrees are earned by completing a course of study in a specific science field and, in most cases, completing a thesis involving extensive research that makes a unique contribution to science. MS degrees can be earned in the natural sciences, mathematics, medicine, marketing, communication, and engineering; popular areas of study include biology, chemistry, physics, and nursing.
Apart from the two broad categories of MA and MS degrees are dozens of specific master’s degrees:
● Master of Business Administration. MBA degrees teach a range of business-related subjects, including finance, management, operations, accounting, marketing, and human resources.
● Master of Fine Arts. MFA degrees prepare you for careers in photography, creative writing, and painting. Students usually submit a portfolio of their creative work along with their application.
● Master of Education. MEd degrees cover the practical and theoretical aspects of the educational system. Among specialty areas for this degree are curriculum instruction, educational leadership, educational psychology, and special education.
● Master of Public Health. MPH degrees take a broad approach in addressing public health concerns. The programs cover policy, practice, law, environmental studies, and clinical health care. The specialties within MPH programs include epidemiology, biostatistics, and public health education.
Graduate certificate job outlook
As competition for good jobs heats up, you may decide to look for opportunities to enhance your qualifications and stand out with potential employers. Earning a graduate certificate is one of the best ways to build your resume by adding the skills and knowledge that companies need without incurring the expense or time investment that’s required to complete a master’s program.
The graduate certificate job outlook continues to improve as companies transition to new technologies and revamp their business processes. This drives demand for employees who possess expertise in a range of technology, management, and area-specific skills.
● Graduate certificates prepare you to earn a valuable education credential that qualifies you for positions with added responsibilities and higher pay.
● Earning a graduate certificate makes it easier for you to pivot to an employment category outside the subject area of your undergraduate degree.
● Graduate certificate holders demonstrate to potential employers that they are committed to building on their education and are ready to pick up the new skills that are in greatest demand among employers.
Graduate certificates are available in various subject areas and from a growing number of colleges and universities. The programs provide you with a way to expand your professional network and gain valuable new contacts that lead directly or indirectly to job opportunities.
Graduate certificates can’t match the status and prestige of earning a master’s degree in the eyes of many employers. However, they boost the prospect of landing a good job in the arts, media, journalism, public relations, and other careers in which holding a master’s degree doesn’t translate into earning a substantially higher salary.
Master’s degree job outlook
The master’s degree job outlook is enhanced by the growing number of employers who prefer job candidates who have earned a postgraduate degree or make a master’s degree a prerequisite for job openings that previously were open to candidates with only a bachelor’s degree.
Most of the growth in jobs for people who have earned a master’s degree is in professional, technical, and health fields:
● Five of the 20 fastest-growing professions in the U.S. between 2019 and 2029, according to the BLS, are in health care and social assistance, most of which require a master’s degree. These include nurse practitioners and physician assistants.
● Employers of software developers, information security analysts, and other computer occupations will increasingly require that candidates for the positions have a master’s degree or higher.
● Technological advances will drive job growth in professional, business, and scientific sectors, including the area of consulting services, that depend on the skills and experience gained through earning a master’s degree.
According to the BLS, among the fastest-growing occupations that typically require a master’s degree are:
● Statisticians: 34.6% forecasted growth between 2019 and 2029
● Data scientists: 30.9%
● Speech language pathologists: 24.9%
● Operations research analysts: 24.8%
● Genetic counselors: 21.5%
Benefits of a graduate certificate
Graduate certificates can be crafted with a particular skill or specialty in mind. However, the benefits of a graduate certificate continue to accumulate as you progress in your career.
Your goal in pursuing a graduate certificate may be to earn an education credential. While many types of postgraduate credentials exist, they tend to fall into one of four categories:
● Digital badges are intended to verify an accomplishment, skill, or experience. They are awarded after demonstrating competency in the target area and are displayed on a website, profile, email signature, or another digital platform.
● Verified certificates are awarded after completing a course of study, meeting all program requirements, and verifying your identity. The sequence of the courses creates a pathway for mastering a specific topic.
● Micro-credentials are earned after completing certain tasks, activities, projects, or assessments that indicate competence in a highly specific subject.
● Stackable credentials are intended to build your qualifications in steps over time. They accumulate to form a career pathway that qualifies you for more responsibility and higher pay incrementally.
Among the postgraduate options that don’t require completing a full-fledged master’s program are coding boot camps and informal courses designed either to pick up new career expertise or further develop existing skills.
Graduate certificates usually don’t have the stringent attendance requirements of a master’s program, and the subject matter studied while earning them is limited only by your imagination and the school’s curriculum. By contrast, master’s programs tend to be much more structured and limited in the scope of the courses you take.
Graduate certificates take less time and cost less to complete
Master’s programs typically take one to two years to finish, although some take less time. Much can change between the time you enroll in a two-year program and the time you graduate. A main advantage of graduate certificates vs. master’s programs is being able to gain the skills quickly to meet the need for jobs in fast-moving industries such as 3D animation, game design, artificial intelligence (AI), and software design.
Signing up for a graduate certificate usually takes little time and entails a much simpler application process than is required for master’s programs. Note that some graduate-level courses have prerequisites that are typically described in the course description.
In addition to being faster and simpler to complete than a master’s program, graduate certificates generally cost from $1,000 to $5,000 in most cases, which is a fraction of the standard tuition, fees, and other expenses of a master’s program.
Benefits of a master’s degree
Topping the list of benefits of a master’s degree is the bottom line: Earning a master’s degree increases your earning potential. The BLS estimates that the median weekly earnings of a person with a master’s degree was $1,434 in 2019, while the median weekly earnings of someone with a bachelor’s degree was $1,198. However, the financial rewards of a master’s degree are greater in some fields than in others. For example, earning an MFA isn’t likely to increase your earnings potential over a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) as much as earning an MBA will boost your paycheck over a bachelor’s degree in business, management, or finance.
More and more people who have earned a bachelor’s degree have subsequently pursued a master’s degree. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the percentage of U.S. adults who have a master’s degree increased from 10.4% in 2000 to 21% in 2018. Over the same period, the percentage of adults who have earned a bachelor’s degree increased from 29.8% to 48.2%.
As they become more common, master’s degrees are also more likely to become the minimum education requirement for a growing number of positions. Teaching, mathematics, and urban planning are among the professions whose entry-level jobs sometimes call for at least a master’s degree.
Access to the programs is enhanced by the relaxed admissions standards that top-ranked colleges and universities have adopted to reach as many students as possible. Most master’s degree programs are professionally oriented and more likely to focus on accessibility and diversity in their admissions. Some programs have adopted “flipped” or “inverted” admissions that allow you to demonstrate proficiency in online courses and certificate programs as a prerequisite for enrolling in the master’s degree program.
Many of the benefits of earning a master’s degree can’t be measured in dollars. The skills and experience you earn while studying for your degree also benefit your community and the public in general.
● Master’s degrees are replacing bachelor’s degrees as the entry-level credential for mental health professionals, whose services are needed now more than ever.
● Graduate students are participating in vital research programs related to technology, biology, and health that will reap benefits for the public well into the future.
Last but not least, earning a master’s degree lets you learn more about the subjects that you’re passionate about. By gaining new insights into your areas of interest, you have more to offer others through your work and sharing what you know.
Understanding your postgraduate education options
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that in the fall of 2020, enrollment in undergraduate programs declined by 3.6% over the previous year, due primarily to concerns about COVID-19. However, enrollment in graduate and professional programs increased by 3.6% in the same period, indicating that recent graduates are focusing on improving their qualifications and preparing for the jobs of the future.
Determining whether a graduate certificate or master’s degree is the right path for reaching your career goals takes some reflection about which aspects of your chosen field you find most rewarding, and which you’re most excited about pursuing further. Making sense of the many options available to you in your postgraduate quest may require the assistance of a program such as Pearson Pathways that clearly presents the pluses and minuses of various postgraduate choices. The Student Resources Hub guides you through the process of finding the ideal program of study for your career aspirations.
Your education path becomes clearer once you’re able to align your career aspirations with the ideal graduate options for achieving them.