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What is a Graduate Certificate? All You Need to Know.

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In short, a graduate certificate is a mini-program of roughly half the degree course load with no thesis commitment. You can select a focus to gain the education and skills to further your career with a minimal commitment of your time, energy, and money. It can be a game-changer for career advancement or change.

When to Seek a Graduate Certificate

Consider pursuing a graduate certificate when you:

  • Need to acquire skills quickly to launch a new career
  • Already hold a bachelor’s degree but seek to launch a new career not related to that degree
  • Need to meet state or national licensing requirements

If any of the above criteria mirror your circumstances, a certificate will be your quickest — and least expensive — course of study. A certificate will help you get educated — and get on with your professional life.

What Can a Graduate Certificate Do for Me?

The advanced training offered through graduate certificate programs has targeted practical applications. After you have earned a bachelor’s degree, you can pursue graduate coursework to cultivate in-demand skills and attain advanced proficiency in a subject area.

The focus of a graduate certificate program shows employers you have the skills and education to meet their needs. These programs are becoming increasingly popular among students looking for professional development opportunities. Furthering your education will help distinguish you from other job applicants as you enter the workforce.

Where Graduate Certificates Fall in the Order of Education

A graduate certificate is above a bachelor’s degree but less than a master’s degree. Below is the order of college-level study programs offered in the US:

  1. Associate degree
  2. Bachelor’s degree
  3. Graduate certificate
  4. Master’s degree
  5. Doctorate

Steps to Earn a Graduate Certificate

  1. Select a program of study that will further your career goals
  2. Meet the prerequisites of your program of choice
  3. Submit your application
  4. Start studying for your future

Step 1: Select the Graduate Certificate that Interests You

The first step is to identify a graduate certificate that aligns with your professional and academic goals. You can find many different types of certificates online or through school programs.

Step 2: Meet the Prerequisites

To qualify for most graduate certificate programs, you must meet certain prerequisites. This usually includes holding a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. However, each program varies. Therefore, always check the requirements that pertain to your chosen program.

Step 3: Submit Your Application

Once you know the program you want to pursue and meet all the prerequisites, it is time to submit your application. Generally, this will require you to submit an application fee and additional materials. In most cases, you will not need to submit GRE or GMAT scores.

Step 4: Complete the Program Requirements

The program you choose will outline the courses and your schedule. Many programs are created with the working professional in mind. You can find 100% online programs as well as part-time programs to meet your needs.

How To Choose the Right Graduate Certificate Program

Like any other education, it’s crucial to beware when choosing a graduate certificate program. You have to remember that not all programs are equal. Also, since certification programs lack accreditation standards, they differ a lot. Some of the key points to consider are:

  • Whether the certificate will help advance your career
  • The schools that offer the best certificate programs and the best option for you
  • How you’re planning to pay for the certificate program
  • If your credits will transfer if you decide to pursue a master’s degree in the future

Skills You Should Have to Pursue a Graduate Certificate

The program requires between 12 to 18 credit hours. The skills necessary for this type of learning include:

  • Critical reading skills
  • Ability to understand complex material
  • Clear communication skills, both written and oral

These skills will prove beneficial throughout your work life after earning your graduate certificate.

Education You Need to Pursue a Graduate Certificate

In most programs, you will need a bachelor’s degree to apply for your chosen program of study.

The good news is that earning a graduate certificate is much less demanding than either a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree. Depending on your academic institution and program of choice, you can complete your course requirements within two to three semesters.

Many people already possess knowledge and skills through past education or work. Some programs allow you to test out of coursework if you can show that you meet their standards for learning for those courses.

Through this process, you will receive credit for those courses. For example, many schools allow military service members who have completed technical training courses while on active duty to transfer these credits into related college programs.

Types of Graduate Certificates

The types of certificate programs offered for bachelor’s degree holders are almost endless. You can find a program in nearly every field of study found at a college or university. As this is one of the fastest-growing types of educational credentials, new certificate programs are popping up all the time.

Project Management

Project management is popular in many industries, from software development to manufacturing. Specific methodologies may be taught, like the Six Sigma method of process improvement or the Agile project management method. There are also more generalized certificate programs that teach other skills within project management.


Graduate certificates in business can be in accounting, analytics, supply chain, non-profit management, or risk management. In fact, many master’s degree programs will also offer their “tracks” as certificate programs for business people who want to add to their credentials, either before or after they enroll in a master’s degree program.

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Health Sciences

There are many certificates to add to your professional credentials in the health sciences. For nurses, there are certificates to add skills in leadership, informatics, education, policy, mental health, and many other topics.

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For other healthcare workers, from administrators to physicians, there are certificates from administration to informatics to gerontology. Many healthcare professionals must take continuing education to maintain their licenses. A certificate program can fulfill those requirements while also adding a new credential.

Computer and Technology

Numerous technology and computer certificates are available. Some programs help to further skills for particular industries, like healthcare informatics or instructional technology. In contrast, others can take students in a whole new direction, such as cybersecurity or graphic information systems.

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Science and Engineering

In science and engineering, there are certificates in subjects from biotechnology to sustainability. Scientific advancement continues apace, so professionals often need continuing education to keep up with new developments. A certificate is a perfect way to do this without investing in another degree.

Teaching and Education

Teaching certificates can help educators specialize in an area. Topics include mathematics teaching, special education, early childhood, eLearning, and many other specialties.

Other Subject Areas

There are theology certifications for those involved in religion. Counseling specialties like addiction and recovery treatment or trauma studies are for mental health professionals.

The list of subjects and areas could go on and on, but suffice it to say that the options are wide open for all fields of study. Some certificate programs help people continue to practice their professions, like teaching or nursing.

In contrast, others can help people shift into another career specialty. For an IT worker who would like to move into a management role, a certificate in information management may help them make the shift.

Someone working in an office profession but wishing to transition to another whole field may consider a certificate in wilderness management or holistic nutrition.

The upshot is that you can use a graduate certificate to further your current career trajectory or take off in a whole new direction.

How Long Does it Take to Earn a Graduate Certificate?

There is no set length for graduate certificates. The time range for completion can be from a few months to two years.

Most certificate programs are part-time, as students are usually working simultaneously. Other programs are full-time to provide the full immersion experience.

While some certificate programs are flexible on how long you can take to finish the program, some will work on the cohort model, where students progress through the courses together. The cohort model can be great for building professional relationships and camaraderie. Still, it is less flexible if your schedule changes.

The actual number of graduate courses involved in a certificate program varies. Some programs are relatively short and may consist of just three courses and nine credits. Longer programs are often 15-18 credits, comprised of five to seven courses.

Part-time schedules and online offerings cater to those seeking a graduate certificate while holding down a full-time job. You can find a program that matches your pace.

How Graduate Certificates Improve Opportunities in Your Current Career

If you already hold a bachelor’s degree but want to expand or update your skills, you might consider a certificate program.

Perhaps you hold a bachelor's degree in counseling. You earned that degree a decade ago. You’ve been working at a youth home but want to specialize in working with a new, better-paying population. You’ve heard there are many job openings for counselors who specialize in drug addiction.

Enrolling in a graduate-level certificate in addiction counseling would be a cost-effective and fairly rapid way to refocus your career. Focusing on the certificate would also allow you to “try out” this new skill area without the hassle or additional paperwork of formally applying to a master’s degree program.

Also, certificate programs often offer open admissions, letting you bypass the need and wait of gathering and submitting transcripts or taking admission exams.

TIP: You could also consider earning a second bachelor’s degree. However, unless a second degree is a prerequisite for state licensing, you’ll achieve your career change with less time and money through a certificate program.

Graduate Certificates for Career Changers

For career changers, a graduate certificate can be the bridge from your current career to your new field. The minimal investment in a targeted program of study shows employers you have the up-to-date skills they need.

Many people enroll in certificate programs to update their skill sets. For example, suppose you are a counselor but want to work as a project manager. In that case, you need either experience or education in project management. A certificate in project management would give you the skills you need to make the career change.

If you feel a calling to go even further with your education in your new field, the credits of your graduate certificate can often be applied towards a master’s degree. It is also a safe way to test the waters of a new career with a minimal commitment of your time and money.

Related Resource: What is a Master's Degree?

Where Can I Work with a Graduate Certificate?

Graduate certificates provide workers with more career options. They may continue to work in similar roles as they held prior to their education. However, with a graduate certificate, they tend to have more responsibilities and higher pay than those with only a bachelor’s degree. It may also allow them to work in other positions related to their area of study. Most common, however, workers will continue working in their original field, but with new duties and responsibilities.

Average Salary for a Graduate Certificate Holder

According to Payscale, the average salary for someone with a graduate certificate is $58,000. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that graduate certificate holders earned more than their peers in all categories.

The value of a graduate certificate in the labor market is becoming apparent. The trend of obtaining targeted coursework serves both employers and employees and is likely to continue to be a good option to enhance your career and your salary.

How Much Does a Graduate Certificate Cost?

Graduate certificates usually cost more than an undergraduate degree due to the high caliber of instructors teaching these courses. Graduate tuition, including courses for a graduate certificate, is almost always a higher price per credit than undergraduate education.

While some certificates at public institutions may be quite affordable, other programs will cost much more. Carefully compare the programs, as there is no standard curriculum for certificate programs. You could discover that an extra expensive program provides you with considerably more training than a less expensive one.

Financial aid may be available for your certificate program, but not every program qualifies for federal student aid. Some employers have programs to help employees gain more skills and education, so check on the benefits available to you.

If you plan to stay with the company and the skills you learn will benefit your current position, ask your employer to help cover the cost. Even if they do not have a program for education assistance, they may pay for your coursework.

Often, students will pay out of pocket for a certificate that will help them switch careers. This is more manageable because of the lower overall cost of certificates compared to a graduate degree.

The Benefits

Certificates are one of the most popular forms of post-secondary credentials in the United States. Currently, around three percent of the workforce — about four million people — hold a graduate certificate. They offer several significant benefits to professionals interested in furthering their education. This makes them attractive alternatives to pursuing another bachelor’s degree. 

It Helps You Get an Increase in Pay

If your primary motivation is to get more money, you’re in luck. According to a study from Forbes, those with a graduate certificate can anticipate earning up to 13% and 25% higher pay. That’s an excellent return on your financial investment, especially when considering how short the program is.

It Is Worth the Time Investment

It takes two or more years to earn a master’s (or another advanced degree). While master’s degrees have their perks, you might want or need a quicker return on your investment at times.

Depending on the specific program, a certificate takes less time to obtain than a graduate degree. Many certificates need only 12 to 18 credits and about a year or so to finish. Therefore, this offers a good return on your investment of time.

You Gain Job Security

As the job sector evolves, advancing your education may help you stand out in a competitive labor market.

Increasingly, employers look to hire workers with some level of higher education. A graduate certificate may assist you in meeting those standards by broadening your industry knowledge and keeping your skills up to date.

In some sectors, such as project management, employers frequently demand professional credentials, such as those provided by the Project Management Institute (PMI). Graduate certificates can prepare you for the requirements of professional certifications.

A graduate certificate can help you stay competitive in your present job by allowing you to expand on your talents. It also helps you transition into a position with more responsibility or even a different career by teaching you valuable skills that employers desire and need today.

It Prepares You for a Graduate Degree

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), roughly 51.9 percent of employees with an advanced degree hold a graduate certificate. What’s the significance? They are not only valuable for the skills and knowledge, but they also act as a stepping stone to earning a graduate degree.

To “try out” the notion of earning a master’s degree, many people obtain graduate certificates. Others use accelerated programs to break into a particular sector as it takes less time and money.

If you decide that you’d like to continue your education after earning your certificate, you can do so at a later time. You aren’t committing yourself to a full degree program until you know for sure it’s the best option for you.

Large Professional Network

A graduate certificate expands your professional network. Professors, advisors, and fellow students are just a few of the people that you will meet during the program. These people may help you get hired or come in handy when seeking a career change.

Related Resource: Changing Careers: Pros, Cons & Best Practices

Opportunities for Advancement

You might be wondering if a graduate certificate opens opportunities for advancement. The answer is a resounding yes!

Some examples of opportunities for advancement include, but are not limited to:

  • Move up the career ladder in your current company or field
  • Find new and exciting job opportunities with better pay and benefits
  • Start your own business after acquiring the necessary skills and knowledge
  • Continue your education by pursuing an advanced degree related to your study area

These are just some examples. Be sure to explore what other options might be available to you based on your unique situation and qualifications. A graduate certificate gives you a distinct advantage over those who do not have one.

Quick Facts

Why earn a graduate certificate?

Graduate certificates can update skills, launch a new career, or help students obtain licensure in a profession. Certificates are the fastest-growing credential in higher education. They can be a quick and inexpensive way to add skills to your resume.

How long does it take?

A certificate typically consists of three to twelve courses, commonly completed within a year or a year-and-a-half of study.

How much does it cost?

The cost for a graduate certificate can range anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars to over $20k. Graduate credits cost more than undergraduate credits, so expect to pay a bit more than you did for undergraduate courses.

Is it worth it?

Workers with a graduate certificate earned more than their peers without one. Certificates can enhance skills in the most sought-after specialties. However, the variability of programs means you need to do your homework to make sure the program you choose will be advantageous to your career.

What types are there?

You can earn a graduate certificate in just about any field of study, including health sciences, education, computing, business, counseling, theology, science, and communications. Some certificates are more general to the field, while others focus on specific skills, such as Agile process management.

How do I choose the right program?

Consider your goals, schedule, and budget, and then compare, compare, compare. Costs and curriculum vary between programs with the exact same name, so check out the options thoroughly.

Can a graduate certificate help with professional certification?

Often geared towards a particular sub-specialty or skill, certificates are sometimes required for licensure in a profession. In other cases, they can help someone qualify for a job in a new industry or prepare for national certification tests.

How can a graduate certificate help me be more competitive?

Certificate programs cover a wide variety of subjects. The most notable ones are to train people in skills that have recently become in high demand.

Skills needed in today’s workforce include cybersecurity, informatics, online teaching, emerging technologies, and project management.

Currently, there are not enough trained workers to fill the openings. There are also many business, health, communications, and other certificates to enhance workforce skills and boost the wages of those who complete them.


“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow, belongs to those who prepare for it today.” — Malcolm X

A graduate certificate is a concentrated program of advanced, select courses. Professionals and students obtain certificates to broaden their education and skills.

It will allow you to either advance your role within your current career or to change to a new career. If you want to further your education without spending too much time and money, consider pursuing a graduate certificate.

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