Online graduate certificate programs are specialized programs that enhance existing knowledge and skills. Earning a certificate can also lead to a new career or simply provide additional study in a particular discipline.

A shorter alternative to a graduate degree, an online graduate certificate usually requires 12-24 credits. Students can typically earn a graduate certificate within one year.

Students interested in earning a graduate certificate online should identify the program that works best for their interests and goals. In this guide, you can learn more about graduate certificates.

What Is a Graduate Certificate?

Online graduate certificates offered by colleges and universities supplement existing knowledge, offering insight into specific aspects of a single discipline. Graduates develop new skills to remain competitive in the workforce. Many graduate certificates emphasize leadership skills, giving learners an edge as they move into administrative and managerial roles.

By earning a graduate certificate, professionals demonstrate advanced understanding of a topic. Business professionals, for example, can pursue a graduate certificate in project management or data analytics, while information technology professionals might benefit from graduate certificates in topics like cybersecurity and database administration.

What Is the Difference Between a Graduate Certificate and a Master's Degree?

Graduate certificates include fewer credits of coursework than master's degrees, allowing most learners to graduate within a year. Master's degrees often take around two years to earn.

Like a master's program, admission requirements for a certificate track often include a bachelor's degree and professional experience in the field. However, graduate certificate programs generally do not ask applicants to submit standardized test scores.

Learn More About Options for Continuing Education

Certificate

Graduate certificates provide a shorter, more affordable alternative to a graduate degree. By taking 12-24 credits of coursework, students gain fundamental knowledge in a specific field in roughly half the time it would take to earn a graduate degree.

As they require fewer credits, graduate certificates do not typically cost as much as master's degrees. Most master's degrees include at least 30 credits of coursework, adding additional tuition costs. A graduate degree also takes more time, potentially removing students from the workforce for around two years.

Certificate programs include more specialized content. Students with a bachelor's degree in healthcare administration, for example, can earn a certificate in healthcare information technology by taking 4-8 targeted classes.

Degree

A master's degree includes comprehensive coursework in a discipline on a broader scale than a certificate. Master's degrees also incorporate research and practicum requirements, providing more than didactic coursework to learners.

For some professionals, a master's degree is the better (or only) option for career advancement. An MBA, for example, demonstrates competencies in finance, accounting, and management. This degree provides business professionals with holistic knowledge of the field and offers greater flexibility for career growth.

Because master's degrees include more coursework, they allow for increased networking during the program. Learners may earn a master's degree as a member of a cohort, working with the same group of students for several years.

With a master's degree, learners can also advance into a doctoral program, which is not typically an option for students who earn a graduate certificate.

What Can I Do With a Graduate Certificate?

A graduate certificate offers a flexible option to expand your knowledge in a specific discipline. With a graduate certificate, students can advance within their current career or move into a new industry.

Online graduate certificate programs also give students a glimpse into what a master's degree might entail, often allowing learners to apply credits from a certificate track toward graduate degree requirements.

Graduate certificates help working professionals stay up to date on emerging technologies, trends, and issues within a field. For example, certificates in cybersecurity and informatics help information technology professionals remain current, while education professionals benefit from graduate certificates in online teaching, curriculum development, and education administration.

A graduate certificate can also lead to professional licensure or complement certifications offered by professional organizations and associations. Many colleges and universities use curricula that align with standards established by government agencies, accrediting bodies, and industry-specific organizations.

Careers That May Require a Graduate Certificate

In some fields, earning a certificate can help you complete licensure requirements or meet hiring expectations. Employers hiring workers for the following positions may expect candidates to hold a graduate certificate to demonstrate advanced career readiness.

Business Analyst

A budget analyst works with public and private institutions to manage finances. These professionals need qualitative and managerial skills to make effective, data-driven business decisions. Business analytics students also learn to apply analytics to marketing, management, and business operations.

Project Manager

Project managers oversee budgets, personnel, planning, and direction of an organizational project. Tasked with supervising resources, timetables, and project activities, project managers need excellent communication, interpersonal, and managerial skills. A graduate certificate in project management teaches learners to effectively and efficiently carry out this multifaceted role.

Cybersecurity Analyst

Cybersecurity analysts plan and implement security measures to keep computer networks and systems secure. These professionals monitor and assess potential security threats and breaches.

Analysts must stay current on information technology trends, organizational practices, and objectives. Cybersecurity analysts can benefit from graduate certificates in information security, cyber risk management, and cybersecurity management.

Health Informatics Specialist

These healthcare professionals take charge of keeping information safe, establishing policies and protocols to adhere to regulations, and optimizing informatic standards. Health informatics specialists work closely with medical, administrative, and support staff.

Health informatics specialists assess needs within healthcare organizations. They can prepare for this role by completing a graduate certificate in the field.

Marketing Analyst

Marketing analysts assess demographic and market data to help businesses meet their marketing goals. They also use statistics, profiling, and qualitative and quantitative skills. General business and marketing professionals with a graduate certificate in marketing management or digital marketing gain the knowledge and skills needed to remain competitive in the contemporary marketplace.

Education Administrator

Education administrators oversee day-to-day operations of schools, colleges, and universities. They also work closely with students and colleagues, monitor budgets, and serve as leaders in their educational community.

Education administrators can benefit from earning a graduate certificate in the field, learning techniques and strategies to help solve issues and challenges. A graduate certificate in educational leadership also prepares education professionals to drive change in instruction and curriculum development.

Average Salary for Careers With a Graduate Certificate
Career Average Salary
Business Analyst $60,640
Project Manager $74,260
Cybersecurity Analyst $75,800
Health Informatics Specialist $64,790
Marketing Analyst $55,680
Education Administrator $57,390

Who Should Apply for a Graduate Certificate?

An online graduate certificate can help meet the needs of career starters, career switchers, and career accelerators. Professionals entering a new field gain valuable knowledge and skills in a discipline, creating a pathway for career success. Earning a graduate certificate can also prepare learners to pursue a more advanced degree.

Additionally, working professionals can earn a graduate certificate to enhance their current career trajectory or to enter a new field. Graduate certificates offer in-depth information in fields like business, healthcare, education.

Career Starter

Career starters vary in age and include recent college graduates and adult learners. Career starters gain fundamental information about a discipline while earning a graduate certificate, allowing them to pursue entry-level positions.

Career Switcher

Career switchers have professional experience but want to change directions. By earning a graduate certificate, career switchers develop the skills needed to transition to one career from another. Career switchers may capitalize upon their previous training and soft skills, but in most cases they are entering a new industry and may need to develop new hard skills.

Career Accelerator

A career accelerator seeks to advance within their current field. Entry-level and mid-level professionals — often older adults with several years of experience — can continue working while earning a graduate certificate. Career accelerators benefit from studying specialized topics to increase their workplace value and adapt to changes within the workforce.

Applying to Graduate Certificate Programs

Graduate certificate programs may offer a faster admissions process with fewer requirements than a full degree program. For example, students interested in a certificate may not need to submit GMAT or GRE scores. Requirements vary by school and program, however, so work with the admissions department to make sure you complete the process correctly.

Things to Consider:

Flexibility

Many certificate programs are designed with student career and employment goals in mind. Depending on how many courses you take at a time, you may be able to continue working full time while you pursue a certificate.

Most certificates take 6-18 months to complete, depending on credit requirements and your enrollment status. You can expect to commit approximately three hours per week per credit to graduate courses.

Transfer Credit Opportunities

Some programs accept career and military experience as credit toward a graduate certificate, although there are limits on the number of transfer credits you can use.

Application Deadlines

Schools may only accept applications at certain times during the year, often coinciding with traditional academic semester deadlines in the fall, spring, and summer. Alternatively, some schools accept applications on a rolling basis, allowing you to apply at any time during the year and enroll in classes at the start of the next term.

Technology Requirements

Check your program's website for detailed specifications related to technology use for students. To participate in online courses, you must have appropriate hardware, software, and a reliable internet connection. These requirements vary by school and your field of study. You may need additional equipment, such as a headset, to participate in live class meetings.

What You Need to Apply:

  • Testing

    Many certificate programs do not ask you to submit standardized test scores. However, requirements vary by school and subject. International and ESL students usually need to submit TOEFL or IELTS scores with their application to demonstrate English proficiency.

  • Letters of Recommendation

    Some programs require a reference or recommendation from someone who knows your academic or professional work. Others make this component optional.

  • Resume

    A resume or CV helps convey your related professional experience. Many certificate programs require a resume.

  • Personal Statement or Essay

    If your program requires a statement or essay, follow the directions carefully. You may need to share your reason for enrolling and your intended plans after completing the program. You may also need to answer specific questions about your background in the field and your education/career goals.

  • Official Transcripts

    Most graduate certificate programs require you to have already completed a bachelor's degree. Some also maintain course prerequisites and minimum GPA requirements. Plan to submit transcripts from any universities where you have completed a degree or relevant coursework.

How to Choose an Online Graduate Certificate Program

Choosing a graduate certificate program requires careful consideration of several factors. Professionals working full time may opt for an online certificate track that provides extra flexibility and convenience. Alternatively, an on-campus graduate certificate program may be a good fit for students who live close to a school.

Students should make sure the program they choose includes classes suited to their goals. Redundant content or a lack of new information can result in a lack of intellectual rigor. Whether or not a program includes sequential coursework can also factor into the selection process, especially for learners who want to complete classes on their own schedules.

Cost is also an important consideration. Many online graduate certificate programs offer per-credit tuition. Potential additional expenses include textbooks, commuting/parking costs, and technology fees.

Graduate Certificate Program Formats

Graduate certificate programs use several formats to accommodate learners with various needs. Prospective students should choose a format that aligns with their time constraints, financial resources, and daily obligations.

Whether the best format is on campus, online, or blended, colleges and universities should offer an option that aligns with your situation.

On-Campus, Full-Time Classes

An on-campus graduate program includes coursework that takes place during the traditional school day. Some classes may take place on the weekends or during evenings, as well.

Students meet face-to-face with colleagues and instructors, taking part in lectures and class activities several times a week. Working professionals may not be able to attend courses during the day — a potential barrier to earning a certificate on campus.

Evening/Weekend Classes

Designed for working professionals and learners with family obligations, some schools offer graduate certificates that exclusively meet in the evenings and on weekends. Evening meetings can last 3-4 hours, while weekend sessions can last the whole day.

Hybrid/Blended Classes

Hybrid or blended online graduate certificates combine online and on-campus requirements. Students may meet 1-2 times per week for lectures and then complete assignments, participate in activities, and take exams online. A hybrid or blended curriculum offers the benefits of face-to-face interactions, while also providing a fair amount of flexibility.

Online Classes

A fully online graduate certificate eliminates all on-campus requirements. An online program may include completely asynchronous coursework and meetings or bring students together for online sessions at specific times. Asynchronous online programs are suitable for professionals who work full time.

Discover the Best Online Graduate Certificate Programs

Online graduate certificates can be found across disciplines, but six fields stand out as the most popular among students and professionals.


How Long Does It Take To Get a Graduate Certificate Online?

Graduate certificates usually include coursework offered along the same timelines as other academic programs. Classes may take full semesters or run across eight-week sessions.

Because certificate programs include fewer required credits, learners can graduate within a year. The flexibility of an online graduate certificate often allows students to take classes one at a time, although some learners may want to take as many classes as possible to expedite graduation.

Graduate certificates generally do not accept transfer credits from other programs. However, students may have the option to transfer credits earned during a graduate certificate into a master's program.

How Much Does a Graduate Certificate Cost?

The cost of a graduate certificate varies by school. In addition to tuition, students must consider the cost of textbooks and other related course materials. Additional expenses — especially for on-campus programs — may include commuting costs and parking fees. Depending on the program, learners may also need to pay laboratory or facility fees.

Because graduate certificates include fewer credits than a graduate degree, they are typically less expensive. Students may pay per-credit tuition or a set rate for the entire program. In some programs, online students may receive in-state tuition, regardless of their location.

Another financial consideration is the amount of time students put into the certificate program and how it can benefit them in the workforce after they graduate. The knowledge and skills they gain can provide opportunities to increase their salaries in the future.

Financial Aid

Students may access some federal financial aid for online graduate certificate programs, although many grants, scholarships, and loans are reserved for degree-seekers. Learners should start by submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, but identifying additional sources of funding is also important.

Students pursuing an online graduate certificate can take out loans or find scholarships. Service-based scholarships, private funders, and workforce development programs also serve as funding options for students pursuing a graduate certificate. Additional financial aid opportunities may be available through government agencies, including the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.