Online Graduate Certificate Program Guide

Updated on August 18, 2023
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In 2012, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that certificates were the fastest-growing postsecondary educational credential in the United States. More recently, Forbes reported that between 2005 and 2017, the number of postgraduate certificates awarded increased by over 50%. Forbes also found that earning a graduate certificate could increase your salary by as much as 25%.

If you are considering a career change, earning a graduate certificate in finance or English language learning could help you break into a new field. If you want to advance in your current profession, there may be a graduate certificate program that can help you gain new knowledge and skills to rise through the ranks.

Working professionals may find that there are advantages to earning graduate certificates online. Online programs generally offer greater flexibility than on-campus programs.

What Is a Graduate Certificate?

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

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

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

Graduate certificate programs typically include fewer credits of coursework than master's degrees, allowing most learners to graduate within one 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, online graduate certificate programs generally do not ask applicants to submit standardized test scores.

Graduate Certificate

Graduate certificate programs 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.

Graduate certificate programs cover more specialized content. Students with a bachelor's degree in healthcare administration, for example, can earn a certificate in health informatics by taking 4-8 targeted classes.

Master's 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.

Should I Get an Online Graduate Certificate?

Earning a graduate certificate may help you stay up-to-date with the latest developments in your field, making you an attractive job applicant to employers.

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Earning your graduate certificate is different from earning a professional certification. Certificates and certifications are different kinds of credentials.

For example, earning a graduate certificate in project management does not make you a certified project management professional (PMP). To earn your PMP certification, you must pass the PMP exam administered by the Project Management Institute. However, working toward your online graduate certificate may help you prepare for the exam.

According to the Pew Research Center, as technology advances, many workers will need to pursue continuous, lifelong education to keep up with the rapid pace of change in their professions. Earning a graduate certificate may help you stay up-to-date with the latest developments in your field, making you an attractive job applicant to employers. It could also improve your performance in your current role.

Many online graduate certificate programs take one year or less to complete. Students can finish some programs in as little as five months.

Graduate certificate programs generally take less time than master's degree programs; however, you still need to invest both time and money to earn the credential. Before enrolling in a graduate certificate program, reflect on your career goals and the true cost of earning your certificate online.

Career Starter

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

Career Switcher

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Career switchers have professional experience but want to change directions. By earning a graduate certificate online, career switchers develop the skills needed to transition from one career to 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

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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 online. Career accelerators benefit from studying specialized topics to increase their workplace value and adapt to changes within the workforce.

Applying to an Online Graduate Certificate Program

Admission requirements for graduate certificate programs vary. For example, students pursuing an online graduate certificate in nursing usually need relevant work experience and a bachelor's degree in nursing, while learners pursuing an online graduate certificate in marketing may not need prior marketing experience or a degree in marketing.

Students need a bachelor's degree to pursue a graduate certificate. Some programs also require a minimum undergraduate GPA. Applicants may also need to submit a resume, a statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, and standardized test scores.

However, some of these materials, such as test scores, are not always required. Unlike most graduate degree programs, many certificate programs accept applications on a rolling basis.

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 graduate certificate that provides extra flexibility and convenience.

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 online costs include textbooks and technology fees.

Still Looking for the Right Fit? Discover Graduate Certificate Programs

What Can I Do With a Graduate Certificate?

A graduate certificate program 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.

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

Graduate certificates help working professionals stay current on emerging technologies, trends, and issues within a field. For example, certificates in cybersecurity and informatics help information technology professionals remain up-to-date, while education professionals benefit from graduate certificates in educational technology, 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 offer curricula that align with standards established by government agencies, accrediting bodies, and industry-specific organizations.

Popular Career Paths

Training and Development Specialists

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Professionals who pursue a certificate in educational technology may pursue careers as training and development specialists. Training and development specialists create, administer, and assess worker training programs, which increasingly rely on digital technology.

Healthcare Database Administrators

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A certificate in health informatics could lead to a career as a healthcare database administrator. These healthcare professionals use computer software to manage patient records and other data. They ensure data security and may assist with insurance billing.

Market Research Analyst

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Earning your certificate in marketing could help you secure a position in the field. For example, you may be eligible for a position as a market research analyst. Market research analysts help companies understand the market for their products and services. By analyzing data, market research analysts project demand, identify potential buyers, and determine appropriate pricing for services and goods.

Elementary School Teacher

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By earning your graduate certificate in elementary education, you can prepare to pursue a teaching license and a career as an elementary school teacher. These professionals teach young students and prepare them for future coursework and careers.

Human Resources Manager

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Students who earn their graduate certificate in human resources may pursue a management career in human resources. Human resources managers supervise employee recruitment and hiring for organizations.

How Much Money Can I Make With a Graduate Certificate?

Earning your graduate certificate could increase your salary in your current role or help you secure a more lucrative position. According to PayScale, professionals holding a graduate certificate in their field earn an average annual salary of $55,980.

How much you can earn with a graduate certificate depends on your field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that training and development specialists earn a median annual salary of $62,700, while market research analysts make a median income of $65,810. Elementary school teachers earn a median salary of $60,660 per year.

These figures include both professionals with and without graduate certificates.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the benefits of a graduate certificate?

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Earning a graduate certificate may increase your salary and job prospects. Typically, graduate certificates hold fewer requirements than graduate degrees and are less expensive. Students can often earn a graduate certificate in less time than it would take them to earn a master's degree.

Is a graduate certificate worth it?

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According to Forbes, as of 2017, professionals who earned graduate certificates increased their salaries by 13-25%. Earning your graduate certificate can help you stay up-to-date with technology and other changes in your profession.

However, some certificates pay more than others. When considering an online graduate certificate program, ask an admissions counselor about job placement rates and other relevant statistics. Doing so will help ensure the program you choose is worth your time and money.

How long does it take to get an online graduate certificate?

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Students can often earn their graduate certificates in one year. Some online graduate certificate programs are accelerated, meaning students can earn their degrees in even less time.

How good is a graduate certificate for your career?

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Graduate certificates vary in quality, and some may benefit your career more than others. Accredited schools and programs must meet a high standard of academic rigor, so they offer the best graduate certificates.

If you earn your certificate at an unaccredited college or university, you may not be able to transfer credits toward a master's degree. Accreditation may also impact your eligibility for financial aid.

Although graduate certificates can be helpful in some professions, others require a master's or other advanced degree. Before pursuing an online graduate certificate, check the educational requirements for the job you hope to obtain after graduating.

How much does an online graduate certificate cost?

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Graduate certificate programs often cost significantly less than master's programs.

However, graduate degrees and graduate certificates are not equivalent. Although certificate programs are often less expensive than master's programs, students pursuing graduate certificates do not always qualify for federal student aid.

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