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

Written by Coursera • Updated on

A graduate certificate is a short program designed to teach career-focused subjects and skills. You can earn a graduate certificate in a number of areas from leading universities.

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A graduate certificate is a credential you earn after completing a short program that’s designed to teach you about a subject or skill. It usually costs less than a master’s degree, and it also doesn’t take as long to complete.

Typically offered by colleges and universities, graduate certificates can be useful when you have your bachelor’s degree and feel like additional knowledge or training would benefit your career—or when you’re interested in changing careers

In this article, we’ll discuss what a graduate certificate program entails, the key differences between a graduate certificate and a master’s degree, and the benefits of earning the credential. 

What is a graduate certificate?

A graduate certificate is not a graduate degree. It’s a credential you earn after gaining specialized knowledge in a short, intensive program offered by a college or university. You can earn a graduate certificate in an array of subjects from leading institutions, including Harvard University, Stanford University, and New York University. 

Graduate certificate subject examples:

  • Museum studies

  • Event management

  • International relations

  • Health and society

  • Residential property management 

  • Journalism 

  • Cybersecurity

  • Data analytics

  • Corporate finance 

  • Environment 

  • Web design

  • Sports analytics

Program length + cost

Graduate certificates typically require completing three to four courses or between 12 and 16 credit hours, depending on your program. Taking two courses each semester, you can finish a graduate certificate in one year. 

The cost of a certificate program depends on which school you plan on attending. Programs range from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. Some schools charge a flat rate, while others charge per credit hour. 

Format 

Depending on the school you’re interested in attending, you may have the option of learning entirely online, or taking a mix of online and in-person courses.

Many students enrolled in graduate certificate programs work full-time, so the majority of certificates are self-paced, meaning you can learn at a speed that best suits your needs and responsibilities. However, your school may stipulate that you have to finish all required coursework within two or three years. 

Graduate certificate vs. master’s degree 

While graduate certificate courses are offered at the graduate level, they do not amount to a graduate degree. However, you may be able to apply the credits you earn toward a master’s if you choose to pursue an advanced degree. 

Below, you’ll find some of the key differences between a graduate certificate and a master’s degree. 

Graduate certificateMaster’s degree
Credits12-1630-60
ThesisNoYes
Length of time1-2 semesters2-3 years of full-time study
Average cost$5,000-$6,000 [1]$66,340 [2]

Application process

Applying to a graduate certificate program is much less involved. Each school will outline its specific prerequisites, but most expect you to have a bachelor’s degree and to submit a one- or two-page application. For schools that require a more formal process, you may need to submit a resume and statement of purpose, as well as transcripts to prove your education history. 

Applying to a master’s degree program often means taking an entrance exam—such as the GRE, GMAT, or LSAT—and submitting transcripts, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, a CV, and more. 

Financial aid 

The majority of graduate certificates do not accept federal financial aid, meaning that you will likely have to cover the entire cost out of pocket. However, this can vary from school to school, so it’s important to review any financial aid options that may be available through the programs you’re interested in attending. 

You may be able to find scholarships or grants to help pay for your graduate certificate, or, if you are employed full-time, inquire as to whether your employer will cover a portion of your education. 

Reasons for getting a graduate certificate  

People earn graduate certificates for a variety of reasons. Some choose this type of education to advance their career, while others do so for personal development.

Career skills 

A graduate certificate can be an excellent way to gain specific skills needed to advance in your current career or industry. For example, the tech world changes quickly, and you might need to update your knowledge in an area to move into more senior roles. Because graduate certificate programs concentrate on specific subjects and skills development, they can be very specific to your needs. 

Career change 

Graduate certificates are also useful for changing careers. Rather than going back to school to earn a second bachelor’s degree or enrolling in a lengthy master’s program, you can earn a graduate certificate faster in order to make your career transition. It can also be easier to keep working full-time while working through a graduate certificate program since there isn’t as much coursework to complete. 

Licensing requirements

Industry licenses often ask for a certain amount of credit hours. If you haven't met these requirements and you want to apply for a certain license, a graduate certificate can help you fill the credit gap by counting as continuing education. 

Personal development

Sometimes, learning something new can be a worthwhile personal endeavor, helping you gain valuable insight about yourself, strengthen existing skills, develop new ones, or learn about a subject that has long interested you. 

Networking

Because many graduate certificates are taught by faculty members, it can be an opportunity to learn from experts in a subject or field—and even gain a mentor. You may also get the opportunity to meet new peers and expand your network. 

How to choose the best graduate certificate for you 

When deciding which graduate certificate you’d like to pursue, use the steps below as guidance. 

1. Research relevant subjects.

What do you want to study? Find out which schools offer the type of program you’re interested in. Graduate certificates are usually specialized because they focus on a niche approach to a subject. To get a sense of what’s available, search for “graduate certificate” and then the subject or skill you hope to study such as “business writing” or “artificial intelligence.”  

2. Decide how you like to learn. 

Decide whether you want to study online or in person. While not every program will give you a choice, so you may want to pick the program that meets your learning needs. If you prefer more structure then you might benefit from in-person classes. However, if you prefer greater flexibility then you might enjoy online classes. 

Learn more: What is Asynchronous Learning

3. Understand what you can afford.

Price is an important factor. As you review different programs, take note of the cost so you can determine whether each program falls within your budget. With cost in mind, you may also want to review the required and elective coursework each program offers to make sure it aligns with your educational goals. 

Next steps  

If you’re interested in earning a graduate certificate, browse a number of options from leading universities on Coursera. MasterTrack Certificates are available in Cybersecurity from Arizona State University, Supply Chain Excellence from Rutgers University, and Social Work from the University of Michigan, to name just a few.

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Article sources

1. Affordable Colleges Online. “Financial Aid for a Graduate Certificate, https://www.affordablecollegesonline.org/college-resource-center/help-paying-for-graduate-certificate/." Accessed September 8, 2022.

2. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of a Master's Degree: 2022 Analysis, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-masters-degree." Accessed September 8, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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