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Master’s degree or graduate certificate: What’s best for you?

Which one is right for you?

People at all stages of their careers are choosing to go back to school for a variety of reasons. For some, it presents an opportunity to add valuable skills to their resumes. Others are looking for a career shift and the academic credentials to support it. But regardless of the motivating factors, there is a demand for learning opportunities later in life and, as a result, a lot of options to choose from. 

While some will opt to pursue advanced studies, such as a Ph.D. program, most adult learners are looking at two main courses of study: master’s degrees or graduate certificates. Both offer valuable educational opportunities; however, there are key differences to consider as you choose which one is right for you. 

Master’s degree vs. graduate certificate

First, let’s start by defining what each option entails for students. 

A master’s degree, perhaps the most familiar option, is generally a two-year program that allows individuals to pursue advanced education in a given subject. Master’s degree programs generally require that you have completed a bachelor’s degree (which may need to be in a specific subject, depending on the master’s you want to pursue). A certain GPA or GRE/GMAT scores may also be required as part of your application process. The School of Professional Studies does not require a minimum undergraduate GPA or any entrance testing as we cater to students who are currently working professionals. A graduate degree program would be a good choice for someone who has little or informal experience working in the specific area of study or role and really needs to end-to-end up-skilling or updating of the industry.

A graduate certificate, on the other hand, is a non-degree program that is typically shorter and highly specified. Participants complete three to four graduate-level courses over a year or less. At the end, you receive a certificate in a specific content area, like Project Management, Digital Marketing and Analytics, FinTech, or Ethical and Inclusive Leadership. These certificates were built for students with experience in Project Management who want to take their PM knowledge to the next level, up-skill, or consider a leadership role.

Key considerations 

One option isn’t better than the other when debating between a master’s degree and a graduate certificate. Instead, it’s more a question of what’s best for you, given your professional goals, your capacity and the investment you’re willing to make.  

Your goals 

The first step in determining which option to pursue is to consider your professional goals. Why do you want to go back to school, and what do you want to achieve as a result? 

For instance, if you’re looking to advance in your career and increase your earning potential, you may want to consider a master’s degree. While graduate certificates tend to be highly focused on certain skills or subject areas, a master’s degree can offer greater depth of study, making you a more valuable asset to your team. At some organizations, it is a requirement for advancement to certain levels (they may even cover the cost), and others have compensation structures designed to reward those with higher levels of education. 

A master’s degree is also a strong option if you are planning a career shift. A two-year program will give you a more solid foundation in your new field and will impart the credentials you’ll need to start your next chapter on the right foot. 

If, however, you are looking to acquire new skills in your field, a graduate certificate may be a better option. Your education can be highly focused, giving you everything you need in a short period of time. 

Graduate certificates can also help you move up the ladder in your career, and many companies will cover the cost of tuition to help you take on new roles and responsibilities. 

Your time 

Time is another key consideration on your professional education journey. 

A master’s degree generally requires you to complete 10 to 12 classes. If you’re going to school while maintaining a full-time job, completing all the necessary coursework can take anywhere from 18 months to 2+ years.

A graduate certificate, on the other hand, offers quality education in a much shorter time frame — typically 6 months to 1 year. If you don’t have the time to commit to a full master’s degree program — or you’re not sure it’s the path you want to take — a graduate certificate may be the right choice for you.  

Your finances

Advanced education is an investment of your time and your money. When you decide to pursue a course of study, you must ask yourself: How am I going to afford this?

Master’s degrees consist of more courses and therefore will cost more with the costs varying widely depending on the program and the school you want to attend. Many companies offer programs to support continuing education among their employees and will cover some or all of the associated costs. Student loans can defer the costs in the short-term, and grants are another option to reduce out-of-pocket expenses. But as with any major investment, it’s important to consider the financial impact as part of your decision-making process. 

Graduate certificates are generally less expensive, as they consist of fewer classes overall. Again, some companies will cover the cost of these programs to support the continuing education of their employees, and certain loan programs can be applied to graduate certificates. But overall, the shorter time commitment and non-degree programming make these a more affordable option. 

Our approach 

At the Wake Forest School of Professional Studies, we designed our catalog of programs to fit our students’ experience, needs, and goals. The Project Management, Digital Marketing, and Financial Technology programs all offer both master’s degree and certificate options, allowing you to advance your education at your own pace in the areas of your choice. No matter which path you choose, you’ll come away with a top-notch education designed to turn you into a strategic leader who can help businesses adapt, grow, and excel in promising new ways.

When in doubt, ask for help

Education is always a good decision, but there is a lot to consider when it comes to analyzing the available options. The good news: You don’t have to have all the answers. Our Student Success Managers can help you walk through different programs and determine which one is right for you and your goals.