Is Earning a Graduate Certificate Worth It?

Many individuals want to continue their education after earning their bachelor’s degree. Sometimes this is due to a personal drive to continue learning after graduation; sometimes it’s because gaining a promotion or standing out from the competition when applying for jobs requires something more than a bachelor’s degree; sometimes it’s because an individual wants to change careers, and they know that they’ll need an advanced credential to make their move.

Some of these individuals inevitably abandon their plans when they realize just what it takes to earn a master’s degree. Though earning a master’s degree is associated with a number of benefits, they aren’t for everyone. Between time, money, and effort, pursuing one can be quite the investment.

What they don’t realize is that they have another option available to them if they ultimately decide to forego a master’s degree: A graduate certificate.

But what exactly is a graduate certificate, and is it worth the investment to earn one?

What Is a Graduate Certificate?

A graduate certificate is a short course of study that is designed to meet the supplemental needs of professionals. They are a form of specialized training at the university level.

Graduate certificates are usually focused on a particular industry or job title and, as such, there are dozens of options available to those who are interested in earning a certificate.

Northeastern, for example, offers approximately 50 different graduate certificate programs with focuses as varied as data analytics, global and international relations, engineering leadership, and technological entrepreneurship. 

What Makes Earning a Graduate Certificate Worthwhile?

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, certificates are the fastest-growing form of post-secondary credentials in the United States. Approximately three percent of the workforce—about four million workers—currently has a graduate certificate.

It’s easy to see why. Earning a graduate certificate brings with it a number of benefits which may make them appealing to a wide range of professionals seeking to further their education. Among the most important of these include:

1. An Increase in Pay

If your primary motivation for considering earning a graduate certificate is a desire for higher pay, then you’re in luck: According to a report from the Washington Post, individuals see an estimated 25 percent increase in salary after having earned a graduate certificate. That is a pretty high return on investment, especially for the relatively quick speed in which you’ll earn your degree.

2. A Rapid Education

Earning a master’s or other graduate degree can easily take two or more years to complete—that’s just the nature of the beast. And while those degrees come with their own benefits, sometimes you want, or need, a more immediate return on your investment.

Compared to earning a graduate degree, earning a certificate can often be done in a year or less, depending on the exact program. Many of the certificates offered by Northeastern, for example, require just 12 to 18 credits and about a year to complete.

3. Added Job Security

As the job market continuously evolves, continuing your education can help you distinguish yourself in an increasingly competitive workforce.

More and more often, employers are seeking to hire employees with some level of advanced education. A graduate certificate can help you meet those expectations by expanding your industry knowledge, allowing you to keep your skills relevant and updated.

In some fields, like healthcare or education, graduate certificates offer mandatory training and continuing education that is necessary for certain jobs or promotions, and can make it easier to transition to managerial positions.

In other industries, such as project management, employers often require professional certifications, like those granted by the Project Management Institute (PMI). Graduate certificates are often designed to prepare you to meet the requirements of those professional certifications.

Earning a graduate certificate keeps you competitive in your current role by allowing you to build upon your skills, but it can also help you transition into a role with more responsibility or even into a completely different profession by teaching you new, valuable skills that today’s employers want and need.

4. Growth to Your Professional Network

Earning a graduate certificate, like earning any degree, connects you with people that you otherwise may never have crossed paths with. From professors to advisors to fellow students, all of these individuals will become connections that will expand your professional network, which may prove helpful when you are applying for jobs or seeking a career change.

5. Preparation for a Graduate Degree

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 51.9 percent of employees with an advanced degree also hold a graduate certificate. Why? While it’s true that some individuals may have sought a certificate in addition to earning a master’s or other graduate degree, the fact remains that a certificate is a convenient stepping stone on the pathway to earning a graduate degree.

Many individuals obtain a graduate certificate in order to “test out” the idea of earning a master’s degree, but also breaking into a specific industryand also for the immediate benefits that earning a certificate convey to a careerbecause it involves a much smaller investment of time. If, after you have earned your certificate, you decide that you’d like to continue with the full degree, you can do so at a later date. This way you are not committing yourself to a full degree program that you are not fully sure is right for you.

It is also important to note that many graduate certificate programs, like some of those at Northeastern, are designed to be stacked into a master’s  degree. This means that if you do decide to pursue a graduate degree at a later date, you’ll already have a number of credits you can apply to the degree—credits that you won’t need to retake.

Should You Earn a Graduate Certificate?

Though many individuals see earning a master’s degree as the next logical step to take after completing their undergraduate studies, graduate certificates play an important role in helping the workforce meet the demands of employers.

If you are seeking to continue your education after completing your undergraduate studies, earning a graduate certificate might be just what you need to reach your personal and career goals. In addition to providing a boost to job security and pay, they offer a faster education with immediate payoff and growth to your professional network, all while potentially preparing you for a full degree at some future date.

Are you interested in earning a graduate certificate? Explore Northeastern’s graduate certificate programs


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2016 and was updated in December 2017 for comprehensiveness.