Graduate Certificate vs. Master’s Degree: Which is Right for You?


At some point in your professional career, you’ll undoubtedly explore the possibility of earning credentials beyond a bachelor’s degree. While there are many different types of credentials that indicate achievement in a skill or subject matter, two of the most common are graduate certificates and master’s degrees. By earning a graduate certificate or master’s degree, you’ll learn skills that you can immediately apply to your professional life. Most higher education institutions offer both types of programs, and many offer them online or in person.

When it comes to deciding whether a master’s degree or graduate certificate is right for you, there are many factors to take into account. It’s important to know which option will be most beneficial in the next steps of your career. Ohio State Online's experts can help guide you through this process, so send us any questions you may have.

No matter what you decide, the most important thing is the ability to apply these credentials and skills to your professional life. Before you decide which type of program you should choose, it is helpful to understand the benefits of each.


What is a graduate certificate? Is a graduate certificate a degree?

A graduate certificate is a credential representing specialized training in a specific topic or skill. Sometimes referred to as a “professional certificate,” graduate certificates offer professional development training ideal for fine-tuning skills or knowledge within a defined framework of study, complementing your experience or growing your expertise in a specific subject.


An online certificate provides the tools to take the next step in your career. 

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These programs typically only take a short period of time, often between 12-15 credit hours (or one to two semesters, if attending full time). Due to their relatively short time to completion, a graduate certificate typically costs less than a master’s degree.

Graduate certificates can provide opportunities for career advancement in a particular field or industry, or prepare students to sit for certain licensure exams. For example, the online Assistive and Rehabilitative Technology certificate can prepare students for the RESNA assistive technology professional exam.

Is a graduate certificate a degree?

A graduate certificate is not considered a graduate degree, like a master's or doctoral degree. However, it can provide a strong foundation for future study that results in a graduate degree. The credits earned in a graduate certificate program may satisfy requirements for entry into certain graduate programs.

Graduate certificates may also provide the skills necessary to transition to a new field of work. 


Why earn a master’s degree?

Compared to graduate certificates, a master’s degree focuses on strategic skill development in a field rather than specialization on a single subject. Within a master’s degree program, there is typically more freedom to customize your experience to your interest and goals. Many advanced positions, especially in public administration or business, require a master’s degree as a prerequisite, and a master’s degree is necessary if you have the desire to eventually earn a doctorate degree.

Like graduate certificates, some master's degrees allow students the opportunity to earn industry-recognized credentials – which may be required if you're changing careers. For example, graduating from the online Master of Clinical Research program qualifies students to earn their Clinical Research Coordinator Certification, Clinical Research Professionals Certification or Regulatory Affairs Certification, after a requisite time period working in the field.

Based on data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statisticsmaster’s degree holders earn 20% higher wages than bachelor’s degree holders. A master’s degree typically takes one to two years to complete if attending full time, and thus typically costs more than a graduate certificate.


How to decide between a graduate certificate and a master’s degree

Your choice of whether to earn a master’s degree or graduate certificate will depend on your personal and professional goals. To decide which type of credential is right for you, consider the following factors:


An Ohio State graduate proudly displays his diploma on the steps of Page Hall.


What are your career goals?

Graduate certificates and master’s degrees can each lead to career advancement, whether you’re looking for a new job or a promotion in your current role. While graduate certificates may be valuable within a particular field, master’s degree credentials are typically more easily transferable between industries.


What new skills do you hope to gain?

Developing new skills or fine-tuning your abilities are vital for professional development. A master’s degree and a graduate certificate will each teach you new skills to apply to your professional life. A master’s degree will not only help you develop skills, but also provide you with the strategic vision to apply those skills in a variety of environments. A graduate certificate will focus specifically on one skill or a limited set of skills.


How much time and money can you invest in a program?

A graduate certificate typically takes less than one year to complete, while a master’s degree will typically take one to two years, perhaps longer if you enroll part-time. To continue working full time as you earn your credential, consider enrolling in an online graduate certificate or online master’s degree program that allows you to complete work on your own schedule.

A graduate certificate can typically be earned for a fraction of the cost of a master’s degree, though each should be seen as an investment in your future.


Earning both a graduate certificate and a master's degree

In some instances, it may be helpful to earn both a graduate certificate and a master’s degree. Some master’s degree programs, like the online Master of Public Administration and Leadership from the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, allow credits from a graduate certificate to be applied to a master’s degree so that you may continue your education.

The online IT Business Strategy Certificate from the Fisher College of Business is another example. This graduate certificate in business provides training in the core elements of an MBA degree, within an information technology framework, and some credits can transfer to Ohio State's online MBA program if students wish to continue their education.


Finding a graduate certificate or master’s degree program

As you evaluate whether you want to earn a graduate certificate or master’s degree, weigh the pros and cons of both options. Each can be a valuable investment, regardless of your level of experience in your field, whether you recently graduated, are looking to change your field, or simply looking for a new challenge.


Ready to learn more? Take the next step in your career with Ohio State's flexible online master’s degrees or online certificate programs.

Last modified: 
August 17, 2022