Ultimate Guide to Graduate Certificates

If you're a college-educated professional looking to advance or hone your career without going through another lengthy and expensive full degree program, a Graduate Certificate program might be the perfect pathway for you. Check out our extensive guide and online program listings to find a Graduate Certificate in your specialty of choice today!

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If you are a working professional who already holds a bachelor's or master’s degree, you may be wondering if a graduate certificate is right for you. Graduate certificate programs are a convenient way to further your education and refine your skills and knowledge into a niche area of your current or desired industry, without the need to complete another lengthy and expensive full degree program. In just a few semesters, you can earn a certificate that can open doors into the most focused and fulfilling careers. With online and hybrid learning options, earning a graduate certificate could not be easier for employed professionals to complete while they continue working.

Still have questions about grad certificates? To find out if a graduate certificate program is right for you, check out our guide below to learn more about this exciting academic pathway.

A graduate certificate is a qualification that a student may earn following the completion of a relevant bachelor's or master’s degree. It’s a graduate-level program that expands existing knowledge into a niche, allowing professionals to advance into a specific career area or enter into new specializations within their industry. Graduate certificates are also commonly referred to as post-bachelor's certificates, post-master's certificates, or post-graduate certificates. Some schools simply refer to them as "graduate certificates" so it is important to understand the level of prior education required to enter the program.

A graduate certificate is essentially an optional qualification designed to allow students with bachelor's or master's degrees to earn specialized education in their area of choice – it is not a degree in and of itself and therefore you cannot earn a graduate certificate in isolation. They are a great stepping stone for those who are considering earning master's or doctorate-level degrees (such as a Ph.D.) since many graduate certificate credits can be applied toward future advanced degrees. However, many professionals choose to earn a graduate certificate because it's a great way to enhance career prospects in a quick and convenient format. Most certificates can be completed entirely online in just a few semesters, allowing students to continue working full-time throughout the program.

Graduate certificate programs are often offered at the post-bachelor's or post-master's level, or to those who are concurrently enrolled in a broader master's degree program. Graduate certificates in nursing are only offered at the post-master's level.

One of the big draws of graduate certificate programs is that they are significantly more affordable than full degree programs. This is ideal for professionals who want to advance their education or break into a new area of their industry without investing the considerable amount of time and money necessary for an additional degree such as a master's or Ph.D. It's also a great option for those who are on the fence about a future advanced degree; many graduate certificate credits can be used toward a master's or doctorate degree down the line.

Graduate certificate program tuition is often calculated per credit, helping students work out their total cost and budget effectively. Average cost varies by school and program, and sometimes by department as well. Out-of-state students will sometimes pay higher fees than state residents (though many online programs treat students the same regardless of residency as long as they are located in the U.S.). Prospective students should keep in mind that required materials such as books will be in addition to the program's tuition, unless otherwise stated in the school's fee breakdowns.

In general, students can expect to pay between $5,000 and $10,000 total, or from $400 to $800 per credit. Factors such as location, type of school, and subject matter will ultimately impact the amount your graduate certificate will cost.

Prospective students who are employed and looking at graduate certificate programs are encouraged to see if their employers offer tuition reimbursement or assistance, particularly if the new skills you will learn will benefit your current company or organization. If this is not an option, you can inquire about financial assistance options including loans, scholarships, payment plans, and more through the school you wish to attend.

There are many reasons why a student might pursue a graduate certificate program. The vast majority of people who wish to pursue this program type are working professionals who are looking to advance or break into a new career area related to their industry. Earning a graduate certificate can help you earn higher salaries and increase your employability. Popular reasons to enroll in a grad certificate program include:

  • They are shorter than a full master’s or Ph.D. degree program and therefore take less time to complete. This is ideal for parents or full-time employees who don’t have the time to commit to a full graduate or doctoral degree to convert their existing qualification
  • They are flexible in that you may use the credits towards a higher degree later
  • Graduate certificates are cheaper than a full master’s or doctoral degree
  • You will learn specialized knowledge to a level of detail not usually possible with a broad bachelor’s or master’s degree
  • They are suitable for people looking to change or advance careers within their existing industry as well as for those looking to enter a new industry

Graduate certificate programs are popular because they allow professionals to advance their education into a focused area of study without having to enroll in a full degree program, which can often take multiple years of intense study to complete. This allows most students to continue working while they earn their certificate, and has significant cost savings over an expensive degree program such as a master's degree or a doctoral degree.

In most cases, a graduate certificate program can be completed in two semesters (one academic year) each consisting of 15 weeks. Some universities allow students to study part-time, spreading the program out over several academic years.

Where you will find variation is in the number of credits and courses that make up the graduate certificate. They generally vary from 9 to 24 credits and anywhere from 3 to 6 total courses, with most falling in the 15 to 18 credit range and 4 to 5 course range. This is dependent on the area of study and graduate certificate focus chosen. It's important to understand the credit requirements of any graduate certificate program you are interested in, as these can vary dramatically between subject areas and will impact how quickly you can complete the program.

Graduate certificate programs are available to those who have earned an accredited college degree at the bachelor's level or above. Some graduate certificates only require that the applicant holds a bachelor's degree in a related subject, and some require that the student holds a master's degree at minimum. Some will allow entry as long as the student is concurrently enrolled in a master's degree program. Depending on the industry and subject area, you may also be required to have some relevant work experience. These intricacies are why it's vital to understand all entrance and eligibility requirements from the school and program you wish to pursue.

While admission requirements vary from school to school, and even between departments, you will typically find that graduate certificate programs require:

  • A bachelor's or master's degree (depending on the program) from an accredited college or university
  • A minimum GPA, typically 3.0 though this could go up to 3.5 on the 4.0 scale.
  • 2-3 academic recommendation letters. As grad certificates have a high number of applicants with work experience, they will also accept employer references.
  • Resume or CV highlighting relevant experience.
  • An application fee, which can vary from around $20 to $60.
  • A short personal statement and/or essay asking a specific question about current industry issues.
  • An entry exam may be applicable in some cases. GRE and GMAT scores are typically not required, but this is dependent on school and program type.
  • If English is not your first language, schools will ask for certification to prove English proficiency. Check each school for relevant acceptable certifications.

If you have any questions regarding whether or not you are eligible for a graduate certificate program, reaching out to the school's program advisor directly is the best course of action.

Graduate certificates exist in almost every area of study. They help you gain access to niche areas of your career. For example:

  • Business graduates may wish to pursue graduate certificates in accounting, business administration, economics, etc.
  • Science graduates may follow a path into niche areas such as biomedical science, biotechnology, mathematics, etc.
  • Education graduates may find niche subjects in special education, creative writing, early childhood education, etc.
  • Information Technology graduates may niche into complex areas such as data science, bioinformatics, cyber security, etc.

By nature, graduate certificates are designed to help college-educated professionals advance their careers and/or enter new specialties within their industries. Therefore, graduate certificates are available across disciplines and subjects to help professionals reach their focused career goals without having to endure long, expensive degree programs. Keep in mind that some graduate certificates are open to those who hold bachelor's degrees, and some require that the applicant holds a master's degree. Schools may refer to these programs as "Post-Bachelor's Graduate Certificates", "Post-Master's Graduate Certificates", or simply "Graduate Certificates". Nursing graduate certificates, for example, are only available at the post-master's level. Refer to your chosen program's admissions requirements to ensure that you meet all entrance qualifications.

Many schools now offer completely online graduate certificate programs that remove the need to move across the state or even the country to access your desired program. These programs are increasingly popular for prospective students who have demanding careers and/or family obligations.

For those who need flexibility but aren't sure if fully online programs are right for them, hybrid programs are a great option. They combine campus-based face-to-face instruction and formal lectures along with online courses. This is a great option for those who live near the school they wish to attend and want to take advantage of the interpersonal connections and resources of the campus, while still taking some flexible online classes.

Keep in mind that if your graduate certificate requires any hands-on, supervised lab or practice hours (for example, with nursing graduate certificates), you will still be required to complete them even if your program is web-based. Typically, these are able to be arranged in the student's local area (with approval from your school/program).

Graduate certificates can go by many names. While many schools list such offerings under the general category of "graduate certificate", there are actually several types of graduate certificates available, depending on the student's prior education level.

  • Graduate Certificate can refer to academic certificates at either the post-bachelor's or post-master's level.
  • Post-Bachelor's Certificate refers to certificates available to students who have already completed a bachelor's degree program, but not necessarily a master's program.
  • Post-Master's Certificate refers to certificate programs available to those who have completed a minimum of a master's degree.
  • Post-Graduate Certificate is essentially another name for a post-master's certificate. Some schools use these terms interchangeably.

Certain subject areas may lean heavily toward a post-bachelor's certificate or a post-master's certificate, so it's important to understand admissions criteria to make sure you meet all requirements before applying. Some areas, such as Nursing, only offer certificate programs at the post-master's level.