When is a Certificate Program Right For You

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  • For years, pursuing a degree has been the standard next step for anyone looking to develop their professional skills, prepare for a leadership role, or explore a new career path. Recently, however, a shift has taken place in graduate education, with professionally focused, shorter programs representing a growing piece of the academic market. Universities have begun to offer graduate-level and non-credit certificate programs to accommodate the significant amount of career changers and individuals looking for any and all competitive advantages to complement their job search.

    To cater to working professionals, these programs are often based on courses of study similar to full degree programs, but abridged, frequently requiring much less time to complete than moving from an associates to a bachelors or pursuing a 2-3 year masters degree. As such, students may not earn a degree, but they earn a valuable professional credential quickly, allowing for immediate career adjustments. Not only do these programs cost less, as a result, but they present a promising option to those looking to quickly invigorate their hunt for new professional opportunities. Many of these programs are designed to be taken part-time, as well, which is a perfect fit for anyone working full-time.

    So, when should you consider pursuing a graduate certificate instead of a full degree?

    When cost is an issue

    Certificate programs, whether offered online or on-campus, typically require substantially less coursework to complete – sometimes as little as half that of a masters degree or bachelors completion program in a similar area of study. With total tuition usually based on the amount of credit hours taken, this means that certificate programs are often much less costly to pursue. Depending on your desired career path, this might mean that the return on investment is ultimately greater if you enroll in a certificate program instead of a full degree. Of course, this varies by profession, but its definitely worth considering whether or not a masters is absolutely necessary to reach your goals.

    When earning a full degree takes too much time

    Completing a degree can take anywhere from 1-3 years depending on prior credit received, the nature of the program, and whether or not you can pursue coursework full-time. For many, leaving work and pursuing full-time study is just not feasible, and attending to studies in their free time for several years is just as untenable. Certificate programs allow students to take 1 or 2 courses at a time and still fulfill all of the requirements in a timely fashion, which means they can reap the professional benefits of the credential much more quickly. The University of Colorado-Boulders Non-credit Certificates in Sustainability Management program is a prime example of this principle, offering students access to either individual, six-week seminars or a full 6-8 month program in sustainable leadership.

    When a degree isn’t needed for your desired position

    While having a bachelors or masters degree may be a requirement for certain advanced roles, there are plenty of professions that don’t necessarily depend on degrees to identify qualified candidates. In some fields, earning a certificate or having established professional credentials is enough to pave the way for professional certification and licensure, rendering a masters degree unnecessary. This can be true of positions in legal support, IT, and even human resources.

    For example, working as a paralegal (except in the state of California) doesn’t necessarily require any particular credentialing or certification. However, the profession does demand specialized skills that can be quickly and effectively taught with the right coursework. As a result, programs like Boston University’s online Certificate in Paralegal Studies can help aspiring paralegals (career-changers, in particular) prepare to excel in the field in just 14 weeks, remaining affordable, and highly efficacious.

    Other programs in a wide array of careers follow a similar model, offering exactly what students need to succeed in their desired role without time consuming, additional coursework. As another example, the University of Florida offers an online Certificate in Personal and Family Financial Planning that qualifies and prepares students for the Certified Financial Professional® exam, a valuable credential for financial advisers.

    Ultimately, certificates, whether earned online or on-campus, represent a valuable alternative to a full course of study. If you’re looking to advance in your career and currently considering your academic options, its definitely worth exploring the possibilities that a certificate program can offer.

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