Is Earning a Graduate Certificate Worth It?

Many individuals want to continue their education after earning their bachelor’s degree. Some want to stand out from the competition when applying for jobs or vying for a promotion; some want to change careers, and they know that they’ll need an advanced credential to make their move; others have a personal drive to keep learning after graduation.

A percentage of prospective students abandon their plans when they realize the rigor it takes to earn a master’s degree. Though there are many reasons to earn an advanced degree, they aren’t for everyone. Considering the time, money, and effort required, returning to grad school can be quite the investment.

What many don’t realize is that they have another option available if they ultimately decide to forego a master’s degree but still want a competitive edge: 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 generally focus on a particular industry or job title and, as such, there are dozens of options available to those who are interested in earning one.

Northeastern, for example, offers approximately 50 different graduate certificate programs focused on diverse disciplines such as data analytics, international relations, engineering leadership, and technological entrepreneurship.

Explore our 150+ Certificate Programs

Discover the difference an advanced certificate could have on your career.


Graduate Certificates vs. Master’s Degrees

Master’s degrees typically take about two years to complete and are often a full-time commitment in a particular field of study. The time and financial investment needed to earn a master’s degree is often much higher than that of a graduate certificate, simply due to the scope of the coursework. If you are trying to decide which route is best for you, be sure to assess your personal goals in order to determine which study option can best help you achieve them. 

The Benefits of Earning a Graduate Certificate

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. In fact, research from Statista shows that the number of graduate degree recipients more than doubled in the years between 2000 and 2014.

Grad Certificate Recipients Graph

It’s easy to see why this increase has been so dramatic. Earning a graduate certificate offers several significant benefits that make them appealing to 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 Forbes, individuals can expect to receive an estimated 13 to 25 percent increase in salary after having earned a graduate certificate. That’s a high return on investment, especially considering the relatively short time in which you’ll complete the program.

2. Quick Return on Investment

Earning a master’s (or another advanced degree) can easily take two or more years to complete. While master’s 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 evolves, advancing 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 and 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 specific jobs or promotions and can make it easier to transition to managerial positions.

In other industries, such as project management, employers frequently 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 position with more responsibility or even into a completely different profession by teaching you new, valuable skills that today’s employers want and need.

4. A Wider Professional Network

Earning a graduate certificate, like earning any degree, connects you with people that you may never have crossed paths with otherwise. From professors to advisors to fellow students, 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 hold a graduate certificate. Why? Because not only are they valuable on their own, but graduate certificates are a convenient stepping stone on the pathway to earning a graduate degree.

Many individuals obtain a graduate certificate to “try out” the idea of earning a master’s degree. Others use the expedited programs to quickly break into a specific industry because 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 you are not entirely 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. Meaning, 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 in the future.

Northeastern University offers more than 150 certificate programs in a wide range of specialized areas. These certificate programs include four to six graduate-level courses focused on a specific concentration within a broader field of study. If you are looking to get ahead in today’s highly competitive global marketplace, consider earning a graduate certificate to build your skillset.