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Certification as an alternative to, or part of, a graduate degree

If you feel you must go to graduate school to further your career, read this section. You may be able to earn certification rather than a graduate degree. Alternately, certification may be available as an optional course of study within your graduate degree program.

Overview: What are certification programs?

A certification program is a set of courses in a particular field that lead to certificate status or a license to practice. Whether you need the skills to improve your current work or need a license to start practicing in your field, certification proves to you and to potential employers that you have attained certain knowledge of and experience in your field. That field dictates both what certifications are possible to obtain and the means to do so. Therefore, prerequisites for certification can include any combination of the following: completing coursework, earning a degree, passing examinations, and/or successfully completing an internship or other experiential component. Sometimes certification is part of a degree program, while other times it's independent.

Reasons for pursuing certification:

How do you decide if you need certification at all?

The value of your certification lies in the recognition you will receive from employers and peers, who understand it as testament to your accomplishment and competence. Likewise, the education required to attain certification may enhance your work in your current field. For example, if you are a volunteer administrator and are serious about building a career out of your work, you may choose to become Certified in Volunteer Administration—a designation which employers and peers will take seriously.

First, find out if a license is required for you to begin your practice, and/or whether certification enhances your employability. One way to find out is to conduct informational interviews with professionals in your field.

Another way to find out is to check with the appropriate professional association(s) in your field. Usually a check of the website or a conversation with someone on the association's staff can let you know whether or not certification exists in your field.

Reasons for pursuing certification:

You want a professional distinction that solidifies you as a professional in your field and bolsters your career options.

Usually certification is granted through an exam and/or other performance assessment. Coursework can help prepare you for the certification but does not lead directly to it.

Often, a professional association grants the certification and also provides eligibility requirements, study guides, and examinations and/or other performance assessments.

Many certifications are accredited by these professional associations; therefore some certifications can be attained as part of graduate school, while others are not included as part of a graduate education and must be attained independently.

Examples of certifications that are accredited with professional associations include:

To find out if you can become certified in your field in order to bolster your career options or give you weight as a professional in your current role, look to your field's professional association, or consult with another professional who may know.

You want to take classes to deepen your education in your field without spending the time and money on a full graduate degree, or as a way to get started without committing to a graduate degree up front.

In some cases, certification is not dependent on professional standards agreed upon by an association. Instead, a graduate school or community education program chooses its own courses that lead to a certificate. Such certification demonstrates your familiarity with a given specialization and can carry weight when they are granted by an accredited school.

Attaining this type of certificate permits you to build skills and knowledge that can help you do your work better. For example if your work involves significant web-based work, audio podcasting, and some graphic design, you may pursue a certificate in multimedia production from a local community college. Certification comes upon the completion of coursework as determined by your department, and can in some cases require an internship or other experiential learning component.

Assessing the quality of this type of program falls to you:

  • Does the college or university have a solid reputation in your community? Will the certificate that is offered strengthen your resume or application for a job you really want? If you aren't sure about the answer to either question, ask colleagues, human resources managers, and employers in your field what they think. Remind them that taking the required courses is a commitment of time and money, and urge them to be frank in their responses.
  • Get information from those who are or have been directly involved with the program. You can ask program coordinators and current and former students such questions as: Did they value the education they received? What are alumni of the program doing now? Did the program enhance their ability to do their work? Are they now qualified to do the same work that you intend to do at the end of the program?
  • What level of coursework and how many credit hours are required to complete the program?
  • Is the program a post-baccalaureate program? Will your classmates be undergraduates? Graduate students? Other professionals in the community?
  • Compare similar certification programs from different schools. For the sake of assessing your target program, you can use the internet to look into programs all over the country to see how yours stacks up. Is the breadth and depth of the coursework comparable?
  • Research the professors in your target program. Are the credentials and experience of the instructors relevant? Do they impress you?

Depending on your school, you may be able to continue your studies beyond the certificate. If you feel that you enjoy taking the classes and are compelled to pursue further studies, you may have the option of enrolling as a graduate student, and apply your credit hours from the certification program.

Examples of certifications independent of obtaining a graduate degree:

  • Nonprofit management certification
  • Multimedia production to enhance your skills in web development, podcasting, and graphic design.

You need a license to practice in your field.

Some fields legally require certification in order to practice. With this type of certification or licensure, a government body regulates standards and practices. Licenses in the United States are granted through a state agency.

Because state agencies or other jurisdictions are responsible for setting the terms of acquiring the license, standards can vary from state to state. If you are just starting out and plan to become a teacher in Massachusetts, for example, you may want to get your education degree in Massachusetts to ensure compatibility between your coursework and prerequisites for a teaching certification in that state. While reciprocity agreements exist between states, be watchful for hidden parts of such reciprocity agreements, which can include extra testing and additional requirements. Fulfilling these requirements can take a significant amount of time—during which you may not be able to practice. It is up to you to find out what the requirements are in order to practice in the state where you plan to work. Validity also varies: some licenses are permanent while others must be renewed regularly, typically upon completion of continuing education in your field.

Like other types of certification, licenses are granted through examination and/or other performance assessments, which may include internships and an undergraduate or graduate degree.

Professional associations do not typically grant licenses but they can play a role here. Professional associations often accredit academic programs that offer courses leading to the acquisition of the initial license or to license renewal.

Here are a couple of examples:

You want to specialize in a specific aspect of your field, as part of a broader degree program (similar to a concentration or minor).

If you do want to go to graduate school, your degree program may offer a single or even several certification options. For example, in some Masters of Business Administration programs, students can choose to concentrate in Nonprofit Management or Social Entrepreneurship. Specializing in this way allows you to deepen your knowledge of a specific skill set or focus area and may give you an edge in finding a job, setting yourself apart from other professionals in your field, or getting a promotion if you are already working in the field.

Another example is:

When you have a choice: Getting your certification in conjunction with a graduate degree or as an alternative to grad school

Depending on the certification you seek, you may have the option to earn certification as part of a grad degree program, or independently through a more limited course of study. You must find out if the experts in your field view the certification you are hoping to obtain as a strong credential independent of a graduate degree. To be sure, ask employers, human resources managers, and more knowledgeable colleagues in your field what they think of your options; this is a great question to ask during an informational interview. These people should know if the certification you seek will bolster your knowledge of the field and your weight as a professional.

Grad school is a huge commitment, so while it may be the right choice for thousands of people every year, you must decide if grad school is the right thing for you right now. To help you determine this, read our articles on good and bad reasons to go to grad school, the lifestyle changes grad school entails, and how to gauge your financial readiness for grad school. After reading these initial articles, if you then find that going to grad school full-time or part-time is not feasible for you, enrolling in a non-degree certification program may meet your needs. However, do take into account that taking classes towards certification will still cost money, effort, and time.

If in doubt, remember that you may be able to start out in a certificate program, and later on choose to work towards a degree by enrolling as a graduate student.

Conclusion and further resources

Certification can be an alternative to further schooling or a piece of your graduate education. Certification encourages employers and peers to take you seriously as a professional and may enable you to legally practice certain careers in your state, help you specialize within your field, or enhance a skill set you already use in your current work.

Professional associations, grad schools, community education programs, and government agencies set the terms of certification. Coursework, examinations, and experience may all contribute to your eligibility for becoming certified.

Other possible alternatives to grad school: