Considering returning to school for an advanced degree? You are not alone. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates nearly 3 million students were enrolled in postgraduate baccalaureate degree programs in Fall 2017.
But the decision to enroll in a graduate program is not easy. Graduate school is expensive and time consuming. And with the many degree options available (MS, MBA, MFA to name a few), how can you be sure that you are making the best personal and financial decisions for your future?
While a master’s degree may seem like a natural next step in your academic journey, a growing number of students are choosing to enroll in postgraduate certificate programs through full-degree programs.
What is the difference between Certificate and Degree?
“Postgraduate degree programs, such as programs leading to master’s degrees, typically require 10 to 12 graduate-level courses and may have a research component that requires independent and original research and a thesis defense. A student with a master’s degree becomes proficient in advanced knowledge of theoretical and applied topics spanning all disciplines, ”explained Dr. Costas Tsatsoulis, Vice Chancellor for Research & Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T).
It’s also important to note that admission to postgraduate degree programs may require applicants to submit standardized test scores including the GRE or GMAT . Postgraduate certificates usually do not require this test for entry.
Postgraduate certificates often target a specific topic instead of giving students a broad scope of teaching in their field of study. At Missouri S&T, Psychological Science and Engineering Management are two fields in which students can choose postgraduate certificate programs.
“Certificates typically require four to five graduate-level courses that focus on a limited area of expertise in an engineering or scientific discipline. A student who completes a certificate has developed expertise in an important subset of a discipline, gaining depth in the topic of a particular discipline, “said Tastsoulis.
Undergraduate vs. postgraduate certificate
So what are some of the factors you should consider when determining which pathway (degree vs. certificate) is right for you?
“Students have to consider their career goals,” said Dr. Elaine Turner, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Florida.
Students pursue advanced degrees for a variety of reasons. Identify your exact reasons for returning to school. Have you made career changes? Interested in updating your knowledge in a specific area? Working towards a promotion? Your answers can influence your decisions.
“Sometimes, advancing a career may require the completion of a master’s degree. In other cases, adding specific knowledge and skills, such as in geospatial analysis or urban pest management, can enable career advancement through completion of a certificate program, “adds Turner.
It is also possible that postgraduate courses completed as part of a certificate program may transfer to a later degree program. Ask your school and program for clarification on these requirements.
Test the water
Certificate programs can help you decide if you are ready to commit to a degree program in a non-threatening manner.
“One of the reasons a student may want to pursue a certificate may be to determine whether postgraduate study they really want to pursue. On the one hand, it makes a person wet: students don’t make the financial and time commitment to a multi-year bachelor’s degree, but can quickly determine whether pursuing such a degree is what they want to do, “Tsatsoulis said.
If you complete a certificate program and decide a master’s degree isn’t for you, you’ll get the security of going with a certificate as a credential.
Discuss the benefits with your boss
Will getting a master’s degree outweigh the benefits of getting a certificate? There’s nothing wrong with asking your superiors and co-workers for input.
“Talk to your employer to see how additional education would be useful. Talk to people in careers you are passionate about for their backgrounds and ideas on how best to prepare. Students today can visit their career center to explore options, ”said Turner.
Find out about financial aid
Before filling out your application to any program, make sure you have done your research. Certificate programs do not usually qualify for financial assistance, so be prepared to pay for yourself. Some employers offer tuition assistance to help pay for further education costs. Be sure to review your company’s policies on the benefits of professional and educational development.
There are also many scholarships , loans, and depending on the program, assistants are available for degree-seeking students. Opportunities for financial aid will vary by school, so check with your program department for more information.