Adding a postgraduate credential like a master’s degree or a graduate certificate to your resume can be a great way to advance your career. It might even be a stepping stone on the pathway to an exciting career change. 

Knowing which credential to choose, however, can be challenging.

A master’s degree and a graduate certificate can both be valuable. They have many similarities. But they are not interchangeable. 

Understanding the differences between them before you go back to school can help ensure that you choose the right one.

What is a Master’s Degree?

A master’s degree is an academic postgraduate credential designed to help you build broad, foundational expertise in a specific field or discipline. Completing a master’s usually (although not always) requires several years of coursework and a thesis or capstone project.

Master’s degrees are offered by a university or other accredited academic institution. To earn your master’s degree, you’ll have to successfully complete a set number of credit hours. 

Most master’s degree programs require 10-12 courses. To earn many of the master’s degrees at Harvard Extension School, for example, you’ll have to earn a B or higher in 12 courses (48 credits). However, each master’s degree program will define its requirements slightly differently. 

Depending on the specific program, you will likely have to complete several required courses. You’ll also have the option to tailor your program by choosing electives in areas of special interest to you.

You may also be required to complete a research or capstone project or a thesis. This project will allow you to customize your program even more, as well as further demonstrate expertise in a specialized area. 

Some master’s degree programs require a full-time, on-campus commitment. Many master’s degree programs today, however, can be completed part time (often partially or fully online). Although this takes longer than attending full time, you can continue to work while earning your degree.

Here are a few things to consider when choosing a master’s degree program.

What is a Graduate Certificate?

Similar to a master’s degree, a graduate certificate is a credit-based academic credential offered by a university. However, a graduate certificate is more narrowly focused on a specialized field than a master’s degree.

Graduate certificates are a significantly smaller investment in time and money than a master’s. They usually require completion of between three and five graduate-level courses. Most graduate certificates at Harvard Extension require four courses, for example.

You can earn a graduate certificate as a stand-alone credential. Although a graduate certificate is not an academic degree, you may be able to stack your certificate coursework toward a master’s degree.

You can find graduate certificates in a wide range of fields. Technical certificate topics include cybersecurity and data science, for instance. 

If you’re in management, you may want to supplement your corporate knowledge with a certificate in nonprofit or strategic management. Or you may want to improve your leadership skills with a graduate certificate in social justice or equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging

Most graduate certificates can be completed part time. Many offer a variety of class formats, including asynchronous or synchronous online courses and in-person courses. 

How is a graduate certificate different from a professional certification?

A graduate certificate is not the same as a professional or industry certification.

A professional certification is a nonacademic credential awarded by a professional or industry organization. Earning a professional certification usually requires passing a test or exam demonstrating knowledge of a set of skills or a specific tool. You may need to take a class or complete coursework to pass the exam. 

For example, to earn a Project Management Graduate Certificate at Harvard Extension School, you have to earn at least a B in four graduate-level courses in management, leadership, and strategy. To earn a Project Management Professional Certification, offered by the PMI Institute, you have to meet the PMI Institute qualification requirements and pass the PMP exam. 

Graduate Certificate vs. Master’s: What Are the Key Differences?

Understanding the key differences between a graduate certificate and a master’s degree is the first step in choosing between these two credentials. 

Here are some points of comparison that may help guide your decision-making process:

  • Required number of courses: Graduate certificates usually require significantly fewer courses than a master’s degree. At Harvard Extension School, for instance, most graduate certificates require four courses. Most master’s programs require 10 to 12 courses. 
  • Degree of specialization: A master’s degree is designed to give you broad and deep knowledge in a field. A graduate certificate is more narrowly focused; you can build specialized skills in an area. For example, you could earn a master’s degree in sustainability and a graduate certificate in sustainable food systems. 
  • Level of commitment: Graduate certificates are designed with the working professional in mind. Most certificates can be completed online, with flexible live or on-demand class offerings. Master’s degree programs vary significantly in their flexibility and the extent to which they tailor to working professionals. Some master’s degrees, for example, may be fully in person or may require that a percentage of your classes be taken on campus.
  • Cost and financial aid: Graduate certificates cost less to complete than master’s degree programs because you are required to complete fewer credits. However, once you are enrolled in a master’s degree program, you may be eligible for federal and state student loans and grants. Students working toward a certificate are not eligible for student loans, although private loans and employer tuition assistance may still be an option. 
  • Admissions process: Starting a certificate may have fewer admissions requirements than enrolling in a master’s degree program. You may be able to complete a certificate simply by taking (and passing) the appropriate classes. The admissions process for a master’s degree program varies greatly. Some master’s degree programs, for example, require a formal application process. To begin the admissions process at Harvard Extension School, on the other hand, you first successfully complete a set number of courses in the master’s degree course of study. 

Graduate Certificate vs. Master’s: Which is Best for Me?

When it comes to choosing a graduate certificate or master’s degree, there’s no right or wrong choice. 

Both credentials—when earned from a reputable, accredited university—demonstrate advanced skills and knowledge in your field. And they also demonstrate your ability and commitment to lifelong learning, a trait highly valued by many employers.

Your choice will depend on the skills you hope to gain, your unique career goals, and the level of commitment—both in time and in money—you can make to a graduate program.

Benefits of a Graduate Certificate

A graduate certificate may be most valuable for individuals who want to fill a gap in your skillset or deepen your understanding of a topic area that relates to your work. A graduate certificate might also be best for you if you find yourself unable to commit to the time or cost that it would take to complete a master’s program. Graduate certificates are a great option for students seeking to continue their education while working full time.

Benefits of a Master’s Degree

A master’s degree demonstrates a broader, more advanced breadth of knowledge across a particular field. The knowledge and skills you gain from a master’s program may be transferable across multiple career paths. While it may take longer and cost more to earn your master’s degree, the long-term benefits should make the hard work and commitment worth it.

Stacking Your Credentials

In some cases, you may find you don’t have to choose. At Harvard Extension School, for instance, the courses you take to earn a certificate may also apply to a master’s degree program. Many graduate students complete one or more graduate certificates while completing a master’s degree.

Going back to school is a big decision — one that can have a critical impact on your career. The good news is that there are many options and opportunities for continuing your education. Whether you choose a graduate certificate or a master’s, both can be an excellent investment in your future.