Graduate Degree or Advanced Certification?

People with undergraduate degrees are increasingly becoming the norm due to our world shifting to a knowledge-based economy, students need a competitive edge to set themselves apart from others. I encountered this fresh out of college with my shiny new BBA in Marketing from the University of Georgia as I began to apply for positions in a crowded field. Additionally, potential employers presented an interesting paradox to newly-minted graduates, requiring them to have prior experience in the field before offering them the very positions which would allow them to obtain the needed experience. Even after completing two internships at a Fortune 100 company—typically another great way to gain valuable business skills while still in the college bubble—I found it difficult to break into my desired career field. Something needed to be done to further separate myself from the pack.

In my case, that something was earning a master’s degree. Increasingly, college graduates in various fields are discovering an advanced degree or career-specific certification makes the critical difference in having the opportunity to begin successful careers in their chosen fields. Jobs that require a master’s degree are expected to grow by 22% by 2020, and other advanced training and certifications are increasingly being sought by employers, as well. Having an advanced education definitely distinguishes you, demonstrating to employers that you are a candidate with an increased level of skills and a high drive to succeed, but which type of education is more practical and useful to you and your career plans? If you find yourself asking, “Should I get a graduate degree or an advanced certification?” then this blog is for you! Is a full advanced degree worth the time and money invested or will field-specific certifications help you better achieve your career goals? One is not inherently more desirable than the other – it all depends on your field, your financial resources, the amount of time you can invest, and your career goals.

Graduate Degrees

Earning a graduate degree is an excellent choice for those who want to become an expert in their field. It often takes two years of study (sometimes full-time but there are some part-time studies) focusing on a chosen area within their field. Having a master’s in a field is a generally considered more broad in scope and may offer greater flexibility than a certificate. There is a higher upfront cost, but graduate degrees have shown to increase lifetime earnings by $457,000 when compared to having only a bachelor’s degree. That’s a substantial amount! Of course, this number varies depending on the job demand in your field and your career goals. Some may see it as a more necessary investment for the business, sciences, and mathematics fields than for some other career areas. The skill demands of your chosen field and the degree of competition for positions will help determine your best course.

Earning a master’s degree is the option I chose. Being free of undergraduate debt (thank you, HOPE scholarship) afforded me the opportunity to devote time to my studies while working only part-time. I had completed a professional internship following college yet was struggling to find work in my field, so I wanted to delve deeper into a concentration. I chose to earn a Masters of Internet Technology degree to augment my BBA in Marketing. This increased my skill-set in a growing, in-demand field while setting me apart from others with a more general marketing background. I now had skills that had a digital influence and, with the ever-increasing demand for marketing in a digital world, these skills are invaluable to cutting-edge marketing firms.

Advanced Certification

Another great option and emerging trend for those who do not have the time or resources for a full advanced degree, is earning an advanced certificate to gain a competitive advantage. These certificates help students advance their skills by focusing in on a particular subject area to enhance their current career or gain new skills for a new career. Those looking to advance their skills through certification have been increasing an average of 19% per year between 2005 and 2011. Since these certificates are much more focused, the program time is generally shorter than graduate school, often consisting of three to seven courses. This shorter commitment allows the student to become employable much more quickly. This is great if you want to learn quickly about a subject in high demand (cyber-security, anyone?) Many certificates can be completed working on weekends, thus giving students greater flexibility so they do not have to quit their full-time jobs. It is generally a less expensive option than seeking a Master’s degree. Although financial aid may be harder to obtain for such programs, some businesses encourage and may even help fund certification for their current employees wishing to enhance their job-related skills. A possible downside of a graduate certificate is that it may not be recognized in certain professions. In the business world, most executive level employees would prefer to hire someone with a Master’s degree in a business related field over a certificate holder. Students desiring to earn a graduate certificate may see a greater return on their investment if the certification is in a subject in high demand or in the arts, media, journalism and public relations fields.

Do I have to advance my education?

In some fields, a graduate degree or advanced certification may not be particularly helpful to your career. Some employers may even feel you are overqualified for your position if you have an advanced degree. If you are happy with your current position and do not feel a competitive push from others, you may not have any need to consider continued education. If, on the other hand, you feel you would like to further your career in a field with tight competition, you can decide which option may be best suited for you and your career goals. Some employers offer tuition reimbursement for advancing your knowledge and skills in your current job-related area or beyond. Be sure to research all of your available programs and funding options to help you decide which will best set you apart and help you achieve your long-term career and life goals.

Heather RichardsSpecial Projects Manager

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