Graduate Certificate vs. Master’s Degree: What’s the Difference?

The path toward career advancement or even a career change often starts with education. But what postgraduate credential is right for you—a master’s degree or a graduate certificate?

While both credentials are valuable and share some similarities, a graduate certificate and a master’s degree aren’t interchangeable. Before enrolling in a program, you should be sure you’re making the right choice for you.

Key Takeaways

    • A master’s degree offers in-depth education, requiring 1 to 3 years of commitment with 30 to 45 credit hours.
    • A graduate certificate provides specialized skills in a shorter time frame—typically within a year—requiring 9 to 15 total credit hours.

What Is a Master’s Degree?

A master’s degree is an academic degree that’s earned after completing a bachelor’s degree program. The credential is awarded by an accredited university and indicates that a person has mastered a thorough set of knowledge in a specific area. Master’s degrees are offered in a wide range of disciplines—including business, engineering, nursing, and more—and generally require 30 to 45 credit hours of coursework.

What Is a Graduate Certificate?

A graduate certificate is a credit-based academic credential that’s also earned after completing a bachelor’s degree program. The certification is awarded by an accredited university and indicates that a person has acquired the foundational knowledge and skills in a specific area. Graduate level certificates typically require 9 to 15 total credit hours.

Graduate Certificate vs. Master’s Degree

In short, a master’s degree offers a comprehensive and in-depth education in a specific area, requiring a longer time commitment and covering a broader range of topics. On the other hand, a graduate certificate offers specialized skills and knowledge in a shorter time frame and focuses on a specific area of expertise within a larger field.

Both a graduate certificate and master’s degree are postgraduate education options that can strengthen your resume and advance your career. Yet, there are a few key differences in scope, duration, intended outcomes, and more. The differences include:

Scope and Depth of Study

As mentioned, graduate certificates are narrower in scope compared to a master’s degree and aim to quickly enhance expertise in a specific field. Meanwhile, a master’s degree provides more in-depth knowledge, advanced skills, and a well-rounded understanding of the subject matter.


Master’s degree programs take, on average, one to three years to complete, depending on your field of study and course load per semester. Graduate certificates are much shorter in duration, with most able to be completed within a year. For perspective, UC Online’s Master of Science in Marketing degree requires 32 total credit hours whereas the Digital Marketing Graduate Certificate requires 12 total credit hours.

Admission Requirements

Both programs require a bachelor’s degree, but a graduate certificate program’s admissions are normally less stringent. For example, a master’s program might also require standardized test scores, essays, letters of recommendation, and other criteria while a graduate certificate won’t. Plus, the admission process for a master’s degree can be more competitive than a certificate.

Stepping Stone to a Master’s Degree

An important thing to keep in mind is that graduate certificates and master’s degrees don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can get both a grad certificate and then a master’s degree or vice versa. Let’s say you’re in the online MBA program and you also want to get a Marketing Graduate Certificate, that’s more than acceptable.

Often, some students even use a certificate as a stepping stone to a master’s degree. Because certificates are more narrow and focused, individuals can find themselves wanting to learn more about the entire field. As an example, some students will start with the Cosmetic Science Certificate and then move into the Master of Science in Cosmetic Science program. It’s not rare for lifelong learners to discover how much they enjoy a program and want to stay involved within it.

Career Goals and Opportunities

Because they’re suited for individuals looking to gain a deeper understanding of a subject, master’s degrees help graduates access a broader range of career opportunities and higher-level positions. This is especially true in industries that require a more complete understanding of the subject.

Meanwhile, a graduate certificate won’t function too well as a standalone credential to attain a role in an entirely new field. Instead, a certificate is a way to fine-tune your skills and knowledge as you evolve in the field you’re currently in. A crucial exception here is with education certificates, since they’re often used for continuous education.

Cost and Investment

Graduate certificates cost far less than a master’s degree because they require less time. Both options help distinguish yourself, but a master’s can give you an edge with its bigger commitment and reputation. Additionally, master’s students may be eligible for federal financial aid whereas that isn’t the case for most graduate certificate students.

How to Choose Between a Master’s Degree and Graduate Certificate

When it comes to your education and deciding between a master’s degree or graduate certificate, there isn’t a right or wrong choice. This is particularly true when you enroll in a reputable, recognizable, and fully-accredited university, such as the University of Cincinnati.

Both credentials identify you as a lifelong learner and demonstrate your enhanced knowledge—and skills—in your field. These are highly-praised characteristics that employers cherish and reward.

So as for your education journey, the choice depends on what skills you want to gain, the goals you have for your career, and the commitment you can make for your postgraduate program.

Benefits of a Graduate Certificate

Choosing a graduate certificate is often ideal for individuals that want to fill a skills gap or enhance their understanding of a work-related topic. You can attain a graduate certificate in a short time period so it’s beneficial for individuals seeking a faster way to advance in their field. A certificate is also less of a commitment than a full master’s and a great way to try something without devoting yourself to the entire degree. Additionally, a large benefit of graduate certificates is how cost-effective they are.

Benefits of a Master’s Degree

Master’s degrees equip you with a wide range of understanding for your preferred field. This intensive schooling gives you skills and knowledge that can be transferable across multiple career paths instead of specializing in one narrow path. Even though it can be a larger time and financial investment, a master’s degree offers invaluable long-term benefits.

Online Learning: A Way to Accelerate Your Career without Missing a Beat

The chances are you’re a working professional who doesn’t have time for traditional, in-person schooling anymore. But don’t worry, because you no longer have to sacrifice your professional or personal life to be a student. You can easily advance your career with online classes.

UC Online makes it easier than ever to earn your master’s degree or graduate certificate (or both) while working full-time, being a parent, or managing whatever else you have going on. You can have all the benefits of a fully-accredited, premier institution that’s completely online.

Take the First Step Toward a Better Career Today

A postgraduate education that fuels your career doesn’t have to be a daydream. UC Online is here to make it a reality.

Browse online master’s programs offered or online graduate certificates and discover all the possibilities. Or if you have specific questions you’d like to ask, your own Enrollment Services Advisor is just a click away. Email or fill out a contact form today.

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