Career Insight

The Difference Between Grad School & Certificate Programs

grad school & certification programs

By Samuel Cook

Sometimes the best motivation can result from big life changes or finding the right opportunity at just the right time. The recent upheaval many of us have experienced has changed our daily routines, our work, and really our lives. It may seem like a strange time to think about anything besides getting from one day to the next, but what if now is actually a great opportunity to make a shift – specifically a career shift?

Maybe that sounds good to you, but you’re also wondering about the next steps. We believe the answer is education – either graduate school or certificate programs.

Before you close out of this post, please take note: not all post-secondary educational opportunities are the same.

Graduate programs and certificate programs are among the most common routes for career changers, but there are notable differences between how these programs function. Those differences may be critical in how you decide to proceed with your educational path prior to a career change.

Certificate programs are shorter

How much free time do you have available to invest in your education? Most Americans lack the proper finances to stay out of work long term. Subsisting on unemployment benefits is an option, but most states only offer 26 weeks of these benefits, and typically at half the amount you were earning.

That makes the amount of time you have a critical factor to consider, as certificate and graduate degree programs vary notably in the amount of time it takes to finish them.

Certificate programs often take just 1 year or less to complete.

Graduate programs can take 2 years or more to complete.

There are some caveats here. Take Software Engineering, for example. If you’re hoping to hop into the coding game, there are certificate programs and graduate degree programs available that can ultimately lead to the same career path.

You’ll need to plan on spending 2 years taking classes full time, or up to 3 or 4 years part-time if you opt for a graduate degree. By comparison, certificate programs teaching Front End and Back End Development could be completed in 12 months if you’re enrolled in the right program.

There are differences in the amount of coursework

Both certificate and graduate degree programs require you to complete coursework before you can graduate (yep, just like every other school). The amount of coursework required between the 2 types of programs is the primary reason they take different amounts of time to complete.

Graduate degree programs often require 10-12 courses, each of which is usually worth 3 credits. A graduate degree program also commonly includes classes that complement the subject of your degree.

Because of the rigorous nature of the coursework, taking 3 classes per semester is usually considered being “full time” in a graduate degree program. With 10-12 classes for completion, you end up with a program that takes two years complete.

On the other hand, certificate programs require 3 to 6 credits to complete. Taking the same “full-time” metric used for graduate degree programs, that equates to 6 to 12 months of coursework to receive the certificate.

There are also differences in the type of coursework

The reason graduate degrees take twice as long as certificate programs lies in the type of coursework each program offers. Certificate programs are often considered vocational. The coursework is laser-focused on developing work-specific skills that can be utilized immediately.

Graduate degree programs, however, are considered professional degrees. The coursework is decidedly more conceptual and theoretical, offering a broad understanding alongside practical applications. Graduate programs offer elective classes that may not translate directly to job skills you’ll use every day, but they will provide a well-rounded educational experience and allow you to explore a somewhat wider variety of topics.

A BurningGlass study found that employers with a high need for specific technical skills can more easily streamline their hiring process by focusing on certificate holders instead of requiring applicants with degrees. As the study’s authors explain, “Certificates can provide a more precise screening tool to identify qualified talent.”

Graduate degree programs are more expensive

The calculation is fairly simple here. Because graduate degrees require more credits, they ultimately cost more money. For example, if you want to learn Software Engineering, expect to pay $34,000 to $100,000 or more for a graduate degree from a reputable and accredited school.

Conversely, reputable certificate programs typically cost $10,000+ less than a graduate degree program. They can sometimes also become an investment in future learning. Most certificate program credits can be used as credits toward a future undergraduate or graduate degree, helping to shave off time and expense on those degrees if you decide to push further into the career.

Should you consider a certificate or degree program?

Decision time. Should you do a graduate degree or a certificate? The answer very much depends on what you’re hoping to gain.

Certificate programs are shorter, less expensive, and offer a straight shot toward employment in high-needs, skills-based jobs with great pay. Graduate degrees take longer to complete, are more expensive, but may have job potential which leads to higher earning work in the longer term. Additionally, some employers may require that you have a Masters’s degree as a prerequisite to hiring.

Choosing one over the other won’t be easy, but it’s an important decision to make if your time, job security, or future plans are worrying you right now.

To be honest, if you have limited resources and you’re hoping for a faster career change and upgrade to your income, certificate programs make more sense, especially in high-demand fields, and you can always find a program which will let you transfer credits towards a full degree if you are striving for one.

Kenzie Academy offers 12-month certificate programs in the high-demand S
oftware Engineering and UX Engineering fields. Our programs are offered online and our curriculum is aimed to guide you to a career in tech starting out with an (on average) salary of $65k.

Best of luck with your decision making, and please let us know if you’d like to chat about how Kenzie can help you reach your career goals.


Ready to jumpstart your career as a UX Designer or Coder? Learn more about our 12-month Software Engineering and UX design programs, or check out our free beginner’s coding program Kenzie Free.

Ready to Discuss Your Future In Tech?

Click the button below to apply today!

Apply Now

Related Reading