By Kelsey Sheehy for U.S. News
March 18, 2015
A graduate degree is a great way for students to add to their skills and advance in, or even change, their career – but it’s not the only way.
Professional certifications and short-term certificate programs, like those offered at community colleges, allow students to add specific skills and specializations to their resume for a fraction of the time and tuition required for grad school.
“Certifications, as you progress in your career, are all about making you more employable,” says Tom Darling, national director of workforce education at Pearson, an education services company.
This is especially true in fields such as information technology, which is increasingly certification-driven, he says.
“There are literally hundreds of certifications you can get, whether it is networking, security, maintenance, programming,” says Darling. “Employers want someone with those skill sets.”
Aviation and electronics are two other fields where adding a certificate can give employees a boost, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.
There’s a premium on certificates in these fields because employers tend to first look for work experience in job seekers.
“The further you get from graduation from college, more and more the college degree is a check box,” he says. “‘Do you have a degree? Yes.’ The box is checked. They’re going to increasingly look at your experience.”
Certificates and industry certifications also show employers that a candidate is continuously improving their skills, says Maureen Crawford Hentz, director of talent management for A.W. Chesterton Co., a global manufacturing corporation headquartered in Massachusetts.
“I love to see achievement of certificates and industry certifications,” Hentz says. “As a recruiter, these are things I know to look for.”
Graduate degrees are still “very valuable,” she stresses, noting that they show a candidate has in-depth knowledge in a particular area.
While doctors and lawyers have a clear path that requires graduate school, the path for others is less clear – and can get even muddier when students want to switch careers entirely.
“If students with a degree in political science or chemical engineering decide that they want to move to a career in business and become a financial analyst, they’ll be better served by going to graduate school and doing an MBA,” says Elaine Vincent, an admissions coach at My College Planning Team, which counsels students on finding a college and funding their education. Vincent previously served as a college and graduate student adviser and admissions and enrollment professional at several colleges and universities.
“Take those same political science or chemical engineering graduates and imagine that they would like to move to careers in renewable energy or as game designers. A 12-month certificate would be the best choice,” Vincent says.
When the path isn’t so clear, prospective students should start with their end goal in mind, says Eric Flottmann, chief operating officer of Higher Ed Growth, a marketing agency that helps community colleges and universities recruit students.
“In my mind, the most important question is ‘What career do you want to end up in?’” he says. “Then figure out the best tactical way to achieve that.”
Don’t try to figure it out on your own, though, says Darling, from Pearson. Instead, network with people who have the job you aspire to hold in the next five to 10 years, he says.
Even better: talk to someone who hires for the job your hope to have.
“Those who hire in that field will be able to give you good guidance of what is preferred and what actually gets someone hired,” he says.
Prospective students considering a certificate program should also research whether that program meets the requirements of their employer, says Eric Allen, president of Admit.me, an online community for college applicants, and founder of the admissions counseling firm Admit Advantage.
Allen also advises students to look at total return on investment, rather than just cost.
“Cost is only one side of the equation, so the candidate needs to determine what the potential return is on the time and money invested,” he says, adding that this will help them determine whether a certificate program or graduate degree is the best move.
If students choose the certificate route, there’s nothing stopping them from pursuing a graduate degree down the road, or vice versa, says Hentz, with A.W. Chesterton Co.
“I’ll take a great MSME-PE all day long,” she says, referring to a candidate with a master’s in mechanical engineering and a professional engineer industry certification.
“From an employer’s perspective – this one at least – graduate degrees and certificates are apples and oranges. But what I really love to see is a nice fruit salad.”
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