Which is Right for You: Master’s Degree or Certificate?

Posted January 29, 2014 by Marcy Twete in Career Moves

Our educational paths are as individual as our fingerprints, and the way these paths shape our careers can be the same for no two individuals. What any admissions expert, career services professional, or boss for that matter, would tell you is that continuing education is about what’s best…for you! Even the Harvard admissions officer trying to recruit a billionaire tech genius for a Harvard MBA would say she doesn’t want him there if it’s not the right fit for him. Why? Because if you choose a program that doesn’t work for you, you’ll inevitably either fail or leave.

But the questions so many women are asking today is this: I want to get additional education that will help me get ahead in my career, but I’m unsure what the best path might be – should I get a full Master’s Degree? Or is it better to focus on practical applications in my industry or field through certificates and specializations?

I’ve recently been slogging through these questions personally, and think I’ve come up with some answers that work for me. These answers may not work for you, but I’m hoping my journey and the lessons I’ve learned taking it to answer these questions may help you along.


Step 1: Imagine the Possibilities

Making a decision about “graduate school vs. certificate” is impossible. Why? Because those two possibilities aren’t really possibilities, they’re concepts. It’s much easier to make a decision when weighing a specific graduate school program and a specific certificate program, imagining the in-depth strategy it might take to complete either one and the ways it might help you in your career. The first step is to stop thinking about “going back to school,” and start thinking concretely about the kinds of programs, which schools, and why you might consider them.

Step 2: Find Support and Resources

A simple Google search of “should I get an MBA” will load you up with hundreds of options for MBA support programs. The same programs exist for every other graduate school program on the planet. In looking for support and resources, consider the following:

  • Alumni of the program
  • Career services employees at the school you’re considering
  • Students who are currently enrolled
  • Special interest groups who help women get accepted into specific programming
  • Online test taking aids

Step 3: Evaluate Your “End Game”

Before you make a decision about continuing education, you have to start with the end in mind. What do you want to achieve by going back to school? Do you want to have letters behind your name? Will those letters make you more desirable? Perhaps you want to change jobs or industries all together and you feel an advanced degree and internship opportunities with it may make you more marketable in a new industry. Or you could simply want to get better at your job, learn more about your industries, or expand your skill set.

All of these are valid reasons to go back to school, but if your priorities are more skill based than they are launch or job-change based, you may want to consider a less expensive certificate in favor of a long-term and expensive graduate program.

Step 4: Listen to Your Gut

There’s nothing that compares in life to what your head and your heart tell you together. As I was making a decision about whether or not to pursue an MBA at this point in my career, I simply wasn’t motivated throughout the process. I would log onto my computer to start a practice GMAT exam or listen to a webinar, and everything inside me would say, “Ugh.” I would talk to someone about MBA programs, and rather than getting excited, I would become distressed and distraught. These are gut check moments. I wasn’t unmotivated because I was lazy, and I wasn’t unmotivated because I was dumb, which is often what we tell ourselves. I was unmotivated because deep inside I knew that this wasn’t the right time for me.

Conversely, when I started to talk to my husband or friends or my boss about targeted skill building certificate programs, I lit up inside. I was excited and wanted to start NOW! That’s a gut check I coudln’t ignore, and I believe that for me, today, these kinds of programs will make me more effective in my job, even though an advanced degree may still be an option or desire long-term.

Step 5: Try Something Out Before Committing

I’ve heard others say they enrolled in Harvard, Cornell, MIT, and many other top schools in Master’s programs without even going to campus or sitting in on a class. Why? Because the name speaks volumes and if you get in….you just go. WRONG! You have to try something out before you commit to it – especially something as intense as a degree or certificate program. Find out if you can sit in on a class, or a few classes, if you can talk to a professor in the program, and if you can spend some intense time on campus to get a feel for where you’ll be spending so much time. This will make you much more likely to succeed when you enter the program.

If you’re considering a full time Master’s program, consider taking 1-2 classes part time first to get a feel for them. If you’re looking into a certificate program, find out if you can take 1-2 classes before enrolling and committing to the full program. If you’re a great candidate for that institution, they will help you to feel prepared and comfortable in your track.

Step 6: Make a Decision, But Recognize No Educational Decision is “Forever”

I’ve decided that this year (and next) are not the right time for me to be focused on enrolling in MBA school. That decision, though, does not mean I’m never getting an MBA, or that I might never regain interest in that kind of program. So take whatever decision you make about your continuing education very seriously, as it will cost you time and money, both precious commodities. But also know that you absolutely can change your mind, and no decision is necessarily “forever” in its nature.


I hope my experience can guide you as you’re moving through this decision making process as well. And if you’re looking for additional information on graduate school decision making, click on the Career Girl Network search bar in the right corner above and search for “Graduate School.” We bring a wealth of knowledge in this kind of decision making to our readers regularly.

About the Author

Marcy Twete

Marcy Twete is a career fundraiser turned corporate responsibility executive, a career and networking expert and the author of the book "You Know Everybody! A Career Girl’s Guide to Building a Network That Works."