Certificate, Master's, Doctorate, Other: What's the Difference, Anyway?

Freelance Writer

Jun   2015



Every choice moves us closer to or farther away from something. Where are your choices taking your life?
— Eric Allenbaugh

Stumped by the vast array of graduate school options available? I don’t blame you. Working in higher ed, I constantly find myself with more choices than I know what to do with. It’s a good “problem” to have, don’t get me wrong, but it’s still stressful. Even after I had decided on my area of focus, I spent two years taking individual courses, lacking the will to commit to a specific graduate program. Instead, I hedged my bets, making sure that all classes would count toward my master’s. I eyed certifications in marketing while simultaneously applying to Ph.D. programs in English literature. I was mired in indecision.

So how do you decide which type of program would best fit your situation? It helps to start by getting to know your basic options.


Graduate certificates are ideal for those who want to bolster their résumé and gain experience in a specific area. Often involving as few as three courses, certificates are intended to be career skill supplements and are often flexible in terms of timing.

My best friend juggles a wonderful new PR job with a successful health-food blog. She recently enrolled in a highly rated certificate program in nutrition, which allows her to gain certification in the area she loves without sacrificing large amounts of time and money. Certificates are ideal for the working professional, especially in fields like business, technology, or marketing, where employers are looking for very specific skills on a résumé. With a wide range of programs available, certificates are an efficient way to check off those skill boxes.

Master’s degree

A Master of Arts involves a one-to-two year commitment if attending full time (part-time programs will invariably take longer). In many fields, a master’s is necessary to rise to the top; for example, advancing to upper management in a large company is unlikely without an M.B.A. In many other professional fields, even if not required, an M.A. can act as an enormous résumé booster. It is considered to be more career-focused than the Ph.D., which is more research-focused.

However, earning an M.A. is a significant commitment in money and time, and in certain industries, such as teaching, the higher level of pay associated with an M.A. can actually make it more difficult to get hired in some cases. It’s worth doing some investigating before you take the leap to find out whether an M.A. will truly make you more marketable in your field.

Doctoral degree

Doctoral degrees are ideal for those looking to pursue a career in research or academia. Involving a time commitment of approximately seven years, most Ph.D.s require three years of course work, experiential teaching work, the passing of oral or written exams, and a large-scale dissertation project. Unlike the certificate and master’s programs, it can be difficult to enter a Ph.D. program in a subject without previous direct experience.

Widely known as being financially burdensome and psychologically difficult, doctoral degrees should not be taken on lightly. (Read more on my realizations on who should undertake a PhD and why I am not those people here.) However, for those interested in research or teaching at the college level, there is no better way to delve into a subject of interest, make contacts who live and breathe their research, and contribute to the literature in their field.

Individual courses

Interested in pursuing graduate study for fun or learning a new skill to help with job training? Enrolling in an individual graduate course may be the right path. Many schools offer extension programs that allow students to take courses in the evenings, online, or even during the day as a non-degree student.

Like certificate programs, individual courses offer specialized training you can use to boost your résumé, but they don’t require the same level of time commitment. If you’re especially pressed for time, many universities offer the option to audit for a lesser fee. I’ve been auditing online courses in both economics and cooking and science for some time now; I can’t really justify the effort of enrolling for credit, as the courses aren’t directly related to my career, but they are tangentially related to what I do or my interests. Dropping in on lectures here and there when I have the time allows me to learn about them in a more relaxed capacity.

Remember, graduate school is never an all-or-nothing endeavor; choices and compromises are available. It’s just up to you to find the program that will help move you closer to the career and the life you are aiming for.

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About Jessica McCann

Jessica McCann

Jessica McCann works in research communications at Harvard University as well as a freelance writer and editor. She graduated in 2004 from Northeastern University with a BA in English and a minor in international affairs, and in 2017 with a master’s in English Literature from Harvard University Extension School. Outside of work, Jess is usually doing yoga, running, traveling, or eating ice cream cones on the beach.