Graduate Degrees and Certificates: Which is Right for Me?

Dr. Jeff Keeling
Dr. Jeff Keeling
High school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Leadership
Young woman thinking and standing in front on a chalkboard with light bulbs.

A common misconception among many pre-service teachers is that their formal education will come to an end upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree and accompanying state teacher certification. While this may be true on some level, most teachers in the public education system will need to complete state-required continuing education programs throughout their careers. Additionally, a number of incentives exist for educators that pursue advanced degrees or certifications beyond their bachelor’s degree.

Naturally, program offerings for graduate programs are extremely broad and offered by countless colleges and universities, so it is important for educators considering an advanced degree or certification to develop a solid understanding of what type of program will best assist them in accomplishing their career goals.

Pros and Cons of Graduate Degree Programs

The most traditional course taken by most practicing teachers is the pursuit of a master’s or doctoral degree in an education-related field. Beyond the increased knowledge base that accompanies a graduate degree, these programs are broader in scope and expose candidates to areas that may be outside their present areas of interest and experience, which allows them to develop a deeper understanding of concepts they may not have considered otherwise.

From a purely financial standpoint, many school districts offer significant salary incentives for teachers that hold a master’s or doctoral degree. Beyond this, many districts also offer tuition reimbursement (at least in part) for graduate level courses as they are taken. Most school districts have a pro-rated schedule for tuition reimbursement related to the letter grade teachers earn in their course(s).

The idea that school districts in many cases are willing to pay for a portion of graduate coursework and compensate teachers more for completing a master’s or doctorate is a significant motivating factor, especially for those who are newer to the field and have earnings at the lower end of the salary schedule. Beyond the financial incentives, however, is the fact that earning a graduate degree assists teachers in becoming more effective in the classroom by expanding their content knowledge and pedagogical abilities.

Although it seems as though a master’s or doctoral program is the most logical choice for teachers to pursue, there are some drawbacks. One concern that some teachers have is the amount of time that it takes to complete a master’s program. This is especially true for individuals who have young families at home or those who do not wish to pursue additional education beyond the need to satisfy their continuing education requirements.

Additionally, given the credits required for a master’s degree (usually 30-36 credits), these programs cost more to the student initially even though many school districts offer reimbursement. Some master’s degree programs also require candidates to compose a master’s thesis, which is a significant written document that is undesirable for some individuals. It is important to note, however, that a number of master’s programs, especially the master of education (M.Ed.) do not require a thesis.

Pros and Cons of Graduate Certificate Programs

Graduate certificate programs differ from graduate degree programs in a variety of ways. Graduate certificate programs require fewer credit hours for completion, ranging anywhere from 6 to 18 credits depending upon the nature of the program. Certificate programs offer practicing teachers effective ways to gain useful skills within specialized concentration areas.

Several examples of graduate certificate programs include: instructional technology, online instruction, literacy instruction, and instructional coaching. Thus, graduate certificate programs offer teachers an expedient way to gain expertise within a particular area without the time commitment required by a master’s or doctoral program. Another benefit of graduate certificate programs is that, depending upon the institution at which they are earned, the credits can be applied to a master’s program at a later time.

One of the drawbacks of graduate certificate programs is that they do not provide the opportunity for exploration of other relevant areas of study offered by master’s and doctoral programs. Additionally, the salary incentive for graduate certifications is not as readily available as it is for graduate degree completion. Some school districts may offer a smaller incentive for a bachelor’s degree plus 18 credits; however, this is somewhat rare, so those interested in pursuing a graduate certificate should do so as a result of their interest within a particular area of study and to assist them in fulfilling their continuing education requirements.

Which is Right for Me?

Selecting the type of graduate program that is best for you can be a challenging process. Ultimately, the decision is solely yours, and you should make it based upon your specific interests, needs, and career goals.

For example, if in the short-term you plan to continue within your present role and would like to expand your knowledge within a specific area of instruction, then a graduate certificate program certainly would meet your needs while providing you with the option of applying your accumulated credits to a master’s degree program in the future. If your long-term goal is also to remain in your current role, then both you and your students will benefit from your acquired knowledge for years to come.

If your short-term goal consists of remaining in your current role but you desire greater financial compensation, then a master’s degree program is the most expedient option to consider. Additionally, if you have long-term aspirations of becoming a school administrator or potentially teaching at the collegiate level, a master’s or doctoral degree is without question the option you should pursue.

Further, you should gather information surrounding your school district’s offerings for tuition reimbursement and ensure that you take advantage of the resources available. Higher education can be expensive, so determining the most financially sensible approach to advancing your education is an important step in the decision-making process.

An important fact to remember is that there truly is no wrong decision to be made. If you find yourself at a point in life at which a graduate degree program requires more time than you have, or desire, to commit to continuing education, you always can accumulate credits through a graduate certificate program and then apply them to a graduate program at a later time in which your life circumstances are more conducive to such a pursuit. Either way, teachers should increase their knowledge bases through graduate studies for the combined benefit of themselves and their students.

Explore our graduate degree and certificate programs and begin your journey today!

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