The Value of a Certificate

Should you invest in a certificate or a master’s degree?

Can’t decide between earning a professional certificate or a master’s degree? Both options can fulfill career and hiring requirements, broaden your intellectual horizons and even lead to salary increases.

But if you’re looking to advance your career quickly and at a lower price point, a professional certificate is the way to go. Do you need to get up to speed in new or quickly evolving industries, such as UX, digital marketing or business analysis? Are you re-entering the workforce and need to get current with what’s happening in your field? A certificate just might be your solution.

And that’s what a lot of adult learners are heading toward: In the U.S., more than 1 million certificates are awarded each year. Compare that to the 754,500 master’s degrees awarded by post-secondary institutions in 2018–19, with the most popular fields being business (197,100), education (146,400), and health professions and related programs (131,600), according to the National Center of Education Statistics.

There’s obviously quite a draw toward certificates. Why, you ask?

Photo of Frederick Wehrle

Frederick T. Wehrle, our Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, responds: “A former student put it this way: ‘At Extension, you don’t learn to know, you learn to understand.’ This quote exemplifies the core value of certificate programs for learners, compared to master’s programs. Indeed, we offer primarily certificate programs designed for professionals of all ages who have completed a bachelor’s degree and who want to acquire operational competences to either apply for grad school or to advance or change their career. Consequently, courses and programs are designed to combine theory with practice, and are taught by leading industry professionals, as well as academics. Their curriculum and class structure provide professional learning experiences that empower students to excel while handling their work and family life. For example, most courses are project based where each class session engages learners in meaningful discussions on the application of the theory and provides operational knowledge to take back into the job.

“In contrast,” he continues, “master’s programs at research universities such as UC Berkeley are mostly designed for students who wish to pursue a career in research or job categories that require deep understanding of research and scientific methods. They are attractive for recent graduates and young professionals who can take up to two years to complete their studies. They also often feature a more traditional university-like education, marked by a focus on theory and concepts with more generic perspectives on application.”

So when should a student look toward a master’s program?

“If a learner is looking to start a new career, change careers or develop an advanced expertise in their job, they will want to consider certificates delivered by renowned institutions,” Frederick responds. “If a learner is looking to enter a specific profession that requires a master’s degree, then they should focus on getting admitted to a well-recognized master’s program. However, despite these differences, there are a growing number of graduate schools offering more applied curricula that accept academic credits from UC Berkeley Extension.”



At Extension, you don’t learn to know, you learn to understand.

—Frederick T. Wehrle


Top Five Reasons to Pursue a Certificate

1. You can continue to work while attending classes on evenings and weekends, or an asynchronous online.

2. You’ll spend less money working toward a certificate than a master’s degree, especially with an employer-reimbursement program.

3. You’ll get the training in practical hands-on skills—not just theoretical knowledge. You’ll learn the latest in tools, skills and information that reflect the realities of the job market as closely as possible.

4. You don’t have to wait for a traditional application date! You can jump into a certificate when you’re ready.

5. You can finish the majority of certificates in a year—get in, get out, get on with your career!


At its core, a certificate is grounded in a job-first mentality. “Graduate education is generally focused on training students to obtain a level of higher analytical thinking and research competency, whereas certificates from corporations and more applied institutions are built with industry and job insertion in mind first—their objective is really to get you job ready,” Frederick confirms. “It has been our goal to combine the strengths of the academic institution with the practical, adaptive nature of industry-specific training. This combination of academic, higher-level analytical thinking and timely, tactical training is more powerful than either in isolation.”

What’s a Certificate Exactly?

Usually, it’s a series of courses taught by instructors who have real-world industry experience and tailor their curriculum toward working professionals’ needs with career advancement in mind. These instructors are cutting-edge researchers or advanced professionals in their fields who also instructor and mentor.

Like any division of UC Berkeley, our certificates and their respective courses follow our world-class academic standards so that you are sure to receive the high-quality education you’d expect from Berkeley.

Certificates can also refresh or build upon the skills you already obtained with a master’s degree. Or get back into the swing of learning by completing a certificate before you look at graduate-level education.

In some fields, a certificate can help you obtain a license to practice, satisfy a state or national education requirement, or become eligible for higher pay scales. For instance, going on to obtain an accounting certificate can boost your pay by 10 percent, according to Robert Half.

Certificates also train you how to think, analyze, decide, make choices and do the research necessary “to stay on top of what is happening in their field,” Frederick affirms. “In such a scenario, our students are far less likely to come back for more schooling because, ideally, they will have learned how to stay abreast of the latest developments in the field and continue in their own on-the-job training, learning as they go. The easiest way to understand the differentiation between an industry certificate and a certificate from an institution like UC Berkeley is that one prepares you for a job, the other prepares you for a career.”



I had to get something on my résumé that showed that I was qualified, and the certificate was the only option that would move as quickly as this industry does.

—Jason Miller



How Long Will It Take?

Earning one of our certificates typically takes one to two years, but some programs can be as short as a few months. The programs are designed for working professionals, so you take courses in the evenings, on the weekends, online, or partly in-class and partly online. This flexible schedule allows you to take a couple courses at a time or one course at a time—it’s up to you and your availability! Many certificates can be completed entirely online, so you don’t have to worry about getting stuck in traffic on your way to class.

In contrast, a master’s degree typically takes two years or more and may not be compatible with full-time employment. The application process can be time-consuming and requires advance planning: GRE or other test scores are required in addition to college transcripts, and application materials are generally accepted only once per year, often as long as one year before the program begins. Admission is competitive, so you may be waitlisted or rejected.

For senior assistant director of admissions for Brown University and students affairs certificate graduate Katrina Souder, working full time meant that she didn’t have time to commit to a master’s program, but our program allowed her the flexibility to earn a respected certificate. “This allowed me to demonstrate to my supervisor my long-term investment in the profession,” Katrina shares.

Marketing certificate graduate Jason Miller left a master’s degree program to pursue our certificate, saying, “I went back to school to get my master’s degree, but it was taking too long. I was learning a bunch of stuff that wasn’t relevant. I had to get something on my résumé that showed that I was qualified, and the certificate was the only option that would move as quickly as this industry does.” Thanks to the certificate, Miller added Marketing Director at CreativeX to his résumé.

How Much Does It Cost?

Certificates are usually more affordable than master’s degrees, typically ranging between $5,000 and $12,000. A master’s degree is often much more expensive, costing between $30,000 and $120,000.

You also don’t pay that amount up front; you pay for each course separately. Each course averages around $1,000. But that can add up, and $5,000 is still a considerable investment. While we don’t offer financial aid, here are a couple of options if you need assistance:

1. Check with your company, as many of them offer employer-reimbursement plans. Staffing firm Robert Half interviewed CFOs about covering the cost of continuing education for staff, and 72 percent said their company covers some or all of the cost for staff to pursue certificates; 76 percent said their organization helps in maintaining credentials once earned.

2. Research private loan providers.


Can I Keep Working?

The flexibility to continue working differentiates certificates from many master’s degrees. The typical on-campus master’s degree takes a student out of the workforce for two years, which means not only two years of lost salary, but also work experience and retirement contributions. Certificates are also convenient if you’re changing careers, where your ideal is to continue working while you train for that new profession.

Career-changer Molly Isenbarger confirms: "I wanted to balance getting enough focused education to be useful in my role without giving up my job to do a full-time student workload. I also had my first son at the time, so real life dictated the best choice for me. The length and requirements of the certificate was a great fit where I knew I would get so much learning from it, but didn’t need to commit to a full graduate degree. Especially in the accounting world, the CPA is the ultimate credential."



The completion of the courses have been recognized by my company and are appreciated as I have assisted in creation of a change-management process and risk and bug trackers.

—Heather Sheehan



What Will My Employer Think?

Completing a certificate shows your dedication not only to your subject area, but also to learning. You’re investing in yourself and that speaks volumes to any employer.

Business Analysis graduate Heather Sheehan had been working in an analyst role for a few years before coming to our certificate, wanting to gain additional real-world knowledge while broadening her education in a formal setting. “I had spoken to my boss at the time about how I really wanted to get certified and obtain a certificate in business analysis,” says Heather. “I wanted to bring insight and knowledge to the team. The completion of the courses have been recognized by my company and are appreciated as I have assisted in creation of a change-management process and risk and bug trackers.”

Clinical Research Conduct and Management graduate Jennifer Brandl credits having a certificate in helping her land her first official clinical operations job. “Not only was the certificate recognized by my employer,” she says, “but the course work provided the training I needed to really understand conducting clinical trials, including the different roles and responsibilities.” And her boss’ thoughts on the certificate? “Her completion of the certificate demonstrated that Jennifer had put in the work and made the effort to know and understand all the facets of clinical operations,” supervisor Scott Houston responds. “That knowledge and effort really made a difference when considering her for her first job within clinical operations. She was able to clearly demonstrate her knowledge when she interviewed, and she has been successful and productive for our company from Day 1.”



What Is My Next Step?

“My recommendation is to really look at what you want to achieve,” Frederick advises. “The main objective when you study for a certificate is not really the credential. You are studying for the knowledge and competences you can get out of the program. That is why a large number of our students take the certificate courses gradually, course by course, as their schedule permits, because they do not necessarily want the credential right away. They want the knowledge that comes from the classes. That is the key to success. And people should not be misled into thinking that if they just take the quickest certificate and have that as a credential that that will make a big difference with an employer.

“Thoroughly research your options and understand that the programs you first see in an initial search on Google or in your first perusal of what is most prominently marketed out there are not the only options, nor necessarily the best options for your needs. There is a misconception that a short certificate or even a bootcamp is enough to become a full-fledged engineer or UX designer or other professional expert, when it is really only enough to provide an introduction to the field. Those kinds of short and quick-fix programs give students a foot in the door, but to maintain competence and relevance in one’s field takes much more than that. In contrast, eight to 16 academic credits—something that would take about a year or two to complete when studying part time—is much more likely to get you to a level, both in terms of critical thinking and immediately implementable operational knowledge, where you can function and adapt well. “

Photo of piece of paper reading what's next underneath a laptop

Are you ready to invest in yourself with a certificate? Peruse our offerings in:

Art and Design
Behavioral Health Sciences
Construction and Sustainability
Sciences, Mathematics and Biotechnology
Technology and Information Management
Writing, Editing and Technical Communication