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Continuing your education can help you earn more and advance in your career. If you’ve earned a degree or landed a job you love, it doesn’t preclude you from continuing your education reaping the benefits. In fact, pursuing professional development opportunities throughout your career can have a major impact on your career trajectory in the long run — like earning a salary increase or promotion.

There are many ways to keep up-to-date on your industry or expand your leadership or career skills, like seminars, conferences and graduate certificates. Conferences and seminars are often low-stakes and affordable ways to develop new skills and gain insight from other professionals, but their long-term impact can be minimal.

A graduate certificate program at an accredited college or university, on the other hand, allows you to learn from experts in your field and gain master-level training at a lower cost than graduate school. Even better? Completing a certificate program can improve your own confidence in the work you do and signal to employers that you’re ready for professional growth.

What Is A Graduate Certificate?

A graduate certificate is a short course of study designed to support working professionals who want to advance their skills or knowledge in their area of focus. Certificate programs are a great option if you don’t have the time or funds to commit to graduate school — they can often be completed in a few months to a year, resulting in a lower up-front cost. Graduate certificates are non-degree awards, meaning they offer masters-level courses but do not result in an academic degree.

Keep in mind that many companies and institutions offer certificates that are not equivalent to a graduate certificate. Free certificate or certification programs offered online can be a great way to boost specific skills, but the quality and depth of information you receive won’t be the same as a true graduate certificate that is taught at the master’s level.

Graduate certificates and graduate degree programs have a lot in common. A high-quality certificate program will often be taught by graduate school faculty and share elements of a master’s degree curriculum, which leads many to ask themselves “is a graduate certificate the same as a master’s degree?”

While the two programs are indeed similar, they’re not the same. However, you may find that after completing a graduate certificate program you feel prepared to complete a master’s degree (or maybe even higher!). Keep reading to learn the key differences between a master’s program and a graduate certificate and how a certificate can set you on the path to a graduate degree.

Graduate Certificate vs. Master’s Degree: What’s the difference?

When comparing a graduate certificate program to a master’s degree, the differences between the two programs are most obvious in the amount of time required to complete the program, the overall cost and the award received.

Additionally, depending on your field, a master’s degree might be required for qualification or advancement in your career. For example, if you work in health care, social work or financial management, a certificate can be an excellent addition to your master’s degree but isn’t a substitute. However, a graduate certificate still has a lot of benefits — especially for those who wish to advance their knowledge in fields like leadership, teaching, arts and culture management and restorative justice.

Graduate certificate courses at SOLES are the same as those taken during certain master’s degree programs. For that reason, any credits earned during a certificate program at SOLES can be transferred to a full-fledged master’s degree within five years.

Graduate Certificate

Depending on the industry and subject, most graduate certificate programs can be completed in nine to 12 months or two to four semesters depending on the program.

In most cases, a graduate certificate program is less expensive than a master’s degree. This can be especially helpful for students for whom the cost of graduate study might be a barrier.

Graduate certificates usually focus on one aspect of a field of study, and therefore don’t require expert-level knowledge of a field for successful completion. For this reason, completion of a graduate certificate does not result in an academic degree.




Master's Degree

For full-time students, a master’s degree usually takes four semesters (or two academic years) to complete, though some degree programs may require six semesters (or three academic years) of study.

On average, graduate school tuition costs $30,000 - $40,000. Your field and school will often determine whether or not you qualify for scholarships.

Master’s students are required to take more courses and make the shift from general to expert level knowledge. Upon completion, students in a master’s program are awarded a new academic degree.

Why Get a Graduate Certificate?

If you want to gain up-to-date expertise and hone your knowledge on a specific topic within a larger field, a graduate certificate is an affordable, convenient option. Not only are graduate certificates a good way to boost your skills, they can make you more competitive in the job market and demonstrate your readiness for a promotion. Additionally, it can be a great way to get a feel for a subject or career field you’re interested in before you commit to a graduate degree program.

What Can A Graduate Certificate Do For You? Here's How You'll Benefit From Completing a Certificate Program:

Enhance Your Subject Specific Knowledge & Experience

A certificate program is a great way to gain entirely new skills or deepen your knowledge in an area of interest.

Demonstrate Your Initiative

Employers want to know that you are not only knowledgeable of your field, but that you are willing to do the work necessary to produce the best results. Whether or not you plan to change careers, a graduate certificate demonstrates your desire to keep your skills sharp and signals your readiness for a promotion.

Earn Promotions and Pay Increases

If your goal is to advance in your field, a graduate certificate program is an excellent way to gain new skills without sacrificing full-time work. Specifically, a graduate certificate focused on leadership development can help you be a successful manager or director capable of motivating employees and enhancing organizational effectiveness. . At the end of your certificate program, you’ll be prepared to take on new roles and responsibilities that can lead to a promotion or raise.

Differentiate Yourself From Competitors

In today’s competitive job market, employers favor candidates with advanced education. A graduate certificate demonstrates to employers that you have knowledge above and beyond what can be gained on the job in addition to new, valuable skills. Compared to candidates who lack official training or education, those with a certificate are more likely to meet employer expectations. Obtaining a higher level of education, like a graduate certificate, can also signify your commitment to continue growing in your career and advancing your skill sets. 

Expand Your Professional Network

Much like a master’s degree program, certificate programs connect you with other people in your field that you may not have met otherwise. From other working professionals to faculty and industry experts, these new connections will become part of your professional network and can offer helpful career advice or even help you in your next job search.

How To Identify A Superior Certificate Program

If you’re considering a graduate certificate program as a way to advance your career or work toward a master’s degree, choose carefully! Not all graduate certificate programs are created equally.

Many schools and institutions offer graduate certificate programs, but their value can vary drastically. If a certificate is offered by a school that lacks accreditation or the courses are taught by educators who aren’t experts in the subject, you might end up paying for a graduate certificate that isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Here are four things that make a graduate certificate program credible and worth the investment of your time and money:


The certificate is offered by an accredited college or university meaning it has been evaluated by a group of experts and meets minimum U.S. standards.


The program courses are taught by the college or university’s faculty who are subject matter experts.


Credit hours earned can be applied toward a master’s degree down the line.


The curriculum is developed by experts and the courses will expand your knowledge of yourself and your area of focus.

USD School of Leadership and Education Sciences offers five graduate certificate options that meet all of the criteria to be a worthy investment. Plus, you get a high-quality private graduate education at a fraction of the cost. After completing your graduate certificate program at SOLES, you can easily apply any earned credits toward a degree program in a relevant field.

Graduate Certificates Offered at the School of Leadership & Education Sciences

USD SOLES offers several graduate-level certificate programs to help you reach your personal and professional development goals. Each certificate program is taught by SOLES faculty and designed to improve students’ knowledge of themselves and their area of focus.

Arts and Culture Leadership Certificate

Nonprofit arts organizations need informed and strategic leaders to help them adapt and thrive. Visitor-facing organizations in arts and culture have a unique set of challenges — including the need to attract more diverse audiences and address community issues. 

This leadership certificate program is designed to help nonprofit professionals and board members who serve in, or would like to transition to, the arts and culture sector ensure their organizations are accessible and welcoming to all. 

Courses will take students from the classroom to cultural destinations around the San Diego region. Students will get first-hand observation and experiences, encouraging a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities for 21st century organizations in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion. This program includes three courses and can be completed in nine months.


  • Leadership in the Arts and Culture Sector
  • Arts and Culture Leadership Institutional Tour: Arts, Culture and Community
  • Leading Visitor-Facing Nonprofits

Nonprofit leaders who are not current SOLES students may earn graduate credit while taking this program, or pursue a non-credit option for professional development.

The graduate certificate in arts and culture leadership is a perfect stepping stone to a master’s in nonprofit leadership and management.

Leadership Coaching Certificate

This comprehensive program uses proven approaches to prepare established and aspiring leadership coaches with essential skills to advance their careers. Students in this certificate program become reflective practitioners who bring quality and depth to their work in a wide range of professional settings. The SOLES program is an International Coaching Foundation (ICF) Accredited Coach Training Program (ACTP). 

The certificate in leadership coaching is designed for professionals with established coaching practices, those who are new to the field, human resource professionals and those from related fields. 

Courses in the leadership coaching program prepare students to coach individuals, teams and groups while consistently demonstrating coaching skills aligned with ICF core competencies. Students will learn to recognize and address cultural differences and assist clients to do the same, co-create fieldwork tailored to support and stabilize client development and apply performance/situational coaching practices where relevant. 

This program includes five courses and can be completed in three semesters or approximately twelve months. 


  • Foundations of Leadership Coaching
  • Core Competencies of Leadership Coaching
  • Building Professional Practice in Leadership Coaching
  • Practicum in Leadership Coaching
  • Human Relations for Leaders

Participants who successfully complete all five courses and pass the final live evaluation of coaching will have the training and mentor coaching hours required to apply for an ACC or PCC credential through the ICF via the ACTP path. After completing the program students will also be eligible to apply for a BCC credential and to take the BCC exam through the Center for Credentialing and Education.  

Restorative Justice and Leadership Certificate

Demand for skilled practitioners of restorative justice is growing, but many people lack the background in practice and training to provide high-quality leadership in the field. The restorative justice graduate certificate at USD provides a comprehensive introduction to restorative justice facilitation through online coursework and a skill-building intensive workshop at USD. 

Students in this program will gain the broad knowledge of restorative justice necessary to distinguish good from bad practice. Courses are taught by practitioners with years of experience across a variety of settings and a range of cases. After successfully completing the program, students will understand the philosophy of restorative justice. Certificate holders will be prepared to assess the strategies and effectiveness of restorative justice implementation through critical assessment of grassroots and administrative initiatives. 

Unlike other online graduate certificate programs, this hybrid program allows students to complete courses online and attend a five-day skill building intensive on USD’s campus. 


  • Introduction to Restorative Justice: A Global Social Movement (online)
  • Restorative Justice Facilitation Skill Building Intensive
  • Restorative Justice Practicum (online)

Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) Certificate

This graduate-level certificate program gives students the skills to teach English as a Second Language to a diverse and multicultural community of adults who speak other languages. This accredited TESOL certification program gives students a working knowledge of linguistics, language acquisition and the cultural and social contexts of learning, listening, speaking and writing skills in a new language. 

This program is ideal for all educators who want to teach English to adult international students in the United States or abroad. Students typically include recent graduates, career changers and current and aspiring educators across the spectrum. Additionally, some international students also pursue a graduate certificate in teaching English as a second language as a way to advance their ability to teach English in their home country. 


  • Essentials in Second Language Acquisition Theories
  • Methods of Teaching ESL
  • Teaching English as a Global Language
  • Linguistics for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
  • Practicum: Field Experience in a Foreign/Second language classroom

Certificate in International School Counseling

Get the knowledge, skills and disposition necessary to effectively provide and develop school counseling programs in international schools with this certificate. Through this program, students will gain a working knowledge of career, academic and social-emotional counseling specifically designed for counselors working in international schools.

This program is ideal for candidates who currently work or wish to begin working as school counselors in international schools as well as recent graduates, career changers, aspiring counselors and educators who wish to develop their competencies in the field of school counseling.


  • Cross-cultural Counseling Skills for International School Counselors (online self paced)
  • Crisis and Trauma Prevention and Intervention in International School Counseling (online self paced)
  • International College and Career Readiness (online self paced)
  • Applied Theories and Techniques in International School Counseling (in-person workshop)

Become a Master: The Path from Certificate to Graduate to Degree

At SOLES, we know the power that advancing your education can bring to your career, your community and your personal and professional development. Our in-person and online accredited graduate certificate programs are designed to help you increase your knowledge and take your career to new heights.

Whether you want to explore a new field or you don’t have the time or money to commit to a graduate degree right now, our graduate certificates will set you on the right path for a master’s degree (or higher) in the future with credits that easily transfer to related programs.

Fill out the form below to find out how much you’ll save up front by pursuing a graduate certificate before a Master’s degree, and how close your certificate will bring you to earning that advanced degree when you’re ready.

Graduate Certificate Tuition Infographic

You can download our infographic to see the cost of our certificate programs and the progress each program offers towards a related Master's or Doctoral degree at USD-SOLES.

*All tuition costs are as of Fall 2021

Pursue a Graduate Certificate at USD-SOLES – Connect With Us Today!

Are you ready to take your career and knowledge to the next level? A graduate certificate from USD SOLES is one of the best and most affordable ways to gain advanced education without committing to the cost and time of a master’s degree program.

Our in-person and online graduate certificate programs are worth your investment. You can expect a graduate-level curriculum taught by our expert faculty and credits that easily transfer so you’re prepared to take the next step when you’re ready.

Don’t put your career and education on hold. Schedule a call to learn more about graduate certificate programs at USD SOLES, or simply register for your preferred certificate program below.

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