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Graduate Certificate Programs Offer Quick Path to Career Upgrade
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These credentials allow working professionals to develop specific skills or switch careers.

By Christopher J. Gearon

Mandi Martini of Cincinnati considered getting her MBA.

Instead, the medical devices sales rep for Ethicon, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, enrolled last fall in a 12-credit graduate certificate program in business foundations at the University of Cincinnati's Carl H. Lindner College of Business.

Even though she earned a bachelor's in marketing from UC in 2009, "if you don't use it, you lose it," says Martini, 30. She views the extra helpings of accounting, finance and marketing as a key step in her pursuit of "more cross-functional roles" at Johnson & Johnson, including in sales training and marketing.

Martini's path is increasingly well-traveled. In the 2013-14 school year, U.S. graduate schools awarded some 36,000 certificates, nearly 5 percent more than a year earlier, according to the Council of Graduate Schools.

The credentials, long associated with blue-collar jobs, are rapidly becoming popular at the graduate level as a way for professionals who already have secured a bachelor's degree to quickly develop specific skills and advance or switch careers.

Typically, all or some of the credits earned in graduate certificate programs can be applied to a master's degree.

The 65 certificates UC offers today, for example, represent "triple the number the graduate school offered five years ago," says Margaret Hanson, associate university dean of the grad school. They range widely across disciplines: Asian studies, corporate taxation, data science, and film and media studies, for example.

The certificate route can be appealing to adults who want to return to school but are not ready to commit to the time and expense of a master's program.

"There is a certain level of anxiety when you're going back to school," says Martini, who wanted "an easier bridge" but may eventually also decide on an MBA.

Martini's certificate cost her about $10,500, about one-third of the cost of a full-blown MBA at UC. The programs are taught online, in class or as hybrid programs, like the one Martini is finishing this spring.
More than half of East Carolina University's 60 graduate certificates can be completed entirely online, for example.

Whether sought as a freestanding award, a prelude to a full-fledged graduate degree, or in conjunction with a master's or doctoral program, certificates typically involve a package of four to six classes that can be taken over a couple semesters.

An engineer who needs to enhance his or her bona fides in noise control engineering, for example, could get a certificate from Purdue University by taking master's-level courses in engineering acoustics and mechanical vibrations, plus two related electives.

Or consider Beverly Bragg, 43, of Nashville, Indiana, who is working on her doctorate of nursing practice at Purdue and has added a certificate in gerontology.

"I want to be a primary provider seeing patients and have an independent clinic in a rural setting," she says.

About 60 percent of certificates awarded in the 2013-14 academic year were in education, health sciences and business, according to CGS.

For Joseph Biggio Jr., director of maternal-fetal medicine at the University of Alabama—Birmingham's medical school, a certificate in health care quality and safety from the university provided the know-how he felt he needed to respond to the growing emphasis on improving care and measuring outcomes.

The certificate helped him gain his department's position of vice-chair for quality and research. UAB offers 24 certificates in subjects ranging from social media to sustainable engineering to mentoring and leadership.

Indeed, says Jeffrey Engler, associate dean for academic affairs at the graduate school, the programs are "a growth industry."

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Graduate Schools 2017" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.

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