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Someone carries a pile of books wrapped in a ribbon.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten is from a friend of mine who, at the time, had just finished her master’s in library science and was preparing to move almost 300 miles away to start a PhD program. I was also at a pivot point in my life: I was switching jobs that summer and starting to think about going back to school. I remember saying, “I just don’t think it’s the right time to start graduate school so soon after starting a new job.”

Her response? “There’s never a ‘right’ time to go to graduate school. You just go when you want to go, and somehow, you make it work.”

Pro Tip: “There’s never a ‘right’ time to do X” has generally been great life advice.

Sure enough, I made it work. I started graduate school a year later and earned my master’s in public administration, part time while working at that new full-time job.

If you’re thinking about going back to school, you should know this: In addition to there being no “right” time to continue your education, there’s also no “right” way to do it.

Rather, out of all the options, there's a right way for you, based on your career goals, priorities, and the time commitment you can make. This two-part post covers some of the different ways to go to graduate school, as well as factors to consider when deciding which way is right for you. This first post focuses on choosing a degree program.

Certificate vs. master’s degree vs. PhD

Depending on what you want to do with your advanced degree, this decision may already be made for you. For example, if you want to be a doctor, you have to get a doctorate in medicine (MD); if you want to be a lawyer, you have to get a doctorate in law (JD); and generally, if you want to be a full-time professor, you have to earn a PhD in your field of study.

But assuming you’re not in one of those fields, the two options available to you are a certificate or a master’s degree. The main differences between a certificate and a master’s degree are:

  • Time it takes to complete the degree: A certificate program typically requires three to seven courses, which means it can be completed in one year or less.In contrast, a master’s degree could require anywhere from 12 to 18 courses, which takes about two years if you go full time and three or more if you take courses at a slower rate.
  • Price: Because a certificate requires fewer courses, it usually costs less than a master’s degree. But on the flip side, certificate programs typically have fewer opportunities for financial aid, which could affect the ultimate affordability of the program.
  • Specialization: An advanced degree is, by its nature, already specialized. But certificate programs tend to be even more specialized. For example, George Washington University offers a graduate certificate in LGBT Health Policy & Practice, which is more specialized than its other master’s programs in health, gender studies, and public policy. If you know there’s a specific skill or knowledge area you want to focus on and it has its own a certificate program, then that may be all you need.

These options aren’t mutually exclusive, though. You could earn a certificate while trying to decide if you want to get a full master’s degree, as long as the school offers certificate programs to non-degree-seeking students. Or you could get your master’s degree first and then earn a certificate to further specialize in your field or shift into a different area.

Subject matter degree vs. professional degree

Ask yourself: “Do I want to focus more on the ‘what’ or the ‘how’?”

A subject matter degree will teach you the “what.” You’ll learn all there is to know about history, philosophy, environmental science, English literature, or your subject of choice. These degrees are sometimes referred to as research or academic degrees.

A professional degree will teach you the “how”—for example, how to lead in the public sector (master’s in public administration); how to teach (master’s in education); or how to manage government finances (master's in governmental accounting). These degrees are sometimes referred to as applied master’s degrees.

This distinction isn’t black and white. Some degrees, such as a master’s in public health, combine academic and professional aspects. And if your program is more academic, you can usually take more professionally-oriented electives and vice versa.

So, how do you decide? A lot of it has to do with your career goals. Visit and explore job postings for the kind of job you want and see if they require or prefer a specific type of degree.

Pro Tip: Attend one of our Idealist Grad School Fairs and figure out which program is right for you!

But wait—there’s more! Stay tuned for next week’s post on deciding whether to go to graduate school full time or part time and choosing whether to end your graduate program with a research thesis or capstone project.

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Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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