Choose your own academic adventure
Three continuing education students sat together in a classroom at the University of Massachusetts Boston amid laptop computers, open binders, printouts, water bottles, and take-out food containers. While they shared a table and a class, they were working toward different goals.
Pat Murray, 51, out of the workforce for a few years and looking to get back in quickly, hopes to earn a certificate in about a year and launch a new career as an instructional designer, developing education and training programs. Melissa McEvoy, 27, and Andrew Carr, 41, already working in the field, are pursuing master’s degrees that will take at least three years, but expand their skills and career prospects.
As colleges and universities have added a range of programs in recent years, adult learners like these three classmates have more choices than ever as they seek to change or advance careers. But they also face a quandary: certificate or degree?
Making that decision, educators and career specialists say, depends on a variety of factors, including the field of study; your age and experience; the time you have available; and your educational level.
Murray, for example, chose a certificate program because she wanted an incremental “steppingstone into the field,’’ before she makes a bigger commitment. McEvoy, by contrast, already works as an instructional designer at Liberty Mutual in Boston. She’s pursuing a master’s degree to get “a more solid base.’’
Certificates, which require fewer courses and less time to attain than a degree, tend to work well for people who are just starting to explore a field, or who are already experienced and looking to add specific skills that will keep them competitive. In general, certificate programs tend to focus on a narrower topic area, such as technical skills.
“If you’re new to an industry, get a degree,’’ said Sally Jablon Silver, chief executive at Sally Silver Cos., a technology recruitment firm. “But if you want to add specific knowledge to your resume, a certificate can be important.’’
The earliest certificate programs were technically oriented, often offered by companies as a way to certify a level of competence with new software. Microsoft , IBM , Oracle , and Cisco all offered a variety of certificate programs during the 1990s. Within a few years, the concept spread to academic institutions, which introduced a variety of short, focused programs.
In addition to UMass Boston, more than a dozen Boston-area colleges and universities offer certificate programs, including Boston University, Northeastern University, Fisher College, Bunker Hill Community College, and Suffolk University. Programs range from computer forensics (Bunker Hill) to medical assistant (Fisher) to tourism development (BU).
Programs that prepare students for certification tests in fields such as financial planning and commercial real estate do not usually offer academic credit. But many of the courses that students take to earn certificates can also be applied toward degrees, if students decide to extend their studies.
In some cases, certificates are a way to get a jump on emerging fields and technologies that are still too new to warrant separate degree programs. Boston University, for example, offers certificate programs in Applied Sustainability, a cross-disciplinary survey of environmental issues, and Health Informatics, which covers the fundamentals of medical data technologies.
For mid-career professionals, these certificate programs can add new luster to aging resumes.
“If you got your computer science degree 10 years ago, it doesn’t show that you’re proficient in the current scene,’’ said Philip DiSalvio, dean of UMass Boston’s University College, which focuses on adult, nontraditional students. “But a certificate does. A degree is the base, a certificate is a way to enhance and renew your knowledge.’’
Still, in many cases there’s no substitute for a degree, said educators and career counselors. Since certificate programs are still relatively new, employers may not know what value to place on them.
“Academic degrees have been around for hundreds of years, certificates for about 15,’’ said Jay Halfond, dean of Boston University’s Metropolitan College, which offers a variety of certificate and degree programs geared toward adults and part-time students. “It’s really not surprising that a strict definition of ‘certificate’ hasn’t yet emerged.’’
Degrees, which give students familiar tags like “MA’’ and “MEd,’’ are better understood. They promise students a thorough grounding in a field, rather than a narrow specific skill. Employers looking for candidates who can develop into managers and executives, for example, are generally looking for degreed candidates.
Given the choice between an applicant with a degree and one with a certificate, most employers would probably lean toward the degree, career specialists said, because it indicates a more serious commitment and a broader understanding of the field.
“A degree is non-negotiable for many jobs,’’ said Tracy Cashman, general manager of the information technology division of Winter, Wyman Cos., a Waltham staffing firm. “Many companies use a degree as a way to weed out the pack. I often caution job hunters that a certificate is not going to get you a job.’’
BU’s Halfond said degrees are more durable than certificates, which can quickly become obsolete as fields advance. “A degree teaches you to think in that field,’’ he said. But whether degree or certificate, he added, updating and advancing skills is more important than ever.
“You’re never done learning in an environment like this, when things are changing so fast,’’ Halfond said. “You can never be over-educated in this job market.’’
D.C. Denison can be reached at email@example.com.