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If life was a fairy tale, education would be Jack’s bean stalk. A pathway to successful life where you hopefully you don’t do legally dubious things like breaking into homes, stealing prized pets, and taking off with prized family heirlooms. In this very bloated analogy, the bean stalk is a plant whose stalks veer off in a dozen different directions.

For, Americans, the choice of what type of education program to earn can be a little intimidating and confusing. Should you get another bachelor degree or a graduate degree? Or should you pursue a certificate program? Don’t worry, by the end of this article, you’ll understand the difference and hopefully have a better sense of which path to take.


Degree Programs

Degree programs in-depth often holistic education programs. Due to the liberal arts style of education, degree programs take more credits and often a longer period of time to complete. The curriculum for the courses are often comprised of a combination of degree specific courses, non-degree foundational courses (often comprised of the math and sciences), and electives (extra classes to round out the learning experience).



Certificates are a just a tad more complicated. Certificates fall into two categories: legal industry certifications, proof of expertize certifications and specialization certifications.


Legal Certification

It’s an unfortunate fact that, an education degree doesn’t always lead to professional competence. Legal certification ensures that doctors, nurses, and engineers have the knowledge to complete more complicated and potentially dangerous tasks.

Without professional engineer (P.E.) certification, engineers cannot own their own firm, advertise their services to the public, or bid on government contracts. Each certification sets base education and work experience levels before an individual can attempt to pass the certification test. P.E. certification, for example, requires at least a bachelor’s degree and four years of work experience.


Proof of Expertise Certificates

Many fields like computer and data science don’t have legal certification requirements, but they might have proof of expertize certifications that national and global organizations within in the industry have created. While professionals can still legally practice without being certified, taking the certification test can increase employability and salary.

The educational and work experience requirements for these certifications vary. Some certificates, like the Security + IT certification, do not require any educational or work experience. Individuals with a Security + certificate could try to find lower level IT jobs, but it can sometimes hard without at least an associate degree due to the competitiveness of the job market.

Other certificates, like a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), have a five year professional work experience requirement. Professionals, don’t necessarily need to complete a master’s program to become certified, but successfully completing one will decrease the work experience requirements from five years to four years.

In industries where they do have specialization certification tests, educational masters programs are often designed to teach individuals what they need to know to pass the test.


Educational Certificates

College certificates are what I would classify as specialization certifications. They’re not really designed to help you pass a certification test. Instead these educational programs (often post-bachelorette Graduate Certificates) are often three to five course programs meant to help individuals acquire more knowledge on a particular topic. Unlike traditional degree programs there are no electives or mandatory liberal arts classes.

Certificates and degrees can both allow you the knowledge and credentials to succeed in your chosen field. Whether or not you utilize degrees, certificates, or both will really depend on career aspirations, legal restrictions on your industry, and job market competitiveness within the field. Before making the ultimate decision on what path up the metaphorical bean stalk is right for you, I’d recommend spending some time investigating what your options are within your chosen field.



Samantha Stauf spends her free time writing articles about board games, comics, career problems, and education. She enjoys hunting down strawberries. You can touch base with her on twitter at @Samstauf.

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