Graduate Degree, Certificate, or Both: How to Choose the Best Track for You

by Ashley Eneriz

You’ve finished your bachelor’s degree and might be thinking, “What’s next?” If specialization in a field or a high-level job is your goal, most likely the answer is to continue your education. However, with many academic options to pursue post-graduation, it can be hard to decide which graduate degree or certificate best supports the career you want.

Determining your career goals, available time, and financial resources can help you narrow down the choice. It also helps to understand the difference between the three post-graduate options and how they might impact your opportunities and earnings. Here’s an overview to guide you.

Certificates to Augment Skills

Specialized certifications can elevate your skills in a short period compared to a full graduate degree. The Azusa Pacific University Leadership Development Certificate, for example, teaches executive coaching, while the Data Analysis and Visualization Certificate trains students to manage big data and perform business analytics. Additionally, pursuing a certificate in a niche area like supply chain and logistics can make you better suited for unique positions in your field.

In general, APU certificates can be earned through 12 units of focused study, making them the ideal way to continue your education without having to fully commit to a multiyear degree.

Master’s Degree to Level Up

For most students pursuing a graduate education, a master’s degree is the first stop, as it’s the next full level up from a bachelor’s. Master’s degrees are becoming more frequently required by employers in many fields, including education, health care, and business. Some roles, such as education administrators and public health consultants, even require a master’s degree for entry-level positions.

Most master’s degrees take two to three years to finish, though some business administration programs can take as little as 18 months. Many master’s degrees are also available online, making it easier to fit in studying between work hours. The payoff can make the effort worth it—median earnings with a master’s or higher degree are 17% higher than with a bachelor’s degree only. APU offers 58 master’s programs, with some degree programs available completely online.

Doctorate to Win Renown

If you’re interested in pursuing teaching or research opportunities, a PhD is worth considering. Going deeper into your field of study can provide opportunities for working alongside like-minded professionals on innovative projects or getting published in scholarly publications. With a doctorate degree, you establish yourself as an expert in your field and network with individuals who can influence your career path. Depending on your desired degree program, you ready yourself for positions like university administrator, principal, psychologist, or physical therapist. Many PhDs also need to publish to maintain status.

Currently, APU’s graduate degree program includes doctoral degrees in nursing, education, psychology, physical therapy, and ministry. Most doctoral degrees through APU take three to four years. Several tracks offer unique educational opportunities, including professional conferences and global travel.

Where Will Furthering Your Education Take You?

All three post-baccalaureate roads can lead you to success in your career. As an example, say you just graduated with a bachelor’s of science in finance. Here’s how a graduate degree or certification can change your salary and job options.

Bachelor’s Degree

With a bachelor’s degree in finance, you can find a position as an accountant earning more than $77,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Available positions include auditors, tax professionals, and financial advisors.


A certificate can help you focus on a specific area in your field, adding a level of specialization. With a finance-specialized one in government budgeting, for example, you can earn an average of $87,190.

Master’s Degree

Earning the next level of degree in finance can make you eligible for financial management positions like an investment manager, which can push your salary into the six figure range.


A PhD in finance can develop you into an expert on corporate finance and investing. The most common career paths for this level of education include roles in research or education. Economic professors make about $104,940 per year, according to the BLS.

Which Post-Graduate Path Will You Take?

The job outlook, position opportunity, and pay vary for each degree field. Which path makes the most sense for your future goals? Speak with an APU advisor today to figure out which degree or certificate would complement your bachelor’s degree.