Post-baccalaureate certificates are a popular way to gain a deeper knowledge of a subject or field. Learn more about how these small, self-contained programs can further your career — or lead to a change in fields.

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Adam Chapman had been working in Seattle commercial real estate for the better part of a decade, but he wanted to understand more about his field.

As a graduate of Northwestern University, he had a solid undergraduate education, and his days were spent locating office rental space for his clients for Washington Partners.
But he knew he was only involved in a small slice of the commercial real estate world.

To round out his knowledge base, he enrolled in the certificate program in commercial real estate at the University of Washington.

Post-baccalaureate certificates are a popular way to gain a deeper knowledge of a subject or field. They are typically small, self-contained programs — normally four to seven courses — that generally take place at night or online to fit the schedules of working professionals.

Think of them as miniature master’s degree programs without the heavy cost or time commitment.

In Chapman’s case, he was able to learn about aspects of his business in which he had little exposure — subjects such as low-income housing, hotel development and the legal and financial aspects of commercial real estate.

Because certificate programs are shorter, schools can be more nimble, so it’s easy to add and subtract courses when industry signals change, says Marilyn Gist, associate dean of graduate programs at Seattle University.

It’s a shift in the last 15 to 20 years, says Michael DeLashmutt, dean of Trinity Lutheran College in Everett. Universities have become more customer savvy, working around the needs of students by offering alternatives to graduate programs.

“In some fields you don’t need a master’s degree,” he says. “Or an advanced degree will make you overqualified. Employers looking to hire a mid-level position may be intimidated by formal graduate degrees. A certificate, on the other hand, is a specific targeted bit of training that’s helpful in the job market.”

Types of programs

Nearly every college and university offers certificate programs. If you can think of a subject, field or job, you can probably find a school that will credential you with a certificate.

But not all certificates are the same. They generally fall into three categories.

Professional certificates are non-accredited courses that are industry based and teach a specific skill, like how to run a Microsoft server.

For those lacking an undergraduate degree, some certificate programs help launch a career in fields such as loan processing, bookkeeping or network administration. They’re often taught at the community college level or at some universities.

Post-baccalaureate certificates are what we’ll focus on here. These are designed for working professionals like Chapman who seek further training or specialization.

Seattle University’s Albers School of Business is a good example of what post-baccalaureate certificate programs look like.

Say you’re an entrepreneur hoping to beef up your marketing skills. You would take three required classes from the graduate curriculum: marketing strategy, marketing research and brand management. Then, you would select another two courses as electives. And when you finish, you’re awarded a graduate certificate in marketing.

Certificates allow universities to offer courses in emerging fields or fill in gaps in the education by isolating topics. For rapidly changing fields such as web development, certificates allow schools to alter their content quickly.

This fall, for example, Seattle University will be starting a health care management certificate in response to the high demand for qualified employees in the field, says Gist.

Speedier, more affordable

Compared to getting a full graduate degree, there is a huge time and cost savings, says Chapman. Programs generally last less than a year, and there’s no big thesis to defend at the end.

There are other upsides, as well:

Test drive a master’s program. Many universities allow you to apply certificate credits to a higher degree — known as “stackable certificates.” This gives students a soft entry into a program without fully committing up front.
They can be a good way to get your foot in the door, get a feel for the coursework, make connections with staff and administrators, and prove you have what it takes to take that next step.

Set yourself apart. Obtaining a certificate is a way to distinguish yourself from others in the field, says Gist. It says to an employer that you’re someone who has dedicated hours of study to a particular topic, so you have more knowledge than the average person in that area.
The additional training can help round out your résumé. This is especially true in emerging or evolving fields, where there may not be a lot of formal education at the university level yet.

Continuing education credits. Some jobs require you to stay current by getting regular continuing-education units. Class hours in a certificate program may satisfy continuing-education requirements and make you eligible for higher pay scales.

Marketability. How marketable a certificate helps you be once you get it depends a lot on your field. In many cases, the extra knowledge will be helpful for your job, but not necessarily mandatory for getting hired.

Jeff Millard, director of masters program operations at Seattle University, says that many MBA programs can be incorrectly perceived as “general,” but gaining a certificate shows employers what you’re using your MBA toward, which is seen favorably in industry.
DeLashmutt says certificates can be especially beneficial for those in middle management. “For many people in their early to mid career, certificates can be really helpful to demonstrate competency, so the next time you’re looking for promotion, you can say, ‘I’ve got this.’ ”

In Chapman’s case, he was able to take what he learned and expand his business opportunities. Not only does he help clients locate rental space, but he has also been able to help some clients with entire building acquisitions — something he hadn’t done before his program.

Almost as important were the connections he made during the program. His classmates came from a wide variety of fields, such as architecture and engineering, and the speakers were some of the top land-use developers in the city — people he wouldn’t have crossed paths with, had he not been in the program.