A reader sent me this question:
I’m very seriously considering a career change into ID. (I’ve spent 20 years in various business assignments with the last 8 in IT.) I’m involved in teaching extra-curricular activities to kids and adults in my community. I very fulfilled when I’m teaching and I’ve come to the conclusion that I want to follow this as a career path. Having said this, I’m exploring a master’s degree in ID.
I was hoping you would give me your opinion on the topic of graduate certificate vs MS degree. I’ve narrowed my search down to 2 schools. 1 school offers a grad cert along the way to getting an MS degree while the other is the MS degree on its own.
So the question is… would employers have value someone who has a lot of business experience (including facilitation skills) and only the grad cert or is the MS degree the minimum requirement. What is your opinion? (I realize this is going to depend on the company.)
Where Will You Learn More?
My answer is that you should do the one where you think you will learn more. A certificate from a great program is probably more valuable than a masters degree from a mediocre program (although I expect your choice isn’t as black and white as that). Which program looks more interesting and personally motivating for you?
Portfolios and Practical Experience
One measure of where you’ll learn more is whether or not the program helps you build a portfolio. A certificate program that provides opportunities to gain practical experience, creating realistic samples that could be used in a portfolio would be preferred to a theory-only masters program. If the program doesn’t explicitly help you assemble a portfolio, creating course samples is important. Your work shouldn’t all be academic essays and discussions.
Regardless of your formal credentials, you will need a portfolio.
Flexibility for a Masters Later
Some certificate program provide the flexibility of continuing on for the masters later. So, if you do the certificate and you really feel like you’re learning a lot and would continue to learn more, you could do the second half of the program and do the masters too.
Masters Preferred in Higher Ed
In corporate environments, many hiring managers are much more interested in your portfolio than your formal training. A certificate is likely to open about as many doors as a masters degree with those managers. A masters might be preferred, but not required.
In higher education, a masters degree is much more likely to be a firm requirement. The formal credentials are important if you want to work in a university environment rather than in workplace training.
Scott Winstead has collected a list of online instructional design certificate programs, including tuition costs when available.
Connie Malamed maintains an extensive list of both certificate and degree programs on her site.
What do you think?
So that’s my perspective, as someone without either a certificate or a masters. What do you think? Would you look at a certificate differently from a masters when hiring? Do you think a masters provides a better learning experience? Would you argue for a certificate or masters in certain situations, but not others?
Originally published November 6, 2008. Last updated May 30, 2019.