After Logan Agnaarsson earned a master's degree online in agricultural and life sciences last year, he realized he wanted to learn more in particular about plants and soils.
So the Washington resident turned to an online graduate certificate program in horticultural science at North Carolina State University. Costing less than a degree and requiring less time to finish, these certificates often teach specific skills or hone topics within larger fields – as opposed to degrees, which are more broadly focused.
Employers with whom Agnaarsson has spoken about possible job opportunities in the field typically don't disapprove of the fact that the certificate is being earned online, he says. In fact, some ask him additional questions and express interest in particular courses.
"I'd say it's an overall positive outlook," he says. "I've had some potential employers say, 'Hey, what are you doing? What are you learning?'"
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Agnaarsson might be on to something. As reputable universities launch various types of online programs, a majority of employers have become more accepting of online graduate certificates, so long as that credential makes sense for the job applicant, says Amy Glaser, senior vice president at the worldwide employment agency Adecco Staffing.
"I think it depends on the employer's intent as to whether or not they need a really specific skill, or if just the fact that they've proven they can pass an online graduate degree program is enough for them," says Glaser. She adds that online credentials are becoming more attractive to employers because they increasingly conduct business virtually.
"It's an opportunity for people to excel and access something they didn't have maybe readily available based on their location. So employers, I'm seeing, are having much more confidence and more experience with it," says Sher Downing, an educational technology consultant who currently serves as vice chancellor for eLearning at Palmetto College, part of the University of South Carolina system.
Online students can generally pursue a graduate certificate alone or alongside a graduate degree. In some cases, certificates make up part of a degree program's curriculum, so a student can receive one and then decide whether to continue.
Glaser says business certificates are among the most common that she has seen – though these credentials can span a wide range of fields. Pennsylvania State University—World Campus, for instance, offers graduate certificates in disciplines ranging from applied statistics to earth science education to human resources.
Regardless of the topic, Sara Luther, managing partner of the human resources search practice at the executive recruiting firm Lucas Group, says prospective students should ensure an online graduate certificate program is accredited and comes from a school with a positive reputation.
And when discussing an online graduate certificate with a potential employer, the primary focus shouldn't be on whether a program was completed online, says Dave Campeas, president and CEO of the recruitment company PrincetonOne.
"The education, knowledge and experience you have in a field of study is what you want to showcase on your resume," Campeas said via email. "The true test of your expertise and knowledge will come during the interview."
Glaser, from Adecco, agrees that the type of credential alone is becoming less important to employers. "It's more about how they can sell the skills that they learned and really translate that into what's in it for the employer," she says.
Job candidates also don't need to clarify on a resume that the certificate was completed online, though it's important to be honest if an employer asks, experts say.
From the employer's perspective, a student's decision to pursue an online certificate versus an online degree often comes down to career goals and ambitions, says Campeas, from PrincetonOne.
"If you are happy in your career and want to take on more management responsibility then you should consider a certificate of advanced management," he said via email. But those who want to run a company or become part of a leadership team might consider a master's degree.
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Employers also "want people who are flexible and can pick up a particular skill set that's necessary," says Downing. Specifically, she says she's seen growing acceptance and prevalence of certificates in fields like project management, and more recently, data analytics.
"I think we're seeing quick certifications that can be applied to the work in a day-to-day operation immediately are starting to carry much more weight and become much more valuable for an individual," Downing says.
Still, an employer might ask a job candidate why he or she didn't pursue the full master's degree, she says.
The typical answer: For working adults, "The certificate works nicely for them and it's the flexibility that fits into their lifestyle," Downing says. "They may go back to school down the road, but for the time being, that's going to fit the need."
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