Career & Jobs

What Hiring Managers Need to Know About Evaluating Candidates With Graduate Certificates

As a hiring manager, you will encounter candidates with a variety of credentials: degrees, professional training certifications, diplomas, and certificates. One type of certificate that is becoming increasingly popular is a graduate certificate. As with any credential, you’ll need to assess this achievement in relation to the candidate’s fit for the job. However, not everyone is familiar with graduate certificates, and that can make it hard for hiring managers to understand what these credentials say about a candidate’s potential fit.

What Is a Graduate Certificate, Exactly?

Earning a graduate certificate involves completing a program of post-bachelor’s degree study. It is often described as a form of specialized training at the university level that is designed to meet the supplemental needs of professionals. Graduate certificates generally focus on a particular industry or job title, and they typically require 12-18 credits of academic coursework in a given subject area. They sometimes also serve as a waypoint on the journey toward a full master’s degree.

While the types and focuses of these certificates have expanded to nearly every specialty, career focus, and topic in recent years, a few popular examples include accounting and finance, international business, sustainability, leadership, healthcare administration, technology, and entrepreneurship.

Many recent grads and working professionals seek to continue their education after earning a bachelor’s degree. Going the certificate route can help them stand out from the competition, gain a promotion at work, or make a successful career change.

How to Evaluate Graduate Certificates

When looking at an applicant who has earned a graduate certificate, consider that after finishing college, that candidate completed 4-6 master’s-level courses in the graduate certificate area.

Typically, the first question a hiring manager would ask is how a candidate’s certificate relates to the position at hand. Keep in mind, however, even graduate certificates in unrelated areas may still offer valuable transferrable skills, so it is important not to dismiss out of hand a credential that is not a perfect match. It may be tempting to base your assessment solely on the school where the certificate was earned, but the school’s reputation and branding alone do not provide enough information about the program of study.

A specific list of coursework undertaken can provide additional detail on what the candidate studied during the program. You can ask the candidate for this information directly, or you may be able to find it through a quick web search. Course names and descriptions can provide a sense of any technical or software training the candidate make have undertaken. Some certificate programs have more of a strategic focus, while others focus more on technical skills.

The next question is how the graduate certificate relates to the specific career trajectory of the candidate. Does the graduate certificate look like an extension of the candidate’s bachelor’s degree? If so, it represents additional training and knowledge in that specific area; it may have been a refresher course or a way to get updated on new industry practices. The subject of the certificate could also be a focus area within the same general field of study as the candidate’s bachelor’s. In this case, the certificate provides in-depth knowledge in a specific area within a general field, of which the candidate has broad knowledge.

It may be that the candidate’s undergraduate degree has little or no relation to their graduate certificate. In this case, the credential may have been earned as a strategic career-changing move. Certificates in leadership or management point toward a candidate’s ambition for a higher-level role. Candidates also earn graduate certificates to document and formalize knowledge they acquired on the job. Even a candidate with an unrelated bachelor’s still has training in the certificate area and the general educational foundations provided by a college degree.

You may also come across candidates with full master’s degrees in the same areas as their graduate certificates. Some graduate certificate programs are designed to be stepping stones toward full graduate degrees. Some programs, such as my own college’s Modular Master of Science degree or George Washington University’s Master of Interdisciplinary Business Studies, take a “stackable certificate” approach in which people can combine graduate certificate options to create customized master’s degrees. As a hiring manager, you would know that a candidate who had taken one of these approaches would likely be capable of progressive, out-of-the-box thinking for cross-department and development needs, and also able to think across boundaries and methodologies to make innovative connections.

In earning a graduate certificate, a candidate has demonstrated the ability to put time and effort into a formal plan of study above and beyond finishing college. They have pursued additional training and knowledge, indicating they are capable of both self-development and follow-through. Having earned this credential also illustrates a candidate’s time management skills, as they likely had to balance work, school, life, and family concerns to successfully complete the course of study.

It’s important to distinguish graduate certificate holders from undergraduate certificate holders, who may have earned those credentials through careful course selection and focus while concurrently obtaining their bachelor’s degrees. Graduate-level coursework typically requires stronger research and analysis skills, plus the ability to find facts while grounding new ideas in established theoretical context.

As you review the relevant qualifications of applicants, it is helpful to remember that the graduate-level nature of these certificates points to capabilities beyond those expected of the average professional.

Michael C. Zalot, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Business, Management, and Economics at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he serves as director of the MBA and MMS programs.

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