Graduate Certificates Versus the Ph.D.


Mcdonald By Melissa McDonald

A couple months ago, my fellow Adjunct By Choice, Ron Tinsley, gave us his reasons for considering and then not pursuing a Ph.D. in “Just a Side of Fries, Please.” He writes,

I’ve realized I can do this without a Ph.D. I may not be able to do it at a well known university, but that’s okay. After all, I like seeing people learn.

At one time or another, I have considered pursuing Ph.D. work—maybe we all do at some point—but I have found it not to be in the cards for me either, at least not right now. Rather than pursuing another degree, I have looked into graduate certificate programs as a way to broaden my horizons. In case you are not familiar with these programs, they are basically short programs that require anywhere from 12 to 18 credit hours in a particular subject. To me, it is like pursuing a minor without needing a major.

Graduate certificates are great for those looking to increase their knowledge, to explore other fields, or to change careers. In places where instructors need 18 graduate-level hours in a subject to teach it, a certificate might be the way to earn those hours. Many universities offer certificates, and prospective students can find certificate programs in pretty much every field, though, to be honest, as an Adjunct By Choice, I haven’t really looked closely at programs beyond the humanities and education fields for my personal needs and interests.

I first became interested in what certificates could offer when I considered completing a graduate certificate in educational technology. My theory was that I could bolster my credentials and learn effective pedagogy in online teaching, and since I could complete the coursework online, I would not have to give up my job to go back to school. (There were not any programs like this in my local area.) I never did pursue that avenue, mainly because of the cost, though I still keep it on my so-called list of goals.

Years later, I began the certificate program in writing at one university, something I did “for fun,” or so I thought. What this program did is introduce me to new ways of looking at writing, which in turn has improved my teaching of the subject. This program offered me the choice of courses in creative nonfiction, education, and other subjects. In addition, being a student again has helped me reacquaint myself with, well, being a student. Relating to my students as someone also pursuing higher education is not a requirement for the Adjunct By Choice, but I think it has made me a better teacher overall. Though I had to take a break when I moved to another state, I intend to finish my last couple courses in the near future.

Graduate certificate programs are widespread and easy to find. A quick Google search reveals a number of graduate certificate programs, though a website like is more helpful. Even just looking into nearby universities can reveal opportunities. That’s how I found the certificate program I am in now. When I first moved to the area, I started searching the local schools for continuing education programs. I wasn’t looking for anything specific, but I found something that appealed to me. In exploring these programs, I found that the application process is pretty easy. The prospective applicant needs a bachelor’s degree, but I have found that pursuing a certificate post-MA is not a hindrance. Transcripts are required, of course, and other materials, like a statement of intent or purpose, may be needed.

The drawbacks? I am taking a lot of hours without getting to the next educational level. If I ever want to be at the Ph.D. level, I have to complete Ph.D. work. Right now, however, I am more interested in just exploring various interests and goals, which is why I feel free to pursue my interests through graduate certificate work. Nevertheless, perhaps inspired by the work I have done so far, I am thinking about pursuing a second master’s degree, though what the future holds is still a mystery. Who knows, I may even earn that Ph.D. someday, or  I might get that educational technology certificate after all.  But one thing at a time….

About the Adjunct: Melissa McDonald is an adjunct instructor, writing consultant, and a military spouse all rolled into one. She earned a BA in English from Nicholls State University and an MA in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She has taught composition, technical writing, and literature courses, both face-to-face and online. She also has experience as a journal and a newsletter editor, a webmaster, and a writer. Outside of work, Melissa enjoys spending time with her family, playing with her cats, reading, writing, and cross stitching.

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