Graduate certificates entry point for documented advanced skills

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By Col. Ronald W. Welch

Each year, employers seek ways to improve their business plans to connect with potential clients, while employees seek opportunities to improve their skills and increase their responsibilities; both, hopefully leading to a promotion for the individual or of the company. Graduate certificates appear to be a solution for each to gain the desired competitive edge. According to Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the fastest growing postsecondary credential is a graduate certificate. By 2010, postsecondary graduate certificates accounted for more than 22 percent of the credentials, up from six percent in 1980.

So why should an engineer consider a graduate certificate or a company support an employee obtaining a graduate certificate? Each decision is, of course, personal, but some comments that have been noted are: 1) Broaden/deepen current professional skills; 2) Gain new professional skills for a career change; 3) Gain specialized skill set to focus the broad undergraduate degree; 4) Quickly add specific professional skills based on client demand; 5) Document a professional skill in as few as four courses (six months to one year, “low-risk test drive”) while considering the time commitment for a Master’s degree and whether a thesis or a course-only degree best supports future perceived needs.

Many potential students ask whether a graduate certificate will truly enhance their position within a company. The answer hinges on the academic discipline and the company in question. For example, graduate certificates in engineering, project management, education, health care, counseling, and technology can lead to promotions or eligibility for higher pay scales. Many times the credential displays acquired knowledge in an area helpful in performing a unique job within a firm, such as grant proposal writing, management, and human relations. With a rapidly changing business landscape, some certificates are in high demand for specialty areas such as homeland security, cyber security, and sustainable design, which were not a required skill at the time of recent undergraduate degrees. The true key to a graduate certificate is that it is designed for working professionals, taught by faculty with real-world industry experience, and has courses that can roll into a master’s degree if so desired by the company and/or the employee.

Many professional fields, such as engineering and project management, require continuing education each year for engineers-in-training, professional engineers, and project management professionals. Graduate courses support both annual mandatory continuing education and potentially career-enhancing skills through a certificate and eventually a Master’s degree. Many employees can also tap into the professional network of a university by simply obtaining a certificate or degree.

How does one start a graduate certificate? A potential student normally must formally apply. There are some schools that allow a student to take one to three courses without being officially accepted into a certificate or degree program. Some programs require pre-acceptance requirements such as a GRE and personal references. Depending on the type of education account, some students may use tax-advantaged college investment accounts and other education tax savings opportunities to finance a graduate certificate. Many companies will reimburse the cost when coordinated with their supervisor and human resources office.

Financial aid is normally not available since most complete graduate certificates as part-time students. Additionally, each school must get U.S. Department of Education approval for each of its certificate programs individually for a program’s students to be eligible for financial aid if the student is only completing the certificate. The school must also show that the credential would lead to gainful employment in order for students to qualify for student loans. If the graduate certificate is completed while also completing a master’s degree full time, then financial aid is normally available through completion of the master’s degree. Students who are in programs to update skills for a current job are not eligible for financial aid. State Department of Vocational Rehabilitation in California funds up to 10-15 percent of some certificate programs as does the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sometimes enrollment in a graduate certificate program assists students with less-than-stellar undergraduate records with provisional acceptance into a master’s program by giving them an opportunity to prove themselves as dedicated adult student learners. Graduate certificate success can prove academic maturity and not only encourage adult student learners to continue their studies toward a master’s degree, but also graduate certificate professors to facilitate an adult leaner’s admission into the Master’s degree.

Graduate certificates can update key skills in high-demand areas of expertise, be completed in as little as 6 months, cost much less than a full master’s degree, increase earning potential (The Washington Post noted up to 25 percent for certain areas), assist in expanding into new fields regardless of initial degree(s), serve as an entry into a master’s degree, and impress upon your current boss or future employers that you are dedicated to the pursuit of life-long learning, which will advance not only the company agenda, but also your own career. Graduate certificates also allow employees to broaden their skills so they can fill voids when a position is unfilled and take on responsibilities other than their own. When employees can perform and function in multiple areas, companies achieve a higher level of operational readiness, and promote teamwork among individuals and across departments.

Graduate certificates in engineering and project management are available online or within face-to-face modes at South Carolina schools such as at The Citadel in civil engineering (geotechnical, structural, transportation, built environment), electrical engineering (computer engineering), mechanical engineering (aeronautical, composites, manufacturing, mechatronics, power and energy), and engineering leadership and program management (project management, systems engineering management, program management). With a minimal investment of time and money, these graduate certificates can potentially provide significant payback. Additionally, each of these graduate certificates earned at The Citadel can be rolled into master’s degrees in Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Project Management.

Contact your school of choice to investigate the available graduate certificates and begin the next phase of your career, or enhance an employee’s skill set leading to greater business opportunities for your company. For more on The Citadel School of Engineering graduate certificates, please visit http://www.citadel.edu/root/graduatecollege-prospective-students or call 843-953-6499.

Col. Ronald W. Welch, USA (Ret.), Ph.D., PE, F.ASCE, F.ASEE, F.SAME, has served as Dean of The Citadel School of Engineering since 2011. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where he earned a B.S. in Engineering Mechanics and eventually became a professor and served in leadership roles for the Army while on active duty for almost 25 years. Welch earned his master’s and Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from the University of Illinois. Since 1999, Welch has served as a mentor, program developer and coordinator of the nationally renowned Excellence in Civil Engineering Education Teaching Workshop sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

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