Published: May 7, 2020

students in classIf you type the phrase “certificate versus degree” in Google’s search bar, you’ll get more than 56 million results. That’s right, 56 million. If we take Google search as a barometer of what’s on people’s minds, clearly a lot of folks are wondering about the merits of choosing between an educational certificate and getting a degree.

Over the past few years, certificates have increased in popularity with one estimate reporting that the number of people with post-baccalaureate certificates has grown by 50% since 2005.

Graduate certificates are often looked upon as industry credentials—an educational experience that hones to a more advanced level, skills you may already have, or a credential that adds new skills to your existing portfolio. In contrast to the deep-dive, comprehensive nature of a master’s degree, for example, a graduate certificate can instill a relatively quick and intensive career boost in a specific area. In general, certificates are more focused on specialized skills and can be completed a lot faster than a master’s degree.

When it comes to engineering management, advanced education—whether in the form of a master’s degree or an engineering graduate certificate—has a career impact. In the CU Boulder Engineering Management Program (EMP) you can choose between both options: a number of skills-focused engineering graduate certificates focusing on unique aspects of technical and engineering management and an engineering master’s degree focused more broadly on leadership and management skills for the profession. Both options can deliver significant benefits to your employability, career advancement and salary potential. Both offer excellent educational training and are recognized as valuable by employers and career professionals. Two great options—so how do you choose?

According to Kendra Thibeault, Admissions, Graduate and Undergraduate Advisor for the CU Boulder EMP, it usually boils down to making a very personal assessment. “Someone who does not have a lot of time to devote to an entire degree or maybe just wants to focus on courses in a specific area may choose to complete a certificate,” she says. “Students who have more time and want a more broad education may choose the degree option. Often, we have students that start with a certificate and complete the degree later on.” 

Ironically, when presented with two or more great options, decision-making can become a lot harder for many of us. Choosing an advanced engineering management education is no exception. It’s a positive dilemma but when you think about it, it’s also a no-lose decision.

Make a List

Engineering graduate certificate or engineering management degree? Which option you choose will depend on your unique career goals, where you are in your career now, the time you have available for education and training and the kind of financial commitment you want to make.

It’s helpful to make a list of the pros in each option to see which one may fit your goals the best.

Graduate Certificates:

  • Require a shorter commitment with a faster payback.
  • Are specific and subject-focused courses that can increase your expertise in a particular area.
  • Cost less than a master’s degree.
  • Can be a stepping stone to a master’s degree if you want to continue your education.
  • Are available online, making them both flexible and accessible.
  • Can benefit you in terms of career advancement, more responsibility or higher salary potential.
  • Can offer a competitive advantage in the workplace and fill knowledge gaps or add skills to your professional repertoire.

Master’s Degree:

  • Require a longer commitment but have a potentially higher payback in terms of career advancement.
  • Offer a more comprehensive course of study.
  • May be required for career advancement in some companies/engineering fields.
  • Are available online, making them both flexible and accessible.
  • Can benefit you in terms of career advancement, more responsibility or higher salary potential.
  • Can offer a competitive advantage in the workplace and provide a wide array of technical and management skills to your repertoire.

As you can see, there are overlaps between the two, both options offer leadership and management skills training as they relate to engineering and technical professions. Both options cover key concepts in engineering management. But each option does offer unique benefits. And both, says Thibeault, offer career value.

“The most important value seems to be the direct and immediate applicability of our courses in the workplace,” she says. “Our students often comment on the application of concepts and ideas in their job, and their company management takes notice. We often have alumni of our program recommend our program to their direct reports or colleagues because they see a very clear value in the knowledge gained from the curriculum.”

Decision Time?

There are a few key things to keep in mind when deciding between an engineering management certificate and a masters in engineering management degree.

  • A certificate may not qualify for some student loans or federal financial aid. (If your employer offers tuition reimbursement, though, certificate courses may qualify.) It’s always best to check with the college’s Financial Aid Office when weighing your options.
  • A master’s degree may be your only option if that is what is valued by your particular employer or if it carries extra importance in your particular field.
  • An engineering graduate certificate can be a great professional option, but it doesn’t necessarily replace an engineering management degree. But certificates do allow professionals to upskill and can boost you up to the next step on your career ladder.

Your available time commitment, of course, will play a very important role when it comes to deciding which option may work best. “The duration of the program depends on if you are a part-time or full-time student,” says Thibeault. “Most of our students take classes part-time while they are working, and it typically takes them 3-5 years to complete the degree (we recommend part-time students take no more than two courses per semester). Full-time students typically complete the degree in 1.5-2.5 years. The certificates are just four courses, instead of 10 for the degree, so they take a shorter amount of time and could be completed in a year or less depending on the number of classes taken each semester.”

Actually, You May Not Have to Choose

If you are still not sure which option is right for you, you may not really have to choose right now.

The engineering graduate certificates offered by the CU Boulder EMP consist of a series of curated courses that provide students with the most current knowledge and expertise in specific topics in the field.

Focus areas are varied:

  • Engineering Management in the Aerospace Industry
  • Innovation & Entrepreneurship
  • Leadership & Management
  • Project Management
  • Managing Operational Excellence & Quality Systems
  • Six Sigma Statistical Practitioner

As an example, the Leadership and Management Graduate Certificate focuses on instilling an in-depth understanding in engineering and technical professionals of leadership and strategy challenges that impact performance quality and organizational effectiveness. The 12-credit sequence of four curated courses consists of:

  • Project Management
  • Leading Oneself
  • Ethical Decision-Making
  • Leading Others

At completion, students have gained significant workplace-ready skills they can use to enhance their careers and improve their potential to advance as managers and leaders in their organizations.

As a standalone certificate, the experience provides career and professional development value. But the courses offer additional value in that they also are applicable for the master’s degree in engineering management. So, even if you are not ready for a longer commitment or are unsure if you want to pursue additional training, you can still upskill your resume and your career, while you consider the benefits of the longer masters Program and the engineering management degree.

It’s always necessary to consider the time commitment, your work and family obligations, as well as the financial aspects of each program when exploring both options. “I suggest discussing your options with those who may be impacted by your decision, including your employer, significant other or other family members,” says Thibeault. 

Talking it over with your employer may give you additional feedback on which program would be more beneficial to the company and to your own career goals. “Additionally,” says Thibeault,  “your employer may be able to discuss workload options that may allow some flexibility to complete your education. It’s important to discuss if there is a tuition assistance program offered through your employer and whether that program requires that you be a degree-seeking student or if a certificate may also be covered.” Finally, talking it over with your family is also important since either option will impact their lives and your responsibilities at home.

You can request additional information about CU Boulder’s Engineering Management Program and degree and certificate options on our website. You can also contact Kendra Thibeault, Admissions, Graduate and Undergraduate Advisor at: or call 303.492.0954.