Beyond the everyday degree

Landscape design, safety and security leadership, and health care corporate compliance are not typical college majors. But by enrolling in graduate certificate programs like these, students can become experts in each field.

Requiring fewer credit hours than a master’s degree program would, the nearly 20 distinct certificate programs offered by the University are intended for students wanting to develop their knowledge about particular subjects without dedicating continuous years of study. Almost all programs hold classes at off-campus locations in Arlington and Alexandria, Va., with some as far away as Newport News and Loudoun, Va. According to Joachim Knop, director of GW’s Office of Institutional Research and Planning, this semester the University enrolled 1,192 students in graduate certificate programs.

The programs often draw students who wish to increase their knowledge of a subject they have already studied. That was the case for Yamini Damodaran, 22, a student in GW’s Computer Security and Information Assurance Certificate Program.

“I completed my bachelor’s in computer engineering and I was not sure if I wanted to start my master’s in computer science or finance,” Damodaran said. “I wanted something that would not be a repetition of computer engineering.”

Having the certificate, she said, would also help to open up more job opportunities.

“I took the program thinking that it would be a good investment based on time and also career perspectives. Career-wise I guess one of the hottest things in computer science is computer security right now. Everyone is looking for a way to secure their computers. It would be a good add-on to my current resume,” Damodaran said.

Others, such as Roman Vichr, 44, currently have jobs but have decided to pursue certificates to enhance their existing repertoires. Vichr, who is in the same program as Damodaran, earned his Ph.D. from the Czechoslovak Academy of Science but felt it was a good time to go back to school for this reason.

“The program itself nicely aligned with my areas of interest and what I’m working on,” Vichr said. “I think it was the right time to look at it and see how I could improve my knowledge and also validate my knowledge.”

Another factor that appeals to students seeking certificates is the ability to apply the credits earned through the program toward a master’s degree, according to Assistant Vice President for Graduate and Special Enrollment Management Kristin Williams.

“A graduate certificate is not necessarily completed in lieu of a master’s degree,” Williams said in an e-mail. “Some students do feel that the experience and content provided by a graduate certificate is all they need to meet their personal and professional needs and thus go no further. But others enroll in a certificate program as a precursor to the master’s degree – to ‘test the waters’ before committing to a full degree program.”

Taken as a whole, GW’s certificate programs are pedagogically diverse, ranging in subject matter from paralegal studies to sustainable landscapes. At the same time, they are tailored to specific professional interests. According to the Office of Institutional Research and Planning, students at GW enrolled in such programs tend to be between 30 and 40 years of age. In 2009 some of the top choices included homeland security emergency preparedness and response, and professional teaching standards.

Students have reported that the certificate programs have also been successful in attracting the attention of potential and current employers.

That was the case for Mary Gray, 39, who cited her enrollment in GW’s Landscape Design Certificate Program as one of the reasons she received the opportunity to work for her current employer.

“I actually just got a part-time job working for a designer downtown and I think that was definitely due to the training,” Gray said.

Damodaran, who decided to pursue a master’s degree in addition to a certificate, has also received similarly positive feedback from employers about having the extra credential.

“There are quite a few career fairs that I attended and many people were interested in my graduate certificate that I was pursuing,” Damodaran said. “Many said it would be a good addition to my master’s.”

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