by Angela Leeper
I simply wanted to take a few technical writing courses. I called a few university English departments to inquire about their offerings, but was repeatedly told that I needed to be enrolled in a master’s program to take classes. After dialing the third school, I finally heard the magic words, “Have you heard about our certificate program?” Having completed a master’s program just a few years before and even working in education, I was amazed that I had never heard of these hidden treasures in continuing education.
What is a Certificate Program?
When MBA students at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) expressed an interest in side concentrations and double majors (which the university does not allow), it developed a Post-MBA Graduate Certificate Program in areas such as entrepreneurial studies, health systems management, and international business and regional economics. The structure of these certificate programs resembles those at most colleges and universities. Rather than enroll in a lengthy (and often costly) master’s program, students can complete five courses in specialized areas. Although all certificate programs have required courses, some also allow electives in the same field. Students need not have completed an advanced degree to enter a certificate program. There are many just like the one at Fairfield University, which targets those with and without degrees. Fairfield offers credit certificates in areas including writing and interior design, and non-credit certificates for subjects such as business leadership, computer graphic design, and human resource management. Students can also apply some certificate courses toward future degree pursuits. Another advantage certificate programs hold over traditional degree programs is flexibility. Although schools encourage students to take at least one course per semester, time requirements to complete a certificate program generally do not exist. In addition, schools primarily offer such courses during evenings and on Saturdays. Susan Fitzgerald, associate dean in the School of Continuing Education at Fairfield University, recommends that students talk to advisors, especially if flexibility is important, before entering a certificate program. And flexibility is truly present in Fairfield University’s completely online technical writing certificate program, which accommodates those with vigorous work schedules and from various geographic locations. Students definitely play a role in the flexible nature of certificate programs. “They are working people,” explains Anvernette Hanna, director of public relations at the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies, New York, NY, “so we develop courses according to their interests and job needs.”
When students enrolled in NYU’s certificate in conflict and dispute resolution needed more experience in mediation, for example, officials rolled out a mediation apprenticeship course the following summer where real-world experience was gained in Manhattan Small Claims Court. With 108 certificate programs ranging from multimedia technology and screenwriting to e-finance and e-law, NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies accommodates numerous student needs.
Who Enrolls in Certificate Programs?
A wide range of students participate in certificate programs, but according to Howard Deckelbaum, director of the Information Technologies Institute at NYU
School of Continuing and Professional Studies, students can usually be divided into three categories.
The first type is often an entry-level professional seeking enhanced skills. Deckelbaum notes that the number of such professionals in certificate
programs rose significantly during the dotcom craze.
The second type is the professional who needs or wants new skills to make a job change. “Students constantly need to retool so they can be diversified in business,” says Michele Vaccaro, MBA program advisor at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
The third type of student must acquire advanced skill sets for his or her current position. “Students often realize they need to improve in other areas as well, which forces some competitive edge,” adds Vaccaro.
What Can You Get out of a Certificate Program?
The obvious answer is a credential on your resume without the time and cost involvement of a master’s degree. Then again, most of the benefits will be
ones you don’t read about in catalogues or on Web sites. New job skills will allow you to market yourself more effectively.
Pamela Rittelmeyer will testify to that. She enrolled in NYU’s Making a Digital Movie, an intensive, three-week certificate course. There she wrote a short script, filmed a live-action sequence, added digital effects, and later found work in the camera department of the blockbuster movie, Planet of the Apes. Along with being credited in the movie, she was promoted to the head camera position of the visual effects unit. With an invitation from NYU, she spent the next summer making a documentary of the Making a Digital Movie course.
“I partly credit [my success] to my knowledge of visual effects that I gained from the NYU course,” said Rittelmeyer. Of course, she added, the credit should also be attributed to her many years of work experience and her ability to market—or “show off”—her new skills effectively.
When exploring majors in college and careers, industry-driven certificate programs taught by professors actively engaged in the field enable students to showcase their proficiency in the latest career skills learned from industry experts. And with information technology skills in the greatest demand, it’s no wonder that IT certificate programs are the most popular programs being taught at NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Unlike day-length seminars, certificate programs, contends Deckelbaum, “provide a fundamental core of knowledge.”
And, adds Vaccaro, even non-IT courses at FDU “enhance technology skills” and “encourage new strategic techniques.” Some students who enter a mode of study work on multiple certificates, she explains, with individuals completing three or four certificate programs over a short period of time.
Take the Road Less Traveled
When seeking career guidance tips, it’s essential to acknowledge that certificate programs, whether planned or not, possess the potential to steer your career in an entirely new and beneficial direction. Barth Healey, senior staff editor of the foreign news desk at The New York Times, recently completed NYU’s Certificate in Conflict and Dispute Resolution. His study was not prompted by a desire to improve his current position, but rather to prepare himself for a post-retirement career as a mediator.
“[I] will be retiring or going to shorter hours in a couple of years,” Healey explains. “I see an opportunity to stay active, and—who knows—maybe even get paid for a good number of years beyond the basic three score and ten.” He has already started scoping out both private and court mediation opportunities
Sign Me Up!
The hardest part of certificate programs may be locating information about them. Many schools carry such programs, but they admit that they do not market them satisfactorily. When searching through a school’s Web site, you will find most certificate programs described in Continuing Education sections; however, some schools also list their programs within Special Programs, Admissions, and within individual curriculum departments. When requesting
information on the phone, ask for Continuing Education or the department in which you are interested.
Browse over 350 online courses and certificate programs. Anglea Leeper works as an independent educational consultant and freelance writer and editor in Wake Forest, North Carolina. She has also contributed to Multicultural Review, The Book Report, American Careers, and Succeed Magazine. Her upcoming book, Juneteenth: Celebrating African-American Freedom will be published in 2004.