What is a Graduate Certificate Program?

While researching Master of Social Work programs, you’re likely to come across several certificate programs that schools of social work offer to complement or expand upon one’s course of study. Certificate programs consist of a series of courses that provide in-depth study of a specific topic or area. Certificate programs do not lead to a degree, but are able to be taken concurrently with one’s Master of Social Work (or in some cases Bachelor of Social Work) degree path, or can be taken as stand-alone programs after graduating.

Certificate programs consist of a series of courses that provide in-depth study of a specific topic or area. Certificate programs do not lead to a degree, but are able to be taken concurrently with one’s Master of Social Work (or in some cases Bachelor of Social Work) degree path, or can be taken as stand-alone programs after graduating.

Students and graduates pursue certificates in topics relevant to their areas of practice, to demonstrate to employers that they have achieved mastery over a particular topic area. The attainment of a graduate certificate in an identified topic will be documented on a student’s transcript or diploma – denoting that the student has attained a Master of Social Work degree with a Graduate Certificate in a particular subject.

RELATED: 8 Benefits of Getting Your MSW Degree

What’s the Difference Between Certificate Programs And Areas of Specialization in an MSW?

In some ways, certificate programs are similar to areas of specialization in a Master of Social Work program. Both are a series of courses designed to provide students with specialized knowledge and experience in a distinct area of practice.

However, there are some differences to note, and many MSW programs allow students to choose a specialization and pursue a certificate.

Social Work Certificate Vs. Social Work Degree

  • One of the key differences between a specialization and a certificate program is the number of required courses or credit hours in which students must enroll.
  • Whereas a degree specialization generally requires that students follow a specified trajectory of courses relevant to the specialization area throughout their graduate studies, a certificate program usually requires only 3-4 courses (9-12 credit hours). This means that students can opt to utilize their elective options to fulfill certificate program requirements.
  • A specialization almost always requires that the student complete at least one field placement in a setting applicable to the specialization area, but a certificate program might not have this requirement.

Finally, a particular school’s offerings for specializations will diverge from certificate program options. A specialization in Older Adults, for example, may not be available, but a specialization in Health more broadly, with the option to complete a certificate program in Older Adults/Gerentology allows students the option to gain the specialized knowledge and skills for working with this population.

While it can become a bit complicated, students can combine specialization areas and certificate programs to further hone their skill set for working with particular populations or in certain areas of practice.

What Certificate Options are Available?

The availability of graduate certificates for social work studies varies widely by school, as does the availability of specialization areas. When choosing a graduate program, students should explore the specialization and certificate options each program offers in order to ascertain whether or not a school’s program is able to meet the student’s needs and interests.

Widener University offers an online Master of Social Work (MSW) as well as the option of also applying for a trauma certificate to deepen your knowledge and direct experience. The trauma certificate includes two additional credits in a Trauma Supervision Seminar.

A common model is for schools to have broad specialization areas with narrower and more specialized certificate options.

As in the example above, a school might offer a broad Health specialization with a certificate option in Older Adults, or a broad specialization in Mental Health with certificate options available in Trauma or Disaster Mental Health. Thus, if a school does not offer a particular specialization area that a student seeks, a graduate certificate program option might exist that allows the student to gain the specialized knowledge and skills needed for work with a particular population or on a particular issue.

Some common certificate programs offered by schools across the nation include:

  • Older Adults/Gerentological Social Work
  • Addictions Counseling
  • Disaster Mental Health/Disaster Response
  • Child Welfare
  • Leadership and Administration
  • Disability Studies
  • Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Global Health
  • Immigrants and Refugees
  • Native/Indigenous Populations
  • Spirituality and Social Work
  • Criminal Justice/Forensic Mental Health
  • Advanced Clinical Practice
  • Violence against Women

As you can see, there is significant overlap between the topics and subject areas that might be offered as a specialization, and those that are offered as certificate programs. This gives students the opportunity to narrow in on a particular topic or population even if it is not available as a specialization area (i.e. a specialization in Children and Families with a certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy), complement their specialization area by enrolling in a certificate program that is suited to it (i.e. a specialization in International Social Work with a certificate in Violence against Women), or broaden their knowledge and skills by attaining a certificate in an area outside the specialization (i.e. a specialization in Mental Health with a certificate in Disability Studies). The combinations are endless, but allow students additional options for designing the course of study that is most suited to their career goals.

The Mechanics of Attaining a Graduate Certificate

Students can work toward a graduate certificate during their graduate studies, or after completing a graduate degree. Those who enroll in a certificate program during their MSW studies will need to work closely with advisors to ensure that the requirements of the Master of Social Work degree program, the specialization chosen, and the graduate certificate are being met.

In some cases, students can use elective courses to count toward both the specialization and the graduate certificate. Alternatively, students may have to plan to enroll in one or two courses above those required for the MSW degree in order to successfully complete the certificate.

After completion of the MSW, individuals can return to their alma mater or enroll as a non-degree-seeking student at another school in order to obtain a graduate certificate. Having already completed all requirements for the Master of Social Work degree and specialization area, post-Master’s students will only have to enroll in the specific set of courses that lead to the graduate certificate. This course of study can begin at any time after completing graduate studies.

Certificate programs are a valuable option for potential and current MSW students and graduates! Graduate certificates offer social work students further opportunities to specialize their knowledge and skills and tailor their educational curriculum in social work practice to best meet their personal interests and career aspirations.