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Navigating Your Legal Journey: Choosing Between a Master’s Degree and Graduate Certificate

Tess Powell • June 21, 2024
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With so many options for professionals seeking advanced degrees and specialized legal knowledge, selecting the right graduate program to align with your career goals can be daunting. If you’re weighing the decision between pursuing a master’s degree or graduate certificate, this blog post will provide insights to help you make an informed decision.

Comparing Program Structures: The Master’s Degree vs. Graduate Certificates

Master of Studies in Law (MSL)

A Master of Studies in Law degree provides professionals with a comprehensive overview of complex legal matters. Through the legal master’s degree, students gain essential skills in an entire field, rather than one specific subject. To earn a master’s degree, students are required to successfully complete a certain number of graduate courses and academic credits, which affords more flexibility to tailor their learning experience to their goals through a more expansive selection of coursework and faculty expertise. The MSL is particularly advantageous for those looking to make a career change, secure promotions, or apply for higher-level positions within their industry.

Please keep in mind that the MSL degree is not intended to train students for careers as attorneys, nor to prepare them for any state bar exam.

Graduate Certificate Programs

Unlike a master’s degree, a graduate certificate is focused on a specific topic or skill. Because certificates are more focused in nature, they typically have fewer credit requirements and can be completed in a shorter period of time. Those seeking targeted skills and specialized knowledge in a niche area may benefit from pursuing a graduate certificate. Graduate certificates can be especially beneficial for professionals seeking upward growth within their industry or who are looking to stand out among other job applicants.

Making a Decision: Key Considerations

When deciding whether to pursue a master’s degree or graduate certificate, it is important to keep in mind the major differences between the two to understand which one can help you achieve your career goals.

  • Qualifications
  • Time Commitment & Financial Investment
  • Career Advancement

A Master of Studies in Law (MSL) and graduate certificates in legal studies have distinct prerequisites and admissions processes and it is crucial to understand the application requirements and expectations of the program prior to enrolling. Most master’s degree programs require a bachelor’s degree and look for relevant academic background and professional aspirations when considering applicants. Many students pursuing a graduate certificate already possess a master’s degree and are looking to supplement their studies or have relevant work experience but want to obtain a more specialized area of knowledge.

Time Commitment & Financial Investment 

When applying to a graduate program, you will need to consider your professional and personal commitments. Because a master’s degree offers a more comprehensive education, you can expect more coursework and credit requirements. As a result, students pursuing a master’s degree should be prepared to dedicate more time and money to completing the program. The MSL is academically rigorous, and each class requires approximately 12-16 hours of work each week.

Graduate certificate programs typically have shorter durations and fewer credit requirements, making them an attractive option for individuals looking to enhance their skills in a specific area of law while managing other commitments. Certificates can typically be completed in as few as 12 months.

For example, a health care administrator with a Master of Health Administration may decide to pursue a certificate in Health Care Compliance, which can give them specialized training in compliance but save them the time and money required of a second master’s degree program.

Career Advancement

Graduates of a legal master’s degree program — like an MSL — can pursue a variety of careers, including in industries such as compliance, consulting, entertainment, finance and government. Gaining a comprehensive understanding of the U.S. legal system and applicable laws can help professionals increase their opportunities for upward mobility or add value in applying legal understanding to their current role. Many jobs require or recommend that the applicant hold a master’s degree, and it is possible an MSL can help graduates meet these eligibility requirements and remain competitive in their job search.

Similarly, gaining specialized expertise through a graduate certificate can increase your appeal to potential employers. In today’s competitive job market, companies seek candidates with niche skills, making a graduate certificate a strategic choice for career growth and development. Job candidates can boost their resume and break into a new industry by developing a specialization in compliance, business law, entertainment law, and more.

“While MSL degrees offer a broad understanding of legal principles, graduate certificates provide focused expertise in niche areas, which can be highly valued by employers,” says Nicholas Kajimoto, Director of Online & Graduate Programs at USC Gould.


The choice between earning a graduate certificate and pursuing a Master of Studies in Law (MSL) degree online depends on many factors, including career goals, time commitments and learning preferences.

Whether you’re seeking a broad understanding of legal principles or specialized expertise in a specific area of law, USC Gould School of Law is committed to supporting your academic and professional growth. Read more about our Master of Studies in Law (MSL) and Graduate Certificate Programs and take the next step in redefining your career.

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