Should You Pursue a Master's Degree or a Regulatory Affairs Certificate?

Posted 28 April 2015 | By Zachary Brousseau 

Should You Pursue a Master's Degree or a Regulatory Affairs Certificate?

There is mounting evidence that pursuing a professional or graduate certificate may be a very savvy career investment. The popularity of certificates is on the rise. According to a 2012 study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, certificates are the fastest growing postsecondary credential, and second only to bachelor’s degrees in the number earned each year. About 10% of regulatory professionals now have postgraduate certificates, according to RAPS’ Scope of Practice and Compensation Study. And just this month, noted higher education author and columnist Jeff Selingo asked in The Washington Post if master’s degrees are suffering a decline in popularity because of the rise of alternatives such as certificates.

Master’s degrees certainly are not going away, and if you are looking to advance your regulatory career, earn more money or improve your knowledge, a master’s is an option worthy of consideration. However, it is no longer the only option or, depending on your circumstances, necessarily even the best one. In some cases, a certificate, like the ones available from universities or from RAPS, can be exactly what you need. Each choice can make sense for different candidates.

What factors should regulatory professionals consider in deciding whether to pursue a master’s degree in regulatory affairs or a professional certificate?

What Are Your Career Goals?

Are you looking to make a career move to a better position or break into the regulatory profession from a related field? What kinds of backgrounds do the people in positions similar to the one you want have? Are you looking for a long-term career investment or something that may pay off more quickly?

A degree program, by definition, will cover more material than a certificate program. It will give the student a broad base of knowledge in regulatory affairs or a related discipline, as well as a recognized academic credential. Certificate programs, on the other hand, typically are geared toward developing students’ understanding of a specific area, and can be more targeted to quickly fill gaps in subject knowledge.

Degree vs. Certificate: Key Factors

Certificates do a good job of meeting a specific educational need for those looking to advance or change careers, but lack the necessary background or have gaps that need to be addressed. It also should be noted that there are differences among the various certificate programs. In some cases, credits earned through a university-based certificate program may be applied toward earning a master’s degree later. If you choose to pursue a certificate, but wish to leave open the option of enrolling in a master’s program later, this is an important factor. Certificate programs from RAPS and other professional associations may focus more on regulatory practice and how to apply what you learn in a professional setting, than some academic programs.

“All of the information we provide is developed by expert practitioners and all of it is highly relevant and practical; by their very nature graduate programs are more academic and some may or may not focus on the ‘real word’ aspects that organizations are looking for in terms of hiring, developing and retaining talent,” says Chris Hall, RAPS’ director of education and professional development. “In other words, we cut through the noise and deliver the essential information.”

Regulatory employers are looking for professionals with certain demonstrable competencies. Increasingly, in this competency-based environment, how you acquired the competency is less important than being able to show that you have it.

As has been found in RAPS’ Scope of Practice research, regulatory experience is chief among the factors that make you a more attractive job candidate, but having completed a regulatory certificate program to go along with strong related experience may help you get your foot in the door. Every employer is different, but some are willing to accept less experience if you can demonstrate a specific, desired skill set.

Candidates should be aware of the difference between certificates, including those offered by RAPS, and professional certifications, such as the Regulatory Affairs Certification (RAC). The RAC is a professional credential earned by passing a rigorous exam, and must be maintained through continued professional development. It is not earned by completing specific coursework. Most other professional certifications are similar.

How Much Time Can You Invest?

Time is another important factor. A master’s program is a major time commitment. It generally takes two years for a full-time student. If you are a working professional with a full-time job, you’re looking at four to six years to complete a program part time.

A certificate has the clear time advantage, as it can be earned far more quickly. Certificate programs vary in their length and required coursework, but generally can be completed in a year or sometimes less. RAPS’ online Regulatory Affairs Certificate Program must be completed within six months if you select a concentration in either pharmaceuticals or medical devices. Those opting for the dual (pharma and device) certificate have 12 months to complete the program. In either case, you have the option of finishing the self-paced coursework more quickly.

In terms of convenience, there a number of certificate and degree programs that, like RAPS’ programs, are conducted online. Others may take a blended learning approach by including both web-based and classroom instruction.

How Much Will it Cost?

Certificate and degree program costs vary, but in general certificates cost less. While some certificate programs can cost enrollees almost $20,000 (US), there are many available options that are significantly less expensive, and most any certificate program will be less costly than pursuing a master’s. Degree programs in regulatory and related areas range from around $28,000 to nearly $60,000 to complete. University-based certificate programs range from around $4,000 to nearly $20,000. The cost for RAPS’ certificate program covering drugs or devices is $2,100 for RAPS members and $2,625 for nonmembers. The dual certificate costs $3,300 and $4,125, respectively.

According to another story in the Washington Post, a graduate certificate may help you earn up to 25% more. Given the price point of most certificates, they offer a significant return on investment.

If you currently are working in regulatory or a related area, you also should explore what support your current employer may be willing to provide to help you finance your education.

Explore Your Options

There are many regulatory education options available. In addition to the RAPS certificate programs already mentioned, RAPS also offers a special blended learning Graduate Certificate in Medical Devices Regulatory Affairs in partnership with the National University of Singapore. RAPS also maintains a comprehensive list of regulatory degree and certificate programs on its website. Whatever your regulatory career goals are, there is likely a continuing education program that will meet your needs.

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