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Postgraduate certificates: Unlocking your hidden potential 

By: By Erik P. Southard, DNP, RN, FNP-BC

Investigate your options to find the right program for you.

Periods of uncertainty and unrest provide opportunities for us to reassess our passions and redefine our purpose. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an unprecedented challenge to healthcare workers and tested our fortitude. For many, the perspective gained during the pandemic has created new priorities, while for others a new career trajectory is on the horizon. If you want a career change, don’t overlook one of higher education’s most untapped sources for career development: a postgraduate certificate. 

If you have a master’s degree or terminal degree, you can augment your professional skills with advanced coursework gained through a postgraduate certificate so you can expand your role or make a role change. These certificate programs provide advanced practice RNs with experiences that allow them to master the required competencies and meet the criteria for national certification in a population-focused area of practice. Upon completion, a certificate of academic achievement is awarded.  

Postgraduate certificates are an affordable and efficient path to broadening your skill set, and many options are available to fit your career goals, meet the needs of your community, or boost your income. Most certificates can be completed in 12 months of part-time didactic coursework; many programs require clinical hours to gain experience in the specialty. You’ll need to consider several program characteristics—including cost, delivery method, length, and accreditation status—when choosing a postgraduate certificate program.


The cost of a certificate can vary depending on the institution. Typically, in-state public schools present the most affordable option, whereas out-of-state public, for-profit, and private institutions are higher priced alternatives. Factors such as program quality, faculty-to-student ratio, personalized attention, and board exam pass rates can vary among these options, so take time to investigate them.   

Costs related to a postgraduate certificate extend beyond tuition and learning materials. For example, students in some specialties are finding it increasingly difficult to identify sites for mentored clinical experiences. In some markets, nominal fees may be assessed, despite objections from nursing organizations. 

You’ll also want to investigate the costs of board certification exams, such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center’s Family Nurse Practitioner exam or the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Emergency Nurse Practitioner certification exam. These costs can range from $240 to $500 for initial certification. However, professional organization membership may come with exam discounts. In addition, certification preparation materials are recommended and can add to the expense.

Delivery method

A variety of educational delivery options exist. You can find programs that offer face-to-face, hybrid, synchronous/asynchronous online, and residency-type options. Take the time to understand your preferred learning style and then consider programs that best fit your unique learning needs.


Certification program length varies depending upon the focus. Within each focus area you’ll find variability in credit and clinical hours required by institutions. (See Common postgraduate certifications.)


Accreditation is a critical consideration when selecting a nursing institution. Accrediting agencies (such as the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education) work to ensure nursing education programs adhere to common standards of quality. Accreditation indicates that a program of study has undergone a rigorous and standardized process to ensure effectiveness in preparing nurses for their careers.

Other considerations

You may find an abbreviated nursing certification option appealing, but proceed with caution and consider all the factors. For example, examine the job market to determine the demand for your potential new specialty. In some markets, you may find that certain specialties are saturated with providers.

To gain additional insight, you’ll want to connect with nurses who’ve practiced in the specialty you’re interested in pursuing. These connections may alter your perspective and point you down a different path.

In addition, reviewing the certification criteria and regulatory requirements in the state or jurisdiction in which you’ll practice is important. Some states have specific nuances that providers must be aware of to ensure compliance.

A worthwhile investment

Regardless of what your professional nursing future looks like, rest assured that the outlook for careers across nursing and healthcare is promising. Postgraduate nursing certificates are a worthwhile investment for nurses with a master’s or terminal degree who want a change of pace, career advancement, or an increase in compensation commensurate with their experience.

Although this article focused on nurse practitioners, a number of other specialties—such as informatics, nurse educator, systems leadership, healthcare policy, and population health—offer postgraduate certification. With all of the high-quality programs available, you’re certain to find one that aligns with your future career path.

Erik P. Southard is a professor and DNP program Coordinator at Indiana State University School of Nursing in Terre Haute. 

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