Graduate certificate in nursing programs guide

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Graduate and post-graduate nursing

After qualifying as a Registered Nurse (RN) and having worked in clinical practice, there are a vast amount of opportunities for further and focused study. Many nurses seek to advance their career through specialized nursing graduate programs. After taking a master’s degree in nursing (MSN), you may decide that you want to concentrate on a niche aspect of practice, or even move to an area in which you have not specialized before. Graduate certificates in nursing help you make these careers moves.

A graduate certificate is a qualification that is awarded after you complete a non-degree, graduate level program in a specialized area. These courses are offered both online and on campus. The flexible nature of online study makes these courses both attractive and popular with working nurses seeking to augment and broaden their career.

Many nursing career paths require graduate certification which can orient your career trajectory towards mastering specific skills, advanced clinical practice, or healthcare management. With the high demand for qualified nurses, these qualifications can be appealing and also raise your earning potential. The diversity of these programs means that you have a variety of choices in identifying a specialty and mode of study that suits you.


Most graduate certificate programs are focused post-graduate courses. They are sometimes referred to as post-graduate certificates, or even post-master’s certificates. This means that the majority require that you hold a master’s degree or higher in nursing (MSN / DNP) or, in some cases, a transferable master’s degree, perhaps in psychology or biology. Some programs in healthcare management will accept students with an undergraduate degree, or on occasion, those with advanced work experience. Rarely, pre-degree programs are referred to as graduate certificate courses, these are pre-licensure diploma courses in nursing and are not to be confused with the advanced study of most graduate certificates.

Most programs require that you have a GPA of 3.0 in an MSN program along with a set number of clinical hours and letters of recommendation.

Course options and duration

Most graduate certificate programs can be completed in approximately 1 year to 15 months depending on the mode of study. Online and hybrid courses are common, allowing you to work and fulfil the practical and clinical hours required for graduation. Many courses will also be site based in-person programs, especially if they require extensive clinical practice. You may choose to extend your study as it best fits with your work and other obligations. Some courses have a maximum time limit for completion, often of up to 2 years. Admission times vary depending on state and institution, many programs will accept student intake at the start of each semester.

What will you study?

As graduate certificates include such a variety of specialties, you are likely to study focused courses on your area of specialization. For example, a program on nursing education may include courses on principles of teaching nursing, innovation in teaching, and clinical teaching. The focus of these programs is to enhance skills associated with clinical practice and to sharpen critical thinking skills. Even though graduate certificates are specialized, they do not confine you to a particular type of nursing. The advanced level of these programs mean that they are valuable as evidence of professional development as you move vertically or horizontally in your career. A selection of the type of programs and courses available includes:

Post-graduate certificate in mental health courses include:

Mental health policy and advocacy: the role of the PMHNP

Advanced child/adolescent PMH assessment and intervention


Graduate certificate in nurse education courses include:

Curriculum development in nursing

Microteaching in nursing

Theoretical concepts in nursing education: proactive teaching

Post-master’s certificate in nurse midwifery courses include:

Nurse leadership

Advanced pharmacology

Skills lab for sexual, reproductive and gender health

Further study

Most people who study a graduate certificate in nursing, already have an MSN, or in some cases a DNP. At this level, further study is usually directed to new specializations. Graduate certificates are ranked above MSN and below DNP, but it is not unusual for a nurse with a DNP to pursue further graduate certificates. These choices relate to your own career aspirations and professional interests.

Costs of programs

Your average program will cost approximately $10,000 irrespective of the duration of your study. Prices do vary depending on institution and will often include extra costs for insurance and books.

Financial aid

There are various opportunities to apply for financial aid for graduate programs from both private and publicly funded sources. In the United States, the FAFSA provides free applications for federal financial aid for graduate programs. Further options include student loans, work study programs, and public service loan forgiveness PSLF programs.


As with all nursing qualifications accreditation, it is vital for you to be able to use your qualification in the work environment. Look closely and ensure that your chosen program is accredited with either the ACEN (Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing) or the CCNE (Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education). Accredited universities and teaching hospitals will always include details of their accreditation and list who the accrediting body is.


To qualify for graduate programs in nursing you will need to hold RN status and require licensure in the state you are working or studying. The standardized National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) is the licensing required in the USA and Australia. Sitting the NCLEX will cost approximately $200 and tests are available all year round. The license requires renewal every 2 years with stipulations for the amount of time accrued in practice since the last renewal.

Career options

The job opportunities for graduate certificates are broad and provide a way for nurses to specialize and enter new areas of nursing. The main areas can be summarized as, advanced practice, education, and healthcare management. Even within these areas there are numerous sub-specialties. A brief selection of some career options includes:

Are trained to a diagnostic level. They focus on evaluating the needs of patients and can prescribe their treatments. In the United States, the extent of your practice is regulated by the state in which you are working. At least 21 states allow you to operate full practice authority, others require the supervision of a physician. The area of your work in the specialization can be broad and include specific domains such as adult-gerontology, neonatal, pediatric, psychiatric, and women’s health amongst others. The average annual salary for nurse practitioners is $95,262.

Are advanced practice nurses trained to provide guidance and treatment for specific conditions. They specialize in evidence-based practice at a clinical level. As a clinical nurse specialist you might be responsible for developing treatments, not just for individual patients but potentially for large populations and communities. The average annual salary for nurse practitioners is $90,767.

These professionals offer a range of care for pregnant women and newly delivered infants. Working in this role you would provide care for labor and delivery. You would similarly devise a program of care tailored to the mother and child and their specific needs. The average annual salary for certified midwives is $76,000.

Advanced practice nurses who administer anesthetics to patients. As they largely operate autonomously in most states, they require post-graduate training, either holding at least an MSN or DNP qualification. The profession has moved towards higher level qualifications and thus graduate certificates offer a path into this niche. Their responsibilities include monitoring and consulting with patients under their care and ensuring that the correct program of anesthesia is applied. The average annual salary for certified nurse anesthetists is $155,078.

These specialists use technology to analyze an array of medical data. This is a specialization that will appeal to highly organized and analytical nurses with an interest or flair for computer science. The growth in healthcare technology has led to an expansion in nursing informatics and their rising importance in how nursing is performed. The average annual salary for a nurse informaticist is $78,451. At the higher end of the scale, a clinical informatics manager will have an average annual salary of $93,645.

Can be any RN with advanced graduate education recruited to teach and train other nurses. Their training requires competency in teaching licensed RNs and also graduate nursing students. The average annual salary for a nurse educator is $76,480.

There are a number of professional organizations that help support nurses, providing advocacy for a range of work and study issues. They will often provide further information, a knowledge base and networking groups. These groups include:

American Association of Nurse Practitioners

The AANP was established in 2013 to advocate and support nurse practitioners. It has more than 114,000 members and has a mission to empower nurse partitioners in their work and professional development.

American Organization for Nursing Leadership

AONL was founded in 1967 under the parent organization of the American Hospital Association. The AONL organize an annual conference with aims to support nursing leaders.

Association for Nursing Professional Development

ANPD has over 30 years experience in supporting special practice and professional development. It has over 5000 members with monthly newsletters, journals, and webinars throughout the year.

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