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  • Writer's pictureJosh Atkinson

Masters degree vs Certification? What to pursue during your military transition.

I think this is a common struggle for many professionals. What do you pursue and when. This article will help provide different view points on how to make a decision.

I personally went through this debate while active duty. Especially as my transition approached, it became an even harder. How to I enhance job credibility and relatability.

The difficulty I found originally had more to do with what I wanted to do after transition and I wasn’t sure what would help me the most. I considered an MBA, MS in logistics or MS in Supply Chain Management, MA in operations or management etc. Honestly, I didn’t know much about professional certifications and their value, but I am glad I was introduced to lean six Sigma and the Project Management Professional (PMP) while active duty.

I should have been pursuing a Masters long before I even considered this debate.

One major consideration for me was TIME. I only had 18 months to prepare for transition.

Here were some other factors I was dealing with:

  1. I had a defined timeline. (less than 2 years)

  2. I wanted the best value for my effort and money with versatility. (I wanted to save my GI Bill for my kids)

  3. I didn’t yet know what I wanted to do for a career with enough specificity to invest in a master’s degree or a certification.

  4. I needed something to help me get a job/make me competitive in the job market and also demonstrate my skills to an employer.

For me the choice to pursue certifications was better than to pursue a masters and has been huge for me since I left active duty. This isn’t to say that a certification is better than a Masters, but in some cases it might be. I think certifications are an overlooked opportunity for active duty before and during transition.

As I have coached individuals through this question over the past 6 years I start with a few simple questions:

1. Why are you pursuing education or a certification? Job specific or just to learn something?

a. If job specific, what field do you want to go into and what role do you want to have? *If you are unsure then look at a job posting to see what qualifications are required.

Knowing the type of industry and what position/type of work a person wants to hold/do helps frame and shape what qualifications, certifications, and education might be beneficial.


Certain industries value certifications more than formal education.

IT/Software development tend to value certifications more (Security Plus, C++, ITIL, ACP, SCRUM, AWS).

Areas like finance and business value more formal programs like MBA.

Engineering and construction look for both (BS/MS degree and PE/PMP).

Gov't contracts are looking at certs and education. PMP and Agile are high on the list.

2. What is your timeline? Consider time to obtain as well as your time to transition.

Masters programs usually take about 2 years. Certifications are usually a few weeks.

a. PMP is about 5-8 weeks including the 35 hour class

b. PMI-ACP (Agile) is about 3 weeks including a 21 hour class

c. Lean Six Sigma takes about 1 week including a 35 hour class.

Check out our course catalog to see what's available.

3. What is your budget? What funding is available? Degrees usually cost more.

a. There are numerous programs to pay for certifications like Army CA, AF COOL, USCG CA, Unit funding, GI Bill, Work Force Innovation funds etc. But not all certs are covered.

b. Certain funding options come with service obligations. Tuition assistance carries a 2 year ADSO for officers. Credential Assistance has NO ADSO.

So what do you choose? Here are some pros and cons to each.



  • Affordability

  • Quick Timeline to obtain (weeks not months or years)

  • Both narrow and broad application depending on which certification

  • Quicker return on investment

  • Often demonstrate education, aptitude and experience

  • Cost may be reimbursed or covered by employer or military unit

  • More current to industry trends and advancements

  • Not degree dependent

  • Multiple funding options available

  • NO ADSO for most funding options

  • Maintenance fees can be covered by employers or Army CA funding


  • Often Industry specific

  • Many require experience

  • Not all instructional programs are quality (Flooded market)

  • Often require re-certification/maintenance (why they are respected)

Formal Degree (Bachelors/Master’s)


  • Often Required for upper movement or promotion in a corporation/military

  • Broad acceptance and application

  • More in depth learning and education

  • Costs may be reimbursed

  • No re-certification


  • Long time to obtain

  • High costs

  • May not align to any particular job or industry

  • Curriculum may be outdated relative to industry due to accreditation timelines

  • Tuition Assistance comes with an ADSO.

  • Funding usually requires pursuing degrees greater than what you currently hold.

The choice is not always easy but hopefully this provides some insights that have not previously been considered and a way to approach this decision.

When considering a degree, I advise that you do NOT pursue a degree that also has a certification focus, ie. Masters in project management vs PMP. Get an education that a certification cannot give you to add breadth to your marketability.

I can tell you that for me my PMP certification and Lean Six Sigma Certification and the training I received was invaluable. I used my training on active duty as a logistics officer and planner, and have continued to use the training in my role as a Project Manager in a heavy rigging company, as a consultant with a DOD firm, and as an entrepreneur. I have also now pursued change management certifications and agile PM certifications.

Biggest thing, DO SOMETHING!!!!. Continue to learn and pursue educational opportunities, especially while you have access to free educational benefits.

Want to help us bring certifications to our military members, email We want to bring PM Certifications to every military member around the world. Only need 8 students for live virtual or 12 for in person.

Individuals can register here:

Want group training, fill out a request here:

I hope to one day get a Masters (either MBA or MS in something) but time is a factor now as it was in transition. #Certification #PMProLearn #PMP

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