Public Administration & Policy

How Long Does it Take to Complete a Certificate in Public Leadership Program?

How Long Does it Take to Complete a Certificate in Public Leadership Program?
Unless you are already working in the public sector (or as an executive at a private company that interacts with the public sector), attending a certification program may not be right for you. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella May 14, 2020

A certificate in public leadership program can be completed in as little as 20 days. However, it could be decades before you're ready to enroll in one.

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Sometimes simple questions have complicated answers. “Why is the sky blue?” “Where do babies come from?” “How long does it take to complete a public leadership certificate program?”

You might think that the answer to that last question is one quick google search away. And in some ways, it is: it can take somewhere between under a month and over five years to complete a leadership certificate, depending on how you structure your study.

To figure out how long a certificate in public leadership will actually take you, however, you need to understand who completes one in the first place. These programs are typically open to anyone in the public sector, but they are primarily designed for:

  • Government employees (state, local, and federal)
  • Nonprofit leaders
  • NGO heads

The people who complete these certificate programs are often executives in the public sector, or, sometimes, private sector leaders. It can take many years in the workforce to reach the appropriate status to benefit from this certificate program.

So, how long does it take to complete a certificate in public leadership program? The answer is more complicated than figuring out how long it takes to finish the course load. In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Who attends a certificate in public leadership program?
  • What education requirements do certificate in public leadership programs have?
  • How long does it take to complete a certificate in public leadership program?
  • What do you learn in a certificate in public leadership program?
  • How much does a certificate in public leadership cost?

Who attends a certificate in public leadership program?

Unless you are already working in the public sector (or as an executive at a private company that interacts with the public sector), attending a certification program may not be right for you. A notable exception is the program at Cornell University, which is open to “aspiring leaders,” as well as those with existing experience. The Georgetown University Executive Certificate in Policy Leadership (ECPL) program, in contrast, was created “for executives and high-performing mid-career level professionals who require education at the strategic level in policy and policy-making, along with effective leadership skills.” The Georgetown approach is more common among these programs.

So, how long do you need to work before you can be considered a mid-career professional, and what does it take to become an executive? According to the US Office of Personnel Management, those with over ten years of work experience are considered mid-career.

Determining how long it takes to become an executive is a more involved process, and one that depends not only on experience but also on factors like education, the number of positions you have held, geography, and gender, according to a study conducted by LinkedIn. It usually takes a while for people to become executives—if they get there at all.

What education requirements do certificate in public leadership programs have?

Like most of the answers to questions about public leadership certificate programs, the answer is, “it depends.” There is no official education requirement for attending most leadership programs. Since most attract executive-level professionals, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll end up earning a graduate degree first, which means you will need to have a bachelor’s degree as well.

According to the federal government, some undergraduate majors that can prepare students for positions in public leadership include:

  • Public administration
  • Sociology
  • Political science

Hopeful public leaders should seriously consider the following graduate degrees:

Though there are differences among them, each of these programs will prepare you well for life in the public eye. Most programs offer classes specifically for those in the public sector. Subjects include:

  • Data analysis
  • Finance
  • Policy-making

Master’s degree programs usually take between two and three years to complete for full-time students. Part-time students may spend as much as five years to finish. Some schools offer entirely online master’s programs, which are generally designed for working professionals who are trying to attend school and maintain their careers. Others offer hybrid programs (part-time on campus).

Many students accrue a few years of work experience in their chosen field before attending a graduate program—notice a pattern here? If you spend five years working before going back to school, it could be almost a decade (after four years of undergrad) before you finish a graduate degree. Now, some schools do offer combined master’s and bachelor’s programs, but not everybody is the right fit for this option. Sometimes having experience is important for making the most of your higher education.

Programs typically do not require their applicants to have completed a specific undergraduate major. Indeed, many leave the question open-ended, so those with impressive backgrounds looking to change careers can apply. However, some bachelor’s degrees prepare you more for a master’s program in the public sector than others. In addition to the subjects listed above, you might major in:

  • Business
  • Public policy
  • Public service

Where should I earn my graduate degree?

Attending a top graduate school can make or break your career goals. It’s important to attend one that has the specific concentration you want, fits into your budget, and is well respected. Luckily, US News and World Report maintains a list of the best graduate programs for public affairs and administration, and policy analysis.

Schools that top both lists include:

How long does it take to complete a certificate in public leadership program?

Graduate certificate programs—like those in public leadership––can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years to complete, depending on the course structure. However, certificates are not official degree programs the way a Master of Science or PhD is. Consider them supplemental education, because you will likely already need to have a career to qualify for admission. It’s the same principle as renewing a driver’s license. It’s always faster (maybe not the right adjective for anything involving the DMV) the second time because you’ve already spent hours learning how to drive.

Harvard University requires students to complete three different courses (some of which take as little as five days) within six years. Thus, the physical class time you’ll need to complete all your work is a few weeks, but you can spread it out across the timeframe someone might take to earn a PhD.

The leadership certificate program at Cornell, on the other hand, takes three months (straight through) and only requires between three and five hours of study per week. The Cornell program is also completely online, whereas the Harvard program provides both online and in-person options.

Not all public leadership programs are offered exclusively through universities. For instance, the Brookings Institute, which is a highly respected center-left think tank, partners with Washington University in St Louis to create a 20 class day-long program designed for government employees at every level. Though the courses are extremely short (comparatively), there is no required timeframe from Brookings to complete the program.

The key takeaway is that these programs are designed for people trying to sharpen their skills rather than establish them. Current leaders rising through the ranks in their fields and departments are the target audience for certificates.

What do you learn in a certificate in public leadership program?

Some programs, such as the one at Georgetown, offer a prescribed curriculum with no electives. Others offer choices, sometimes supplemented by one or two core courses.

Individual course titles differ among institutions. Here are some sample titles that have been collected from a few of the best leadership certificate programs, including Harvard, Cornell, Georgetown and Washington University:

  • Art and Practice of Leadership Development
  • Behavioral Insights and Public Policy
  • Creating Collaborative Solutions
  • Leadership Decision Making
  • Leadership in Crises
  • Leadership, Organizing and Action
  • Leadership Skills and Traits in Public Organizations
  • Assessing Your Public Sector Organization
  • Motivating Public Sector Employees
  • Public Sector Leadership Strategies
  • Goal Setting in Public Sector Organizations
  • Ethics in Action: Leading with Integrity
  • Negotiation and Conflict Management
  • Public Budgeting & Financial Management

If you have completed a bachelor’s degree, you’ll know that undergraduate education is often bogged down by core requirements. Aspiring gym teachers need to take science, and aspiring scientists need to take English. Certificate programs only involve courses that apply directly to your career goals.

Almost all of the courses detailed revolve around leadership and policy. For instance, Leadership in Crises (Harvard Kennedy School) covers disaster preparation and gaining “the expertise you need to ensure a more successful crisis management process. You’ll also learn how to effectively gather critical information, adapt to unique circumstances and prioritize effectively.”

Even Georgetown’s finance course is specially designed for public servants. According to the university website, the “course focuses on budgeting and financial management at the federal level of the US government from a managerial and policy perspective.” Financial leadership means improving financial efficiency and optimizing results.

How much does a certificate in public leadership cost?

This is the $10,000 question (sometimes literally). The cost of a certificate in public leadership can vary from free to the price of a nice midsize sedan.
Georgetown tuition is $35,319, not including fees and living expenses. Cornell is $3,600 if you decide to pay upfront for their online program—they also offer course-by-course installment options. Harvard only has a pay-as-you-go option for their executive leadership certificate, which means it depends on the classes you decide to take—they generally range from $3,000 to $10,000.

Of course, not every applicant is going to foot the whole bill for their certificate. Working for the government may qualify you for tuition assistance from the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund. You can also look into obtaining a grant, scholarship, or fellowship from a third party. The school itself might provide monetary aid. For instance, Harvard provides tuition assistance, fellowships, and also aid for qualified veterans.

Sometimes employers are even willing to pay (or help pay) for education if they can see the value it is likely to bring to their organization.

It should not be a surprise that paying for a leadership certificate is not always a cut-and-dried process, given the complexity of figuring out how long it takes to complete one. But with the right research, it is possible to pay for your certificate and complete it on your own terms.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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