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Should You Go to Grad School or Get a Safety Certification?

Jun 28, 2021
Safety professionals brainstorming using sticky notes

There are almost as many ways to pursue a safety education as there are safety professionals. Whether you came up through the skilled trades, joined the military, got an associate degree, went to college for four years or charted another path entirely, your experiences have shaped the way you lead.

For many, that’s why it’s hard to answer the question of whether you need a safety certification or graduate degree to advance in your career — especially since employers often require at least one of these accreditations for senior safety roles.

“A few months ago, I posted on LinkedIn about this issue, based on conversations I was having at the time,” says Rachel Walla, CSP, CIH, safety and industrial hygiene consultant and founder of Ally Safety. “I thought it was interesting to see both sides of it. But the thing that surprised me was how strong the feelings were on both sides.”

Crystal Turner-Moffatt, M.S., CSP, SMS, CHST, construction and manufacturing safety consultant and founder of CDT EHS Consulting LLC, saw Walla’s post and weighed in, saying certifications should come first.

“The knowledge you have to possess to get the certifications comes from experience, whereas a degree gives you book knowledge you have to learn to implement.”

That perspective made her less surprised by the tone of the debate.

“There’s always been a lot of back-and-forth because there are people who do well without graduate degrees or safety certifications,” says Turner-Moffatt. “Ultimately in this profession I think certification is the key and the CSP (Certified Safety Professional) is the gold standard.”

A Career Crossroads: Do You Need a Master’s or a Safety Certification?

When Walla wrote her LinkedIn post, describing a crossroads of continuing education that was unique to safety, she was studying for the CIH (Certified Industrial Hygienist) exam.

“I had never felt weird about not having a master’s, but so many people who went for the CIH did,” she says. “I kept wondering whether it would have been easier to study and pass with a master’s.”

But lately she says she hasn’t wanted to revisit the idea of graduate school. 

“I’ve looked at that option multiple times and I keep coming back to the certifications,” Walla says.

Turner-Moffat says that while she recommends a certification-first approach, her crossroads moment looked a little different. She wonders whether she would have known to consider certifications had she not gone to graduate school first.

“A lot of people in my master’s program, the professors and different people I met, were certified and I noticed that was how people were getting jobs,” she says. “I learned I needed to have the credentials to show people I’m an expert in the field.”

Now, Turner-Moffat is working toward a Ph.D. and teaching a construction safety course at UC Davis in addition to her other responsibilities. She says she’s looking forward to more teaching opportunities. 

What Do Employers Expect and What Do They Value? 

Different employers have different expectations and educational requirements when they hire occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals. At the safety management level and above, the most common requirement Walla and Turner-Moffat say they have seen is for the CSP— though it depends on the position.

“Go look at the job posts for the career you’re pursuing or your next stepping stone and see what they ask for,” says Walla. “Are they asking for a master’s or are they asking for a certification? Usually what I find is they’re asking for a certification.”

Once you know what employers expect within your niche, take time to evaluate what the market values. In other words, are employers paying higher salaries to people who have invested time and resources in continuing education?

Published every few years, the Safety Industry Salary Survey from the Board of Certified Safety Professionals provides an overview of your earning potential at different stages of your safety career. In 2018, full-time OSH professionals with safety certifications earned about $20,000 more per year than those without. OSH professionals with master’s degrees earned about $16,000 more per year than those with associate degrees. 

Can You Save Money by Starting With a Safety Certification?

Money can be a significant barrier to access for those seeking top positions in the safety profession. While you may qualify for scholarships or grants to offset the costs of your education and you may even work for an organization with an employee learning budget, it’s smart to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before pursuing any professional development opportunity. If you’re torn between graduate school and a safety certification, your cost-benefit analysis may lead you to choose the option with the higher earning potential.

Turner-Moffatt remembers how money factored into her decision to earn her Associate Safety Professional (ASP) certification and CSP.

“The cost made me take the process of studying even more seriously because I didn’t want to waste money on the exam prep and the test, even though it was clearly less expensive than going back to school,” she says. “I was fortunate to get a continuing education grant when I earned my ASP and to have an employer who paid for my CSP.”

While Walla started with her certifications, she appreciates the long-term thinking that would lead someone to make a larger upfront investment in a master’s degree, regardless of the potential to earn a higher salary.

“For industrial hygiene in particular, having a really good network is important. If you’re doing in-person classes for a few years at a graduate level, the relationships you build with people in the industry are an added benefit. It’s hard to put a price on that.”

Everyone Has Different Goals for Educational Advancement

No matter how you choose to learn the skills and tools you need to protect workers, there are many paths to becoming a successful safety leader. As you make choices that align with your goals, remember that thousands of other safety professionals have gone through the same process. Reach out to your connections through our online member community, at a local chapter meeting or another event to get feedback from people you trust.

“Some of the best safety professionals I’ve worked with have no degree and no certification, while others have had both,” Walla says. “Neither is a perfect measure of abilities, so it’s important to keep an open mind toward our fellow professionals.”

Turner-Moffatt agrees.

“Striving toward formal educational milestones has made a big difference in my career, but part of what I love about safety is that you can work your way up in many different ways.”


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