Certificate vs. Degree (With Differences and Benefits)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated November 8, 2022

Published November 5, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Degree and certificate programs are two of the most common ways to obtain training to start your career. There are many factors that can help you determine which program to choose, including your financial constraints, professional goals, and how much time you want to spend studying. Understanding the difference between certificate vs. degree benefits and requirements can help you decide which is more appropriate for your career goals. In this article, we discuss the major differences between degrees and certificates, identify variables to consider when deciding between them, and discuss the benefits of both.

Differences between certificate vs. degree

Here are some of the major differences between getting a certificate vs. degree:

Duration

One of the major perks of certificate programs is their short duration. You can typically obtain a certificate within a few months, although some certificate programs can take up to two years to complete. They're usually part-time, allowing students to work while studying. Certificate programs also offer flexibility in course selection, allowing candidates to decide how quickly to complete the program.

In contrast, getting a degree can be more time-consuming. Most degrees take between one and five years to complete. Bachelor's degrees usually take four years to complete, though some courses require five years of study. Master's programs usually last two years and doctorates can take three to five years to complete.

Issuing authority

A degree is a document only a university or college can issue to certify that you've completed a period of study in a specific field. Depending on the course, the institution may require accreditation from a relevant governmental or professional authority. In contrast, government agencies, skill centres, professional organizations, universities, and various companies may offer certificate programs. Most certifications don't require accreditation, though employers may consider some as a higher credential than others.

Related: What Are Academic Degrees? (With Types of Degrees)

Requirements

To study in a college or university, it's necessary to first complete your high school education. Many schools require candidates to pass admission exams like the GRE (Graduate Records Examination test), GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test), or MCAT (Medical College Admission Test). The rest of the application process may vary according to the institution. For example, some institutions require candidates to take interviews with the admissions officer or submit recommendation letters from academic references. They may also review your academic and extracurricular qualifications before deciding whether to admit you into the program.

Advanced degree programs usually expect candidates to have already completed an earlier degree. For example, many institutions require doctorate candidates to have a master's degree. In contrast, certifications typically have less strict requirements. Only some certificate programs require a high school diploma. In most cases, candidates can begin the program after paying an enrollment fee. Some programs, especially free ones, may require candidates to fill out a form or complete a test for admission.

Cost

The cost of a degree can vary according to the institution and the course. For example, professional courses with rigorous training requirements like medicine, law, and engineering are usually cost-intensive. Similarly, prestigious universities or those located in busy cities may charge high tuition fees, so it's important to consider your living costs before choosing where to study. In contrast, certificates are usually more affordable. Certificate programs typically require fewer courses to complete than degrees, so their costs are often lower.

There are alternative financing options for candidates considering degrees or certificate programs. For example, many institutions and issuing authorities offer merit-based scholarships and financial aid to interested candidates. Similarly, you may consider a student loan if you need help funding your studies. When deciding on your financing option, it's important you consider your career prospects and financial stability.

Related: 16 Examples of the Best Certifications for Your Career

Job opportunities

Degrees can offer you access to many professional opportunities. As workplaces become more competitive, more employers may make bachelor's degrees a minimum requirement for their roles. Candidates looking to start a career in fields like medicine, law, or engineering may require bachelor's degrees, even for entry-level roles. In contrast, certificates usually offer access to jobs that focus on technical skills, including truck drivers, electricians, and carpenters. Candidates may also combine their certificates with years of experience or other qualifications to secure roles that typically require a bachelor's degree.

A degree can also be an important tool for career advancement in many fields. While you can become an accountant with a diploma, many employers prefer for account managers to have a degree in a relevant area. For these reasons, some people return to study for a degree later in their careers. Completing a degree can be especially helpful for those aiming to attain managerial or executive positions.

Coursework

Most degree programs offer in-depth training on the theoretical background of their subject and the history of their field. Many institutions also require students to complete elective courses from other fields to help them develop a broader knowledge base. Required courses may include topics that aren't directly relevant to your career but can offer different perspectives in your field.

In contrast, certificate programs are usually more specific and less flexible than degrees. Most certificate programs teach only the specific skills and knowledge needed to work in that field. These programs usually exclude courses relating to the field's history or background. Some institutions also allow candidates to convert their certificate programs into a diploma or bachelor's degree programs by fulfilling certain requirements.

Related: 17 Rewarding Bachelor's Degree Jobs (With Duties and Salary)

Considerations for deciding between a certificate vs degree

Here are some variables you can consider when deciding between a certificate vs. degree:

Time

A major factor to consider when deciding between a degree and a certificate is how much time you have. Certificate programs can allow you to start your career immediately. This makes certificate programs ideal for those looking to change careers later in life. Candidates willing to dedicate more time to learning can opt for more extensive degree programs.

Work-school balance

If you intend to work while studying, then a certificate program may be ideal for you. The shorter duration of the program and flexible schedule can make it easier to choose a certificate program that's suitable for you. These programs usually focus on teaching technical skills, which you can often apply at your workplace. In contrast, degree programs are typically more intensive and often require full-time study. Some universities offer part-time programs for certain courses.

Related: Education vs. Experience: What's More Valuable and Why?

Career interest

The career you want to pursue can also determine whether a certificate or degree program is best. For example, you can use certificate programs to enter skill-based professions such as programming, web design, or data analysis. Certificate programs are also ideal for people considering careers with low training requirements, like truck drivers, makeup artists, hairstylists, and bartenders. Degree programs are typically more appropriate for those who want careers with higher training requirements. For example, many law, banking, medicine, and engineering roles require bachelor's degrees for entry-level candidates.

Related: 15 Jobs That Don't Require a Degree (With Salaries)

Professional goals

You may also consider your career goals when deciding between a certificate and a degree. For example, small and medium enterprise owners usually favour candidates with bachelor's degrees when recruiting for managerial roles. Larger corporations may require a master's degree or a doctorate when appointing company executives. Degrees can often provide you with more professional opportunities than certificate programs. Most professional designations require candidates to have bachelor's degrees in relevant fields. You may also begin your career with a certificate program and obtain a degree later, as this can help you gain valuable experience between programs.

Finances

It's important to prepare yourself financially before starting a degree program. Depending on the course and institution, students can expect to spend thousands of dollars on securing a degree. In contrast, certificate programs are usually more affordable than degrees.

Benefits of degrees and certificates

Here are some benefits of obtaining a degree or certificate:

Develop skills and knowledge

Both degree and certificate programs teach candidates the knowledge and skills required to work in their field. While degrees are typically more extensive, certificate programs also prepare candidates thoroughly for their careers. Degree and certificate programs can also help candidates develop valuable professional skills.

Network with other professionals

Studying for a degree or certificate program can allow you to meet students, educators, and other professionals who have an interest in your industry. You can build long-term relationships with these people while attending classes and performing other activities. You may also leverage these relationships for your professional development.

Related: How to Build Your Networking Connections (With Tips)

Access to opportunities

Studying for a degree or certificate program can qualify you to apply for various job opportunities that require more than a high school diploma. Similarly, degree and certificate programs let you take various certification exams and join professional organizations. A degree or certificate may also help qualify you for a leadership role by demonstrating that you have a certain level of knowledge and skill in your field.

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