Diploma vs. Degree vs. Certificate: Key Differences

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 29 November 2022

Published 8 May 2022

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.

Academic institutions offer different awards depending on the type and years of education attained. They have different requirements, job prospects and meanings, making it important to consider which one is suitable for your career path. Learning about the key differences among these three awards can help you decide on which to pursue and how they fit into your resume and career plan. In this article, we define diploma, degree and certificate individually and discuss their main differences.

What is diploma vs. degree vs. certificate?

Comparing diploma vs. degree vs. certificate and understanding their differences can help you decide which is necessary to attain your future career goals. Here are the definitions of each award:

Diploma

A diploma is an achievement that comes from the completion of a single course. It's typically awarded at polytechnics, where students complete a three-year programme in a specialised field or subject of their choice. Students attend classes, complete courses and receive on-the-job training throughout the programme to prepare them for their careers. They typically pursue a diploma after completing their secondary school education. It's recommended for those who have a keen understanding of their career goals and want to develop their skill set.

Some academic institutions may also offer diplomas after the completion of training programmes. Examples of some diploma courses students can consider include fashion design, nursing and business administration. After getting a diploma, they can choose to either enter the workforce or further their studies in universities. Students can substantiate the knowledge and skills learned during the programme by pursuing a university degree in a similar field. They may also choose to pursue an entirely different subject depending on their interests.

Degree

A degree represents the completion of undergraduate or graduate studies at a university. This qualification enables students to select and pursue a specific career path by completing the course requirements of their degree. Besides taking degree-specific courses, universities typically require students to take general courses in fields like humanities, science and business so that they have knowledge and skill in those areas. Pursuing undergraduate studies awards students with a bachelor's degree, while students who choose to further their studies can consider getting a master's or Ph.D.

A bachelor's degree usually takes four years to complete, and universities award it to students who fulfil the minimum number of credits and course load. Universities may grant exemptions to students with diplomas in certain courses like business administration. This enables them to complete their degree in a shorter period of around three years instead. Graduate degrees like a master's degree often require an additional two years. This programme includes conducting research and performing in a teaching capacity. A Ph.D. also requires students to conduct research, write a thesis paper and teach, which can take four years or more.

Related: Undergraduate vs. Graduate Degree Courses: Key Differences

Certificate

Academic institutions typically award certificates after the completion of a course or attainment of a specific skill. It represents the completion of a programme and isn't related to degrees or diplomas. Certificate programmes require a shorter duration for completion and feature fewer courses. Students can earn certificates either through schools or by completing online courses.

Often, certificates are a way for professionals to stay updated with their skills. They might attend courses to learn the latest software for their jobs, like web development, or develop soft skills such as leadership and interpersonal communication. Certification programmes focus on practical training skills and usually involve minimal studying. Another type of certificate is a legal document that qualifies professionals to perform their duties. For example, hairdressers require certification in cosmetology before they can start working.

Key differences between a certificate, degree and diploma

Students can attain these awards from academic institutions. They have varying requirements and programmes. Here are the six key differences between a certificate, degree and diploma:

Programme duration

A certificate, degree and diploma differ in the duration required to complete each of them. A certificate typically takes a few weeks or months to attain, and its purpose is to develop specific skill sets. You can pursue a certification while you're studying or working and complete it on your own time. Depending on the type of certification, you may complete it online either on your own time or within a set period. A diploma usually takes three years to complete and has a similar structure to a degree. Students meet course requirements to graduate.

A degree can take three to five years to complete, depending on how long it takes for a student to complete their course requirements. Some universities may have restrictions on the maximum years of study for a student to complete their degree. This enables students to take a leave of absence if they want to pursue an internship or study abroad for a semester, which might delay their graduation date. A master's degree takes an additional one to two years, and a Ph.D. can take up to six years to complete, depending on the area of study.

Training received

Each type of qualification offers varying levels of training. A certificate provides additional knowledge and skills, typically related to a specific career path. A degree and diploma often give students a well-rounded set of skills. They include a mix of theory and practical training courses. They may also require students to pursue internships to gain working experience.

Programme requirements

Another significant difference between the three qualifications are their prerequisites for completion. Students usually have the flexibility to complete certificates in their own time. They can choose the type of certificates they want and decide on a suitable schedule. Some certifications have a set duration, with a timeline for courses. University degrees also often offer flexibility in timetables. Students can choose the courses they want to take to meet their degree requirements. Some universities also offer certain certifications online, and students can consider online academies.

Diploma programmes have a fixed course schedule for students where they're required to complete a certain set of courses per academic year. They may choose a specialisation within their diploma during their second year, and the type of courses and projects they participate in depends on their choice. Both diplomas and university students may be subject to prerequisite requirements for certain types of courses, and completing a final year project before they can graduate.

Related: What Are Professional Qualifications in Singapore?

Class types

Class types differ between each programme. To pursue a certificate, students usually take classes to increase their knowledge. Classes are specific to the type of certificate and rarely include practical training. A degree programme usually includes a variety of classes, with a focus on theory and research to prepare students for jobs in the industry they want. A diploma programme also focuses on a single subject, but provides more in-depth knowledge and training than a certificate programme. Diploma classes tend to involve more practical lessons and projects.

Cost of each programme

With different requirements and course duration, you can expect varying costs for each type of qualification. Certificates tend to be more affordable, especially if the purpose is to upgrade a specific skill or gain knowledge to make a candidate more attractive to companies. They're shorter than diploma or degree programmes, so students pay less for tuition and supplies. In comparison, a degree takes the longest to complete out of the three.

This can lead to a higher cost, especially if a student wants to pursue a master's or Ph.D. after their undergraduate studies. Students may spend more on tuition fees, studying and course materials like textbooks. In return, university graduates may receive a higher starting salary compared to diploma holders. Students can also consider applying for financial aid or scholarships to cut the costs of their tuition fees. A diploma costs slightly lesser than a degree since it focuses on training for specific industry jobs. It takes lesser time to complete compared to a degree, and this means lesser tuition fees.

Related: Professional Qualifications vs. Academic Degrees: A Guide

Career prospects

To choose a suitable programme for yourself, consider the career prospects of each one. A certificate is often an extra level of training that demonstrates a candidate's ability to perform a task. It can show a candidate's initiative to constantly upgrade their skills to remain competitive. Some skills that people can learn with certificates include software-based skills like web design, and soft skills, like interpersonal communication.

A degree is a typical requirement for some positions, like nursing and accounting. Some careers require extensive skills and knowledge, for which a degree can prepare candidates. A diploma largely prepares students for practical careers where they can apply their specialised skills.

Related: 14 Professional Jobs for 21-Year-Olds Without Degrees

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