As a student advisor and professional within the career development sector, I often field questions about the difference between obtaining a certificate, being certified, or obtaining a certification, credential, designation, diploma, or degree. The terminology can be confusing, a matter not helped by inconsistent application of terms. I’ve outlined the key differences below which will help provide some clarity to get you started.
Let’s begin with “certificate.” There are two ways the term “certificate” can be used. In one instance, it’s an overarching term for training which comprises an individual or set of courses focused on one skill or a closely-related set of skills. Upon completion, students receive a “certificate of completion” and they can list this training on their resume within their education section. There is no ongoing commitment to the educational institution or training provider issuing the certificate. An example relevant for Career Development Practitioners would be Life Strategies’ LearnOnline programs and courses (e.g., Career Management Professional Program).
In the second instances, a “certificate” relates to an individual’s ability to perform a skill or closely-related set of skills which has been reviewed by an independent body such as a professional association or governmental regulatory body. Certificates are conferred after some sort of assessment of proficiency which may include a review of educational achievement and/or years of experience, completion of supervision and/or exam, and even a mapping of competencies or verification of proficiency from employers. The issuing body typically requires an ongoing commitment to continuing professional education, yearly membership, and adherence to re-certification guidelines. This “certification,” “credential,” or “designation,” as it’s more accurately referred to, may be voluntary or required depending on whether or not the profession is regulated. Individuals obtaining certification can put the relevant acronym after their name and can consider themselves “certified.” For CDPs, the Certified Career Development Practitioner (CCDP) is a relevant example of the voluntary credential within our sector.
A “diploma” generally takes 2 years to complete; it is more in-depth than a certificate but less comprehensive than a degree. It is conferred by an educational institution such as a community college or technical institute after completion of the relevant course requirements and can be listed on your resume under education. There is no ongoing commitment to the training provider.
Lastly, a “degree” is an overarching term to apply to training through higher-education institutions such as colleges and universities. There are four levels of degrees: Associate, Bachelor, Master, and Doctorate (e.g., PhD). At the undergraduate level, Associate degrees generally take 2 years to complete and may bridge into a Bachelor degree which generally takes 4 or more years. Undergraduate degrees will have a specified completion requirement in terms of core and elective courses and number of course credits. At the graduate level, Masters and Doctorate degrees may take between 2 and 6 or 8 additional years each. They represent an intensive and specialized level of training incorporating some level of research and, in some cases, student teaching. There is no ongoing commitment to the training provider and all can be listed under the education section of your resume. Individuals with graduate degree typically put the degree after their name (e.g., John Smith, MEd), although some bachelor degree recipients do this as well (e.g., Jolene Smith, BA). Doctorate degree holders can either use the relevant degree (e.g., PhD, EdD, PsyD) after their name or take the prefix Dr. (e.g., Samantha Sample, PhD. or Dr. Samantha Sample). You’d typically only list your highest degree but if you also hold a certification, you can list that too (e.g., Jack Johnson, MA, CCDP).