This week I had a discussion with a friend – she’s is a mature professional who wanted to upskill. While chatting, she said, “Some people may be intimidated if they have to do a whole course at once. I know it was indicated that single courses can be had. For me personally I’d prefer to start small. Certificate first…especially in courses like psychology.” As I listened to her expressed concern, I realised that, especially as she is new to online learning, searching for the most suitable programme is a challenge because she is trying to decide which to do – a Certificate, a Diploma or a Degree?

She is not alone.

In March 2020, The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), reported that “an unprecedented number of children, youth and adults are not attending schools or universities because of COVID-19,” with governments in 100 countries having announced or implemented closures. In 85 countries, schools nationwide have been closed, affecting more than 776.7 million children.

Over 776 MILLION! Wow!

This number accounts for those already attending school, however, as COVID-19 triggered an increase in unemployment (and the restructuring of businesses), there has been a surge in the need for many individuals in the working class to either upskill or retool. I think that it’s safe to assume that the amount of “students” that are not “in a school” is way more than 776 million. Get what I’m, saying?

Also, just like my friend, more people are considering enrolling in programmes to learn a new skill or enhance their professional resumes. I see the number increasing even more now.

If you are new to online learning read this: 5 Tips for New Online Learners

That got me thinking about how many people are experiencing the same dilemma. This must be quite the anxiety-inducing pickle to be in. So in order to help persons, like my friend, make an informed decision I decided to present some information that I believe would be helpful.

Certificate, Diploma or Degree? Let’s define them first with some explanations for each.

What is a Certificate?

Insert name and course *smile emoji*

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a certificate as:

  1. “an official document that states that the information on it is true, e.g. a birth/marriage/death certificate or a doctor’s/medical certificate”, or
  2. “the qualification that you receive when you are successful in an exam”, e.g. a Certificate in Plumbing.

We’ll move ahead with definition #2, of course. Certificates are attained through short courses or programmes which have varying timeframes:

  • A few hours e.g. a Certificate of Participation in a music workshop.
  • A day – you know, like that one time your boss sent the department to learn High Impact Business Writing and you didn’t want to go and then you were glad you went, but you probably still don’t use it because the office has templates *slaps forehead*.
  • A few weeks (usually about 6-8 weeks) e.g. a certificate in Social Media Management.
  • A few months e.g. a Certificate in Cosmetology.

A certificate is cost-efficient and focuses on a specific area or skill. This way you can gain that particular skill without years of schooling. It’s also great if you’re looking to make a career shift. However, its main limitation is that you may not be able to make any move outside of the chosen discipline; unless you do additional certificates.

What is a Diploma?

Your entry to another career.

The Macmillan Dictionary clearly explains a diploma as:

  1. “a course of study at a college or university in  vocational subject (one that prepares you for a particular job) e.g. a Diploma in Psychology.”
  2. “a course of study at a college or university in an academic subject that people sometimes do after getting a degree.” 

Diplomas (or career diplomas) are more comprehensive than certificates and take a bit longer to get, but can be obtained in a year or two. Diplomas are field-specific and are mostly offered in technical and vocational areas like massage therapy and Information Technology.

Diplomas cost less than degrees and have minimal, if any, prerequisites. They concentrate on the skills necessary for the field. The limitation of a Diploma is that it’s just that, a Diploma. You may end up feeling like you’re in limbo and not quite at the finish line with your new certification; it’s above a certificate and just below a degree – get what I mean?

What is a Degree?

You’ll be proud, and relieved, when you’re done.

The definition given by Britannica is as follows:

Degree, also called academic degree, in education, any of several titles conferred by colleges and universities to indicate the completion of a course of study or the extent of academic achievement.”

Study.com pulls out all the stops to give us the full overview of this type of “certification”:

You can read more about what each entails by clicking here.

The first thing to note about a Degree is that degrees are often a requirement by employers. They take more than two years to complete and are more all rounded with the courses that are enveloped within the programme. Since degrees include elective courses e.g. a language or an art of some form like public speaking (I think public speaking is an art), you end up gaining more intellectual range which gives you a solid foundation to choose different career paths. I’ll give you a personal example.

I did my Bachelor of Arts Degree in Mass Communication. It took me 6 years to do as a part-time student. I know what you’re thinking, “That’s crazy!” right? Yeah, well, it is usually a 4-year full-time programme. Anywhos -it was the best 6 years of my life. I loved every course. I did history, social media management, speech writing and public speaking, website development, photography, journalism, economics and accounting, Spanish. The list was extensive; as you could imagine. At the end, I specialised in Public Relations. I was able to apply for many types of jobs because of this degree. I never regretted it.

So, how do you choose?

Certificate, Diploma or Degree?

I’ll give you five overarching considerations to help you decide. Please note that, each of these prompters speak directly to the scope of your budget and the urgency you’ve placed on upgrading your credentials. Also know that there will be some overlapping features.

#1 Is it complementing a qualification you already have?

Recommended – Certificate.

A certificate would give you the specialisation you require within a targeted discipline. It’s very good to do if you need to fill a gap, expand your skill-set portfolio or modernise an existing skill to adjust in a timely manner with changing markets. Doing a certificate would signal “adaptability”!

#2 Will it give you access to another, or higher, position within your career?

Recommended Diploma or Degree.

Diplomas are like Associate’s Degrees (which I did not elaborate on, I know). They are more significant than certificates but not as weighty as degrees. Because they cost more and take a longer time to earn, there is a higher level of seriousness that is projected with this qualification. Doing a Diploma is usually the first step in beginning a career change, but it is also a great way to position yourself a specialist in a particular area. It signals “decisiveness”!

#3 Is it an entryway into another field or entrepreneurship?

Recommended – Diploma

As the definition states, diplomas are attained for certain fields and are heavily focused on what is needed for that career, only. If you wish to move on from being an employee and become an entrepreneur, or perhaps you want to consider consultancy in an area you are passionate about, a diploma will open that door for you with a reasonable budget and a shorter time frame. It signals “advancement” or “liberty”!

#4 Does it make you more marketable?

Recommended – Certificate.

If you’re looking to become more marketable, you need to sprinkle a few tokens on your resume. Assess your environment, survey job postings, pay attention to the evolution of business operations. You’ll begin to see what’s missing. More so, you’ll notice which of the missing things you can actually do and you should get on. It signals that you are “forward-thinking”!

Read more about skills you should learn here: 6 skills every student should learn – or be able to do

#5 Is it a stepping stone for something greater?

Recommended – Degree (or selectively, Diploma).

Are you seeking to meet the market requirement for a stable job? Do you intend to climb the academic ladder within a chosen career path? While a diploma will steer you to where you wish to go, a degree will definitely authorise your arrival. If the degree is an undergraduate degree, it is also an essential qualification to obtain a higher-level degree such as a Master’s, Master of Philosophy (MPhil), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), or a Doctorate. A degree, undoubtedly, takes much longer to earn and costs more; in every way. Both shift your potential for better compensation packages; positively. Of the two, a degree is clearly more formidable. It signals “professional”!

Final thoughts: I hope this information provided enough fodder to make contemplating your next step easier. Any decision to obtain a new qualification should be applauded. It should matter a lot because your name will be on that final, validating, paper and your resume will carry that new qualification. So, decide where you want to be and just begin!

The Graduate Guru will be your silent cheerleader *wink*. Now get to it!

Let’s have a chat about your concerns?

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