What are the Differences between Certificates Diplomas Majors and Degrees

Colleges and universities offer many options when it comes to furthering your education, but there may be some confusion about the differences between certificates, diplomas, majors, and degrees.

Certificates are formal records indicating completion of a session or regimen of training. Certificates are usually given for the completion of technical and skill-based training, such as learning how to operate certain equipment or master certain skills, and do not require the participant to complete elective courses or pursue a “well rounded” education. Certification programs are most frequently found at community colleges and are considered a step beyond a high school diploma. Popular certificate programs at colleges include Emergency Medical Technician, Firefighter, Peace Officer, Paralegal, and various certifications for mechanic and clerical positions.

Certificates are popular because they are fast and efficient ways to improve one’s resume or pursue career changes. Many government jobs that offer decent pay and benefits, allowing one to pursue a middle-class lifestyle, only require certification programs. Firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, police officers, and correctional officers and jailers can become eligible for hire with completion of certificate programs at community colleges instead of completing degrees.

A diploma is awarded upon the completion of a comprehensive regimen of study, such as the completion of high school or a university degree. Diplomas typically require lengthy terms of study, often multiple years, and require the student to take classes in many different subjects. To complete a high school diploma, for instance, a student must earn several credits in mathematics, science, English, and social studies. Similarly, to earn a college diploma, for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, a student must earn credits in different subjects as well. A bachelor’s degree at a university will typically require a graduate to complete at least one foreign language course and one course that focuses on learning about a unique culture, with the goal being to produce “well-rounded” graduates adept in critical thinking and interpersonal skills.

A major is a focus of study, such as Economics, Mathematics, Biology, English, or Psychology. Students pursuing a major will take many classes in that field of study. Often students will begin with basic courses outlining generalities of the field and an overall history of the field. Over time students will transition to classes with more specific focus, such as mathematics utilized in the field or technological advances in the field. Often a major cannot be completed without upper-level classes that require a student to observe practitioners in the field, such as an Education major observing teachers in the classroom. Majors that deal with fields of science, engineering, or technology with often require classes that have a laboratory component, with students working in a laboratory as well as in a traditional classroom. 

Upon the completion of a major a student receives a degree. Associate’s degrees are typically earned after two years of full-time study. Associate’s degrees may also be called 2-year degrees. An associate’s degree is considered more in-depth than a certification but less in-depth than a bachelor’s degree, which typically requires four years to complete, giving it the name “4-year degree.” A bachelor’s degree is considered a common yardstick of higher education attainment, with many employers requiring a bachelor’s degree. Most majors at universities are undertaken to earn bachelor’s degrees. 

There are Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees, with a BA indicating more of a focus on Arts and Humanities courses and a BS indicating more of a focus on science and math courses. Associate’s degrees may also be differentiated by a focus on either arts or sciences, with Associate of Arts and Associate of Applied Sciences (AAS) degrees being attainable.

Master’s degrees usually take an additional year or two of full-time study after the attainment of a bachelor’s degree. Master’s degrees indicate that the graduate has learned more specific knowledge in the field of study. Frequently, those pursuing a Master’s degree, also known as a “graduate degree,” must complete a formal thesis project and publish research. In some fields of study a Master’s degree is the highest possible degree that can be earned. Whenever a degree is the highest that can be earned it is called a “terminal degree.”

A doctorate degree can take two or more years of full-time work to earn after the completion of a Master’s degree. People who pursue doctorate degrees, often called PhDs, plan to become professors or professional researchers. Most fields of study offer PhDs. To earn a PhD a student must publish more research and often must teach college-level classes as an instructor, lecturer, or adjunct professor, with the title “Professor” typically reserved for those possessing PhDs.

Some degrees, often called professional degrees, are considered between a Master’s degree and a doctorate degree in terms of work required and prestige. A law degree requires three years of full-time study after a bachelor’s degree, one more than a typical Master’s degree requires, and confers upon a graduate a “doctor of law” title. A medical degree, making one a medical doctor (MD), requires four years of full-time study after a bachelor’s degree.