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Explained: Your 101 guide to certificates, diplomas and degrees

This article appears in: Changing careers, High school to uni, Pathways to Uni
CDU student Zoe White using a book vending machine

Certificate, diploma, bachelor, honours, master… errrrm? If you know you’d like to study a certain subject, but aren't sure sure about the different courses, qualification levels and what they all mean, then read on!

The background: in Australia, tertiary qualifications are regulated by a Government policy called the Australian Qualifications Framework. The Framework has several different levels, which outlines what learning outcomes a course should deliver, how courses are accredited and developments and how students can move between courses.

This is important because it helps to ensure Australian universities deliver quality courses. 

One other thing to know is that there are two types of tertiary education in Australia: vocational training (which is skills-based training typically for hands-on industries and jobs) and higher education (which tends to combine an academic and practical focus and results in a degree that you may need to work in certain professional roles). 

So, which 'level' is right for you?  

Certificates I – IV

Culinary arts student in commercial kitchen

Generally, you’ll achieve certificate-level qualifications at a vocational training institution (like Charles Darwin University) and develop a solid base of practical and theoretical specialised skills.

You may study a certificate to learn more about an area that interests you (such as horticulture or creative arts), make yourself more employable or progress in some career paths (such as in business, hospitality or the trades), or as a pathway to a higher level of education like a bachelor's degree

Read more: What kind of vocational training course should I study?


You can study a diploma as either a vocational training or higher education qualification. 

You may study a diploma to meet the minimum training requirements for certain career paths (to work as a diploma qualified educator in early childhood for example), to boost your skills and knowledge in the workplace (for example by studying a diploma in leadership or management), or as a pathway to a bachelor's degree (for example by studying a diploma of laws). 

Bachelor degrees

Study Education at CDU

A bachelor's degree is the highest level of an undergraduate degree. You'll study a bachelor's degree to gain theoretical and technical knowledge in several areas of practice. Depending on your degree, you'll combine academic studies with practical placements and intensives. 

A bachelor's degree is a minimum requirement for some professions (for example, to register as a lawyer, nurse, teacher or social worker). 

There are many ways to get into a bachelor's degree, including on the basis of your Year 12 results, work or study history, via a special admissions test, or by successfully completing a free tertiary enabling program

Honours, graduate certificates and graduate diplomas

Nurse with young patient

Honours, graduate certificates and graduate diplomas are classed as postgraduate degrees. In order to study a postgraduate degree, you must first hold an undergraduate degree. 

Postgraduate degrees give you more in-depth theoretical knowledge of a particular study area.

An honours degree is (generally) an extra year of study that can follow your undergraduate degree if you're ready to take your knowledge a step further. 

A graduate certificate or graduate diploma is ideal for professionals who are looking to progress their careers, but aren't yet ready to commit to a full master's degree.

In saying that, you can typically transfer credits from a graduate certificate to higher level qualification; so if you're keen to do postgraduate study but worried about the time commitment, start with a graduate certificate or diploma and you can consider extending your studies with a master's degree. 

Similarly, if you start a master's degree but decide not to finish, you can usually exit with either a graduate certificate or diploma. 


Master’s and doctoral degrees

Darwin Centre Bushfire Research Researchers

Master's degrees and doctoral degrees are also postgraduate degrees and the highest qualifications you can obtain. They can be studied by coursework or research.

A master's degree will help you develop an integrated understanding of your field or area of interest and will set you apart in your industry. 

A doctoral degree includes medical doctors, doctors of philosophy and other research doctorates. It will establish your 'expert' status! 

Charles Darwin University is one of Australia's leading dual-sector institutions, which means we offer both vocational training courses and higher education degrees. Explore our wide range of courses and join us to start building your new world today. 

Explore 300+ courses

Certificates, diplomas and degrees

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