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How to choose between a certificate, diploma and other qualifications

This article appears in: Changing careers, High school to uni, Pathways to Uni
Student group studying in the CDU library

Certificate, Diploma, Bachelors, Honours, Masters… errrrm?

If you know you’d like to study a certain subject, but not so sure about the different courses, qualification levels and what they all mean, then read on!

The Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) defines the criteria for each qualification, providing a guide on the complexity of each level. Here’s a quick overview…

Certificates I – IV

Generally, you’ll achieve certificate-level qualifications at VET or TAFE and develop a solid base of practical and theoretical specialised skills. You may study towards a certificate for your own interests, for employability or progression in some career paths or to gain admission to higher education, such as a Bachelor’s degree.


You can study towards a Diploma in either VET or Higher Education. Some Diplomas articulate into Bachelor’s or higher degrees (for example, you can do a one-year Diploma of Laws and complete several units required for a Bachelor of Laws) or can be ‘early exit points’ (if you start but opt not to complete a Bachelor’s degree, for example). Or a Diploma could be the level of qualification you need for certain career paths or to enhance your knowledge in the workplace.

Bachelor Degrees

A Bachelor course is the highest level of undergraduate degree. To enter most Bachelor’s or undergraduate courses you’ll either need an ATAR or to have successfully completed a Certificate IV or Tertiary Enabling Program.  You’ll gain theoretical and technical knowledge with depth in one or more disciplines or areas of practice, and successful completion of a Bachelor’s degree is generally the minimum requirement for postgraduate study.

Honours, Graduate Certificate and Graduate Diplomas

These postgraduate-level degrees give a more in-depth theoretical framework of a topic. If you’ve completed a Bachelor’s degree, an Honours is (generally) an additional year of study that can follow your undergraduate degree if you’re ready to take your knowledge a step further.

Often undertaken by professionals looking to progress in their careers, a Graduate Certificate or Graduate Diploma can give advanced knowledge and skills along with the postgraduate qualification.

Some Graduate Certificates can be used to articulate into a Graduate Diploma or higher postgraduate degrees or can be ‘early exit points’. For example, you can do a one-year Graduate Certificate in Clinical Nursing and then complete an additional year of study to achieve a Graduate Diploma in Clinical Nursing. Or you could be enrolled in a Master of Public Health and, if you opt not to complete the full Master’s program, exit early with a Graduate Diploma in Public Health.

Master’s and Doctoral Degrees

Masters and Doctoral degrees can be studied by coursework or by research. In studying towards a Master’s degree (over two or three years, after earning a Bachelors degree), you’ll further develop an integrated understanding of a complex body of knowledge in one or more areas of practice. A Doctoral degree includes MDs (Medical Doctors) as well as PhDs (Doctors of Philosophy) and other research doctorates. A Doctoral degree is the highest AQF qualification level.

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