Certificate programs are short-term training programs designed to help you gain a certain skill or better understand a specific topic. The coursework in these programs typically depends on the topic, and you can find certificate programs for a variety of academic areas, trades and professional fields. If you're considering enrolling in a certificate program, it can be useful to learn more about what such a program might entail.
In this article, we discuss certificate programs and detail how they differ from college degrees, plus we list a few common types of certificate programs, describe how you can find the right program for you and share careers that typically require a certificate.
Many jobs require specialized credentials to prove a candidate has the knowledge and skill to complete the duties of the job successfully. A candidate with a relevant certificate may have an easier time finding a job and advancing in their field. It's useful to know about certificates available in your field, as they can be a shorter and more affordable way to enter an industry than other educational paths.
What are certificate programs?
Certificate programs are specialized educational pathways that help students strengthen their career skills and validate their knowledge in a specific field. Like a degree, a certificate can help you qualify for a job or help you advance within your current career.
Some certificate programs can help you develop the skills required to transition to a new career or earn extra money outside of a traditional job. These programs aim to help students qualify for part-time or full-time employment while providing them with the training required to excel in the field of their choice.
Throughout your career, you may complete a wide range of certificate programs to acquire new skills and potentially even transition to a new job. The particular program you choose may vary, depending on the area in which you're concentrating and your employer's needs. Many certificate programs are available for people who are:
Want short-term training that can lead to immediate employment
Desire basic training to work in a specific field and are beginning their careers
Have years of experience and want to enhance certain skills
Desire a career change
Have an interest in starting a part-time job or earning additional income
College degrees vs. certificate programs
A certificate program differs from a college degree in that it typically prepares you to work in a particular industry by helping you develop a set of specific skills rather than providing you with broad knowledge in a specific subject. Most college degree programs are two to four years in length, while certificate programs are typically shorter and can range from two weeks to more than one year in length.
As a result, most degree programs offer students a wider variety of courses, including courses that might not relate directly to their chosen major. Certificate programs generally offer a more limited number of courses or address one topic. For example, a certificate program in marketing might teach you digital marketing skills, while a marketing degree program might offer a wide variety of marketing courses ranging from digital marketing to professional sales.
Types of certificate programs
Here are a few different types of certificate programs you may want to review before you consider which is the best fit for your career goals:
Free certificate programs
Free online certification programs can help you strengthen your skills and add a valuable certification to your resume. Free certifications can allow you to develop a variety of skills such as inbound marketing, coding and knowledge of business intelligence tools.
Acquiring these certifications shows employers that you're trainable and eager to learn more skills to apply to your workplace. Some companies may offer these certifications as an incentive to improve their employees' skills in their current position at the company.
6-month certificate programs
These types of programs can help you increase your earning potential quickly and may even allow you to gain employment in a specific field upon completion. If you want to obtain skills to advance the progression of your career, this pathway is optimal.
Six-month certificate programs are often available for careers that don't require college degrees but do require several months of training, such as medical coders, emergency medical technicians, air traffic controllers or real estate brokers.
College certificate programs
Each academic institution has requirements for students to meet to enroll in a certificate program, which typically varies depending on the program. College certificates allow you to validate your knowledge within a specific field of expertise. Other technological skills may be necessary to meet the requirements of the college certificate program to which you're applying.
These might include knowledge of specific computer programs or applicable math skills. Some college certificate programs require specific academic prerequisites, such as a high school diploma or an equivalent. College certificates may also be available in nontechnical fields and industries like automotive repair and landscaping.
Graduate certificate programs
While these programs don't replace a graduate degree program, they can help you gain additional work-related knowledge that can help you in your chosen career. Graduate certificates may include areas of study like nursing, project management and finance. These certificates may also allow you to earn credit through your university, enabling you to acquire your graduate degree quickly while gaining valuable experience in the workplace.
Specialized certificate programs
There are many certificate programs available to individuals who have the desire to acquire new skills that may not directly relate to their careers. These programs can help you secure a part-time job or work independently when you're not at work.
There are a variety of specialized certificate programs available in areas like dog training, fitness instruction, bartending and floral design. These programs may have varying lengths, and they typically offer flexible schedules.
How to find the right certificate program
If you've decided you want to complete a certificate program to advance your career, there are a variety of ways to find the program that's right for you. Here are some steps you can take:
1. Ask your employer
If you're interested in a certificate program that can help you in your career, ask your employer what type of options are available to you. They can suggest programs that help you learn a new skill that could also help you earn a raise or promotion. While you're asking about the certificate programs available, you can also consider asking if your company is willing to fully or partially pay for your program if it's related to your job.
2. Gain insight from your professional network
If you're just starting your career or you're transitioning careers, you can speak with your contacts about possible certificate programs. An informational interview is a great way to ask people in your field or desired field more about the types of programs employers prefer or what they think might help you in your job search
If you know people in your professional network who have already completed some certificate programs, ask them for details about the program and the organization offering it. People with more experience in your field may be more willing to offer you valuable information.
3. Determine which programs are available through academic institutions
While a company or other organization may offer some certificate programs, universities often provide a wider range of specialized programs. Spend some time researching the programs available through the community colleges, universities and vocational schools in your local area. Many community colleges offer programs that are less expensive and some may even offer free online certifications.
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Careers requiring a certificate
The following career paths usually require a certificate. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, visit indeed.com/salaries:
1. Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) technician
Time to obtain certificate: Six months to three years
National average salary: $51,990 per year
Primary duties: Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) technicians are mechanics who install and repair heating, cooling, ventilation and refrigeration systems in offices, schools, hospitals, homes and other buildings. Most technicians complete a certificate program or earn a degree from a trade or technical school. Some programs can last up to three years, but six-month certificate programs may also be available.
Related: How To Become an HVAC Technician
2. Building inspector
Time to obtain certificate: One to two months plus field training
National average salary: $53,581 per year
Primary duties: Building inspectors monitor different sites to ensure that they meet all applicable codes and regulations. They inspect ongoing construction sites and finished buildings to make sure that they're safe. Some inspectors have a certificate, but some may also have a degree in a related field.
Related: How To Become a Building Inspector
Time to obtain certificate: Six months to a year
National average salary: $63,977 per year
Primary duties: Drafters use special software to convert designs created by architects and engineers into technical drawings. Most drafters need training in computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) to perform their job. Many drafters accomplish their training through a technical program that can lead to a certificate or degree in drafting. A certificate program for this role typically takes a year to complete, but additional training is often necessary.
4. Web developer
Time to obtain certificate: Two to four months
National average salary: $77,027 per year
Primary duties: Web developers design and create websites for their clients. They create the design and layout of the website and analyze its speed and overall performance. They can work for design companies and marketing firms or they might be self-employed. While some web developers have a degree in web design, others are CIW certified or have a certificate in web development.
5. Surgical technologist
Time to obtain certificate: One to two years
National average salary: $109,740 per year
Primary duties: Surgical technologists or operating room technicians transport patients to surgery rooms. They assist in surgical operations in hospitals by preparing the operating rooms, sterilizing and arranging the operating equipment and helping surgeons during procedures. Surgical technologists typically need an associate degree, but a certificate can help them acquire much of the medical knowledge necessary to perform these duties independently.