In the past, the way to make it professionally was earning a traditional four-year degree. But nowadays, with so many people switching careers or going back to school to gain more professional skills, that typical educational route may not be suitable for everyone. So if you are someone who is struggling to decide which academic track to choose — a degree, certificate, or something else entirely — read on to find out which program might be better for you. 

What is a degree?

A degree is a form of higher learning where you pick one area to focus your studies on, which in the United States is often referred to as a major. In addition, to your specific area of study, you also take general classes (like history, politics, science, mathematics, and English) so you then achieve a well-rounded education upon completion of your studies. A four-year, undergraduate degree is a bachelor’s. If you earn your bachelor’s degree and then decide to go back to school, you may consider pursuing a master’s or doctorate degree. A master’s degree can take up to two years to complete if pursuing it full time. And a doctorate can take four or more years to finish. 

However, in certain cases, you may not want to spend another four years in school (especially right after high school) or the career you are interested in may not require a four-year degree. In that instance, you can choose to earn an associate’s degree. This degree usually takes two years to complete if you are a full-time student. And if you are someone with an already jam-packed schedule or are working part-time, you can often take these classes online and on your own schedule.  

What is a certificate?

Unlike a degree, a certificate gives you specialized training in one particular field of study. To earn a certificate, you are not required to take general classes, so typically these programs are shorter in length and cost less. A lot of trade and technical job fields only need a certificate in order to be qualified, like automotive and diesel certifications. Similar to an associate’s degree, these courses are often offered online so they are ideal if you are working while studying. To help you determine if online education is right for you, it is suggested to take an online learning self-assessment

Which one is right for me?

When picking which academic route is appropriate for you, it is best to understand what kind of profession you want to go into. Some careers require more education than others. For instance, in order to become a therapist, you will need to earn a bachelor’s degree along with a master’s or doctorate degree. However, some jobs like a massage therapist, automotive mechanic, cosmetologists, or personal trainer just require a certificate or license in order to practice. And some professions, only need some college education (like an associate’s degree) in order to work — like a veterinary technician, ultrasound technician, and dental hygienist.  However, the majority of employers prefer their potential workers have at least a bachelor’s degree, even if it is in a subject unrelated to their profession. And compared to a certificate, having an associate’s or bachelor’s degree can get you a higher salary and additional benefits like insurance, retirement earnings, and vacation time. With an associate’s degree, you can potentially earn $10,000 more per year. And while the benefits of having a degree are numerous, there are certain downsides, particularly with cost and time. Earning a degree can take considerable time and be extremely expensive to pursue. For someone looking to save and start making a living quickly, a certificate program might be the better choice.