These are all words associated with getting an education, but what exactly is the difference between a diploma and a degree? And how are those different from certificates and licenses? What about associate degrees, applied degrees, master’s degrees and doctorates?

What Is a Degree?

Let’s start with perhaps one of the most common terms: a degree. While there will always be variations across programs and schools, a “degree” is generally associated with more of an academic environment. This is why you commonly hear of college degrees and university degrees.

A bachelor’s degree, like the Bachelor of Arts I earned in psychology and English literature, typically takes about four years. There are all sorts of bachelor’s degrees, like a Bachelor of Science (BSc), Bachelor of Education (BEd), and Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA). If you’re attending an academic college or university, and there is talk of declaring a major, then you’re probably talking about a bachelor’s degree.

A shorter program at certain colleges may result in what is called an associate degree. These usually involve about two years of full-time study. Beyond a bachelor’s degree, you can then pursue graduate studies for a master’s degree, like Master of Science (MSc) or Master of Engineering (MEng). After that, you can continue on to earn a doctorate degree, like a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).

What Is a Diploma?

A diploma program can also be academic in nature, but it commonly also includes a number of educational programs that are more directly related to a specific occupation. The length of a diploma program can range considerably, but they are usually completed within about two years of full-time study. Diplomas can be awarded by a number of technical institutes and other trade schools, as well as more academically-geared environments.

Some examples may include a diploma in interior design, a cardiology technology diploma, a diploma in broadcast and online journalism, a diploma in hospitality management and much, much more.

What About Certificates, Licenses and Other Pieces of Paper?

Much like diplomas, certificates are also generally related to specific jobs. The main difference is that a certificate program is generally shorter than a diploma program, consisting of about one year of full-time study, if not less. These certificates can act on their own to prepare someone to enter a certain industry or they may be applicable for people who require more specialized training on top of their existing degrees and diplomas.

A license is a little different. It may not technically be related to academic study, per se, but rather it is related to being authorized to practice in a certain industry in a certain capacity. These licenses are typically offered by the related governing body or regulatory college. For example, if you want to be a registered massage therapist in British Columbia, then you need to get a license from the College of Massage Therapists of British Columbia (CMTBC) and this is done by passing the CMTBC certification exam. This is similar to getting a driver’s license, for example.

And then you have all sorts of designations specific to a number of different industries. In Canada, you have the title of Certified Public Accountant (CPA), which recently merged the related CA, CMA and CGA designations. You’ll also encounter a number of “licensed” or “registered” titles, like a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or registered practical nurse (RPN).

At the end of the day, it’s largely a matter of semantics. Some degrees may have a higher perceived level of prestige than some diplomas, but that may not always be the case. The most important thing is to look at your specific industry and job of interest to see what training programs and certifications are available. Make a more direct comparison, as these general terms for educational programs and their bestowed titles are little more than guideline.