What Are Certificate Programs? A 2023 Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Certificate programs are designed for you to develop or strengthen specific career skills. Learn more about what you can study in a certificate program.

[Featured image] A woman in an orange sweater sits at her laptop with a yellow mug and a notebook working on a certificate program.

A certificate program is a specialized education designed to develop or strengthen specific career skills. A certificate program is considered continuing education in some cases because it builds on your knowledge of a particular career or industry. In other cases, it requires no prior education and can help you learn about a subject, career, or industry to pursue related jobs. 

In this article, we’ll go over the differences between certificate programs and degrees, the benefits of completing a certificate program, and how you can determine which certificate program is best for you.  

Certificate programs: Key facts 

Thanks to the expansion of online education and the growing demand for skilled employees, there are now myriad certificate programs available. Whether you’re interested in learning from a storied college or university or a leading company, you have many options to consider. 

In what subjects can you earn a certificate?  

You can earn a certificate in many different areas. While many programs tend to focus on career-heavy topics like tech, business, health care, and computer science, certificate programs are available in more traditional academic subjects, like women’s studies and ancient history.

You can complete a certificate program in subjects like: 

Certificates tend to be divided into two levels:  

  • Beginner programs are ideal for recent graduates who want to develop their skill set in a particular subject or industry—or career switchers interested in pivoting to new roles or industries who need a foundational understanding. For example, you can earn a Professional Certificate in social media marketing from Meta on Coursera.  

  • Advanced programs are ideal for those looking to move ahead in their career, but who may benefit from fortifying important skills necessary to progress in their chosen career or industry. For example, you can learn advanced data processes using the database analysis language SQL. 


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How long does a certificate program take? 

The length of each certificate program depends on what you study, but most take far less time than a degree because they tend to prioritize practicality and job-ready skills. On average, certificate programs take around three to seven months, depending on what you’re learning and how the program is structured. 

What’s the difference between a certificate and a certification? 

A certificate is an educational process that awards a certificate or document verifying your successful completion. They are designed for beginners or those more advanced in their careers. A certification is generally intended for professionals who need to verify their professional knowledge and skills with an official credential, and have passed an exam or met industry standards proving their expertise.


Certificate program costs 

Certificate programs tend to be less expensive compared to a degree, costing anywhere from $50 per month (for several months) to $6,000. Degrees, on the other hand, often cost more because they take more time to complete, and they include additional fees not associated with a certificate program. The average annual cost of tuition for a four-year bachelor’s degree was $10,740 at public institutions and $38,070 at private institutions during the 2021-2022 school year [1]. For a two-year master’s degree, the average annual cost of tuition was $9,000 at public institutions and $29,670 at private institutions. 

Certificate programs vs. degrees 

Both certificate programs and academic degrees are forms of advanced education beyond a high school diploma. Let’s review some of the important differences between the two.  

  • Course of study: Certificate programs are focused on introducing students to a career, subject, or industry and helping them develop job-ready skills. A bachelor’s degree, on the other hand, typically requires students to complete a general education in the arts and sciences before majoring in a specific discipline.  

  • Length: A certificate program tends to take much less time (and cost less) than a bachelor’s degree. A certificate program typically takes between three and seven months, whereas a bachelor’s degree takes about four years of full-time study to complete.  

  • Qualifications: The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that half of the jobs it analyzes require some kind of degree, be it an associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate [2]. For that reason, you may qualify for more jobs with an academic degree. A certificate can be a useful credential to list on your resume in addition to your degree. Or, as many major employers do away with degree requirements, it can serve as an advantageous credential to qualify for more technical or skill-specific work [3]. 

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Benefits of a certificate program 

In and of itself, education offers numerous career benefits. Not only can it increase your earning potential, but it’s also been shown to lower the unemployment rate [4]. Let’s take a look at a few of the benefits that you might experience from completing a certificate program:  

Skills development 

A certificate program tends to focus on skills development so you can get job-ready. Depending on the subject you study, you’ll learn technical skills—or the know-how you’ll need to perform work-related tasks—but it’s also an opportunity to refine key transferable skills, like critical thinking, decision making, and attention to detail. Many certificate programs, including those on Coursera, also feature an applied learning project, so you can practice the skills you’ve spent time cultivating. 

Resume credential 

As with an academic degree, you can—and should—list the certificate you earn from a certificate program under the “education” section of your resume. It can show recruiters or hiring managers the extra steps you’ve taken to master a subject. What’s more, you can also list the technical skills you learned under your “special skills” section. 


Many certificate programs, even those based online, feature opportunities to interact with your peers or instructor, which may help you expand your professional network and possibly even forge new connections that can help you further on in your career. 

Career pivot 

Changing careers involves several hurdles, including making sure your skill set aligns with your new path and explaining to potential employers why you’re interested in making a change. A certificate can help ease that transition, making you feel more prepared, confident, and qualified to pursue new career opportunities. 

Which certificate program is right for me? 

Finding the right certificate program for you means taking the time to research the institutions or companies that offer programs in the area you’d like to study—and verifying whether the curriculum will help you achieve your larger goals. Here are four areas to focus on as you consider which certificate programs are right for you: 

1. Goals

What are your goals in enrolling in a certificate program? Are they career-based: do you want to learn a new skill, strengthen a skill in your wheelhouse, pivot careers? Or are they more personal? Determining why you want to learn more about an area, career, or industry can help you determine the best place to do that. 

2. Material covered

Once you understand what you want to achieve with a certificate program, take time to review the curriculum for each one that interests you. Many programs will have the title of the courses you may be expected to take online as well as the instructors who will teach them. As much as possible, make sure what you’ll study—and who you’ll study it with—aligns with the career goals you identified in the step above. 

3. Length of time + cost 

Certificate programs vary in terms of time and cost—two important factors to consider as you figure out the best program for you. Perhaps a program that takes three months, instead of four, better aligns with your timeline. Or perhaps the extra time is worth it because it happens to be a program with a well-respected company. Whatever the reasons may be, make sure you’re clear about your resources as you go about sourcing programs. 

4. Flexibility 

Lastly, many certificate programs are available online nowadays, though some are still offered in person. There are many benefits to learning online, including flexibility. Certificate programs are often designed with working professionals in mind, so you can learn at your own pace and from wherever there’s internet access. Think about your needs and whether an online program with greater flexibility might be best for you.  

Alternatives to certificate programs

Certificate programs are one form of education, but there are others to consider as well. Depending on your larger goals and resources, you might think about the following options: 

Degrees: You can earn a two-year associate degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree in a wide range of subjects. Of the three types of associate degrees you can earn, an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) is more career-focused and can help prepare you for a career in health  care, paralegal studies, hospitality, and more. With a bachelor’s degree, you’ll likely qualify for more jobs. Bachelor’s degree holders also tend to make more: $1,305 a week compared to $781 a week for high school graduates [4]. 

Individual courses: If you’re interested in advancing your education but you don’t have the time or resources to commit to a certificate program, you can take individual courses in a number of subjects. Doing so can help expand your knowledge. You can find numerous free courses in professional and work-related subjects on Coursera

Bootcamps: Bootcamps are intensive training programs, typically designed for those who work in computer science or tech. Over a shortened amount of time, you can learn pivotal skills, like a coding language. If you need to learn how to code quickly then attending a bootcamp may be a better option. 

Learn more: 15+ High-Paying Jobs that Don’t Require a Degree

Explore further 

Explore certificate programs from industry-leaders Google, IBM, Meta, Salesforce, and more on Coursera. Programs take between three and seven months to complete, depending on the amount of time you can commit to learning each week, and you’ll develop job-ready skills to prepare you for a career in fields like sales, marketing, business, or computer science

Article sources


College Board. “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2021, https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/trends-college-pricing-student-aid-2021.pdf.” Accessed December 9, 2022. 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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