What Are Certificate Programs? A 2024 Guide

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Certificate programs help you 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 specialized education designed to develop or strengthen specific career skills. In some cases, it is continuing education because it builds on one's knowledge of a particular career or industry. In other cases, it requires no prior education and can help one learn about a subject, career, or industry to pursue related jobs. 

This article will cover the differences between certificate programs and degrees/diplomas, the benefits of completing a certificate program, and how to choose the best program for your needs or goals.

Certificate programs: key facts 

Many different certificate programs are available thanks to the expansion of online education and the growing demand for skilled employees. Whether you’re interested in learning from a reputable college, university, or leading company, you have many certificate options. 

What subjects can you earn a certificate in?

You can earn a certificate in many areas of concentration. While many programs focus on career-heavy topics like technology, business, health care, and computer science, certificate programs are also available in more traditional humanities-based academic subjects, like women’s studies and art history.

You can complete a certificate program in subjects like: 

Certificates generally come in two levels:  

  • Beginner programs are ideal for recent graduates who want to develop their skill set further in a particular subject or industry. They’re also great options for career switchers interested in pivoting to new roles, professions, or industries and require 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 advance in their career but who may benefit from updating important skills or introducing new ones to progress within their chosen career or industry. For example, you can learn advanced data processes using SQL's database management coding language. 

How long does a certificate program take? 

Each certificate program’s length depends on your course of study and where you enroll to complete it. Most certificate programs in Canada take far less time than a degree or diploma because they prioritize practical, career- and job-ready skills. 

Certificate courses and programs can generally take anywhere from a few hours to several semesters, depending on what you’re learning, how the program is structured, and where you’re enrolled. 

Certificate program costs 

Certificate programs tend to be less expensive than university degrees or college diplomas. While some introductory certification courses and programs are free, others can cost thousands of dollars.

By comparison, the average annual tuition for an undergraduate bachelor’s degree (three to four years) from a Canadian university is between $3,900 and $8,800, including living accommodation costs [1]. 

Certificate programs vs. degrees and diplomas 

Postsecondary education institutions in Canada are generally either degree-granting (universities and some colleges) or non-degree-granting (most public colleges, private career institutes, and language schools). Depending on the province or territory, your college might offer a degree-granting program. 

Another growing trend in Canada’s postsecondary education institutions is offering short-term, career- and job-skills-focused certificate programs known as continuing or adult education. Let’s review some of the important features that differentiate certificates from degree- and non-degree studies :  

  • Course of study: Certificate programs introduce students to career- and job-focused skills and knowledge within specific fields, professions, and industries. Ideally, the student is on their way to becoming job-ready in the shortest amount of time. On the other hand, a bachelor's degree typically requires students to complete general education courses and courses in their specific major.  

  • Length: A certificate program typically takes much less time and costs less than a bachelor’s degree or a diploma. Depending on where you enroll, a certificate program typically takes between a few hours to several semesters. In contrast, a bachelor’s degree may take up to four years of full-time study. 

  • Qualifications: According to a report by Statistics Canada, people with undergraduate degrees who subsequently took “short-duration credentials” (diplomas, certificates, etc.) tended to have greater increases in earnings than those who chose not to re-enrol in subsequent studies [2]. Thus, it stands to reason that even with an undergraduate degree like a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of commerce, it pays to obtain further qualifications by enrolling in a certificate program. A certificate can be a useful credential to list on your resume, even if you don’t have a degree or diploma. A recent study found that students who completed a college postgraduate credential had higher wage earnings than those with a non-postgraduate college certificate or diploma [3].

Benefits of a certificate program 

Education offers numerous career benefits. Not only can it increase your earning potential, but it’s also been shown to contribute to a lower unemployment rate [4]. Let’s take a look at a few benefits of completing a certificate program:  

Skills development 

A certificate program tends to focus on skills development so you can get job-ready as soon as possible. Depending on the subject you study, you’ll learn technical skills or the know-how you’ll need to perform work-related tasks. Still, 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 applied learning projects so you can practice the skills you’ve spent time cultivating. 

Resume credential 

As with an academic degree or diploma, you can—and should—list the certificate you earn from a certificate program under the “education” section of your resume. It shows recruiters or hiring managers you’ve taken extra steps to expand your skill set. Furthermore, you can list your new job-related technical skills under your resume’s “special skills” section. 


Many certificate programs, even those based online, feature opportunities to interact with peers or instructors. This can help you expand your professional network and possibly even forge new connections to help you in your career. 

Career pivot 

Changing careers involves several hurdles, including ensuring your skill sets align with your new path and explaining your rationale for making that change to potential employers. 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 requires time to research the institutions or companies offering programs in the areas you’d like to study and verify the curriculum can help get you closer to achieving your goals. Here are four areas to focus on as you consider certificate programs that might be right for you: 

1. Goals

What are your goals in enrolling in a certificate program? Are your goals more personally motivated or career-based, like learning a new job-related skill, building upon or strengthening a skill you already possess, or pivoting careers? Determining why you want to learn more about a specific area, career, or industry can help determine where to begin your certificate research. 

2. Material covered

Once you understand what you want to achieve with a certificate program, review the curriculum for each one you’re interested in. Many program facilitators post their curricula online, including the instructors who teach them. As much as possible, ensure your chosen certificate of study and the instructor who teaches it align with the career goals you identified in the previous step. 

3. Length of time and cost 

Certificate programs vary in time and cost, which are two important factors to consider as you figure out the best program. Perhaps a three-month program better aligns with your timeline than a four-month one. Or maybe the extra time is worth it because it happens to be a program with a well-respected company. Whatever your reasons, ensure you’re clear about your available resources (time and budget) as you search programs. 

4. Flexibility 

Lastly, though some certificate programs are in-person, many are available online. One of the many benefits of learning online is flexibility. Certificate programs are often designed with working professionals in mind, so you can learn at your own pace and from wherever you have internet access. Consider your needs and whether an online program with greater flexibility might suit you.  

Alternatives to certificate programs

Certificate programs are one educational option, and you can consider other paths. Depending on your goals and resources, you might think about the following options: 

Degrees and diplomas: If you live in British Columbia, you can earn a two-year associate degree in either arts or sciences. Otherwise, regardless of which province you live in (including British Columbia), you can earn a three- to four-year bachelor’s degree or a less time-consuming college diploma in a wide range of subjects. Many Canadian colleges also offer “applied degrees” in subjects with more technical career pathways, such as software development or data analytics. With a bachelor’s degree, the likelihood of being employed increases.

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

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

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 how much time you can commit to learning each week. You’ll develop job-ready skills to prepare you for a career in fields like sales, marketing, business, or computer science

Article sources


Statistics Canada. “Elementary to Postsecondary Student Education Dashboard: Enrolments, Graduations and Tuition Fees, www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/71-607-x/71-607-x2022019-eng.htm.” Accessed April 30, 2024. 

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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.