Two street signs pointing different directions with the words "certificates" and "certifications"

What's the Difference Between Certificates and Certifications?

Earning new professional credentials can be one of the best ways to improve your resume and boost your earning potential.

But how do you decide which credential is right for you? Do you need a license to practice in your chosen field? Will a certificate give you a leg up in your next job interview or promotion discussion? What about industry certifications?

There's no "one size fits all" approach to career advancement, but knowing what types of credentials are available can help you pick the right credential for your chosen career path.

Professional credentials come in three main categories: industry certifications, certificates and licenses.

Industry Certifications

Industry certifications are awarded by a certification body (often an industry association, trade group or a corporation). Certifications are usually awarded after successfully completing an exam that demonstrates you have acquired the knowledge, skills and abilities to perform a specific job or task. Certifications are usually time-limited and may be renewed through a re-certification process.

Certifications can help experienced professionals move up in their current careers or open the door to starting a new career in certain industries. Some certifications are "stackable," meaning you can earn additional credentials as your knowledge and experience increase.

Nationally-recognized and in-demand industry certifications include:

  • Cisco CCNA and CCNP certifications
  • Microsoft certifications
  • CompTIA certifications
  • Project Management Professional (PMP) certification
  • Professional in Human Resources (PHR) certification

Industry certification courses can help prepare you to take one of these nationally-recognized certification exams.


certificate is awarded by an educational institution (such as UA Continuing & Professional Education) after you complete a course or program. Certificates usually do not expire, and they do not need to be renewed.

Certificates may be specifically required or requested by employers. For example, a Paralegal Certificate may be listed as "required" or "preferred" in paralegal job listings. Even if the certificate isn't required by an employer, it can give you an edge in the hiring process by demonstrating that you have acquired particular skills.


license is a credential that allows you to practice in a specified field. A nursing license is a common example of this type of credential.

A license is awarded by a government licensing agency based on pre-determined requirements, generally a combination of work experience, education and training.

Licenses generally expire after a certain period of time and must be renewed periodically. Licensing agencies may may also have specific continuing education requirements, such as clock hours, or continuing education units (CEUs) to renew or continue a license.

Quick Reference Guide to Certifications, Certificates and Licenses

In a hurry? Download Professional Credentials at a Glance (PDF).

Type of Credential Required to practice in a particular industry Awarded by Requirements Does it expire? Examples
Industry certification No, but may be required for particular jobs Industry association, trade group or corporation

Varies by certification, but may include a combination of:

  • Work experience
  • Degree completion (high school diploma, associate's degree, bachelor's degree, etc.)
  • Continuing education or training
  • Assessments/exams
Usually expires within a specified time period, requiring re-certification
  • Cisco CCNA and CCNP certifications
  • Microsoft certifications
  • CompTIA certifications
  • Project Management Professional (PMP) certification
  • Professional in Human Resources (PHR) certification
Certificate No, but may be required or preferred for particular jobs Educational institution Varies by certification program. Some may have no pre-requisites. No
  • Paralegal Certificate
License Yes Government licensing agency

Varies by license, but may include a combination of:

  • Degree completion
  • Certifications
  • Certificates
  • Assessments/ exams
  • Apprenticeship programs
  • Continuing education or training
  • Work experience
Usually expires within a specified time period, requiring re-licensing
  • Doctors, nurses, physical therapists and other medical professionals
  • Building contractors
  • Electricians
  • Cosmetologists
  • Social workers, counselors, therapists
  • Teachers



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