What is a diploma? (With types and career opportunities)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 30 November 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

A diploma is a certificate that signifies a certain level of education and practical experience. Unlike a degree, diplomas are typically more specific regarding a certain career, take less time to achieve and provide more vocational experience. Before enrolling in a university course, it's helpful to research diploma courses to see if this is a better option for you and your career plans. In this article, we explain what a diploma is, the types of diplomas you can pursue and the different jobs you can apply for with a diploma.

What is a diploma?

The answer to the question 'what is a diploma?' is that it's a certificate that further education (FE) colleges issue when students complete a course and pass examinations. It takes between two and four years to achieve a diploma, depending on whether you study full-time or part-time. Earning a diploma requires a large amount of vocational and technical studies in a particular field. Diploma programmes offer field-specific courses and provide knowledge that is extremely useful for pursuing your career goals. Having a diploma can be useful when entering a new job as it gives you real-world insight and experience.

Related: The complete guide to national vocational qualifications

How is a diploma different from a degree?

Both diplomas and degrees signify the completion of a level of study within a specific field. Further education institutions award diplomas to people who earn a grade of pass, merit or distinction. Universities award degrees to students who study a specific subject. The most common form of degree is a bachelor's degree, which takes between three to five years to complete. When students complete their degree studies, they can receive a first-class honours degree, also known as a 1st, a second-class honours degree, also known as a 2:1 and 2:2 or a third-class honours degree, also known as a 3rd.

The major difference between a diploma and a degree is the type of knowledge you receive from these courses. To receive a degree, you study one subject in-depth for several years, attending lectures at university to learn everything you can about this subject. A diploma involves much more vocational and hands-on experience. Some students studying for a diploma don't attend class at all and can instead complete all diploma exercises and studies online. Studying for a diploma offers more real-world experience while studying for a degree involves more theoretical knowledge.

What are the different levels of a diploma?

There are many levels of diplomas that you can achieve. Some diplomas are equivalent to a degree. Here are the most common types of diplomas and what they include:

Level 3 National Diploma

A Level 3 National Diploma is equivalent to an A-level. People also call this a BTEC Level 3 qualification. BTEC stands for Business Technology and Education Council, which was the institution that first awarded these qualifications. Now many further education institutions offer these courses which focus on giving students vocational knowledge regarding a specific subject.

While a Level 3 National Diploma is equivalent to two A-levels, unlike A-levels, there is no final exam to study for. Instead, you can expect people to monitor and assess you throughout the course and award marks towards your final grade. To achieve a Level 3 National Diploma, you can attend classes and complete several work placements. After two years of study, students receive a Level 3 National Diploma, also known as a BTEC Extended Diploma.

Related: A beginner's guide to earning your graduate degree

Higher National Diploma

A Higher National Diploma (HND) is a level 5 qualification and is equal to the second year of a bachelor's degree program. You can receive an HND with two years of full-time study or four years of part-time study. To apply for an HND course, you require at least two A-Levels. Further education institutions assess HNDs through projects, presentations and hands-on exercises. Depending on what you're studying, you may also complete a work placement assignment.

May people choose to receive an HND so they can start immediately in their chosen field of study. All the practical, hands-on experience gained through HND courses is very attractive to employers. If you choose to continue to study in your field after receiving an HND, you can 'top-up' your HND by attending university. As most universities view an HND as equivalent to the first two years of a bachelor's degree, you can enter university in the third or fourth year depending on the university.

Diploma of Higher Education

A Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE) is like an HND but with more of a focus on academics instead of vocational assessments. It's the academic equivalent to an HND, meaning that receiving a DipHE is also equal to two years of full-time study at a university. A DipHE is an excellent option for students who cannot commit to a three or four-year degree. While both a DipHE and an HND have some focus on vocational aspects, furthering education institutions asses Diplomas of Higher Education in more traditional ways such as academic essays and final exams.

Graduate diploma

A graduate diploma is a certificate that students earn get after receiving a bachelor's degree. Getting a graduate diploma only takes two-thirds of an academic year and completing the course counts for 80-120 credits. It's a short diploma course that most students take to earn additional qualifications before entering a master's programme. This diploma ensures you're fully prepared for graduate school by providing you with all the necessary prerequisite information to succeed in a graduate program.

Postgraduate diploma

A postgraduate diploma is an excellent option if you want to receive further study in your field but don't have time to complete an entire master's degree. Most employers and institutions view postgraduate diplomas at the same level as a master's degree. Receiving a postgraduate diploma takes less time than completing an entire master's degree and doesn't require students to write a dissertation. Studying for a postgraduate diploma takes about 30 weeks to complete if you're studying full time, whereas a master's degree usually takes a year to complete.

Related: GCSE equivalent qualifications

Career options for people with diplomas

Here are a few of the career options available for people with diplomas:

1. Payroll administrator

National average salary: £22,035 per year

Primary duties: Payroll administrators make sure employees in a company receive payments of the correct amount on time. Other tasks include checking how many hours an employee works, calculating overtime, answering staff questions about payments and timesheets and processing holiday and sick pay. Most offices require a BTEC Level 3 Diploma for this position.

2. Graphic designer

National average salary: £25,650 per year

Primary duties: A graphic designer creates visual images for a company including brochures, adverts, magazines, websites and package designs. Other tasks include working with clients to better understand their vision, creating rough drafts to show clients, making presentations and keeping up with design trends and software. They require a Higher National Diploma in graphic art, illustration or art and design to be eligible for this position.

Related: Q&A: What is an intermediate apprenticeship?

3. Nurse

National average salary: £31,213 per year

Primary duties: A nurse works for a medical organisation and cares for people who are sick, injured and recovering from illnesses. Some of their daily tasks include taking and recording patients' vital signs, using medical equipment, monitoring patient progress, cleaning and dressing wounds and helping doctors with physical examinations. There are different levels of nursing, but most hospitals and medical establishments require at least a Diploma of Higher Education in nursing.

4. Counsellor

National average salary: £30,298 per year

Primary duties: A counsellor helps people discuss and process their feelings in a confidential and safe setting. They get clients to talk about their feelings and give them strategies based on psychological theories and practices that can help them handle problems. They work in a variety of settings, including schools, therapy centres, GP practices or even from their own homes. Counsellors typically have a Diploma of Higher Education or a Level 5 Diploma in Therapeutic Counselling.

5. Education administrator

National average salary: £24,042 per year

Primary duties: An education administrator ensures that a school meets the educational standards and needs of a particular community. They work closely with students and teachers to further understand the needs and interests of the community. Other tasks include keeping track of administrative and financial records, providing training for new teachers and recruiting new teachers and volunteers. Most educational institutions require a Postgraduate Diploma for this position.

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries‌ ‌may‌ ‌‌vary‌‌ ‌depending‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ ‌hiring‌ ‌organisation‌ ‌and‌ ‌a‌ ‌candidate's‌ ‌experience,‌ ‌academic‌ background‌ ‌and‌ ‌location.‌

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