Want to gain specialist knowledge and boost your career prospects without taking a Masters degree? Consider studying for a postgraduate diploma or certificate...

What are postgraduate diplomas and certificates?

Postgraduate diplomas and certificates are taught postgraduate courses at level 7 on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) - the same level as Masters degrees. However, they are shorter and you won't have to proceed to the dissertation stage. This makes them a good option if you are interested in pursuing postgraduate study, but don’t want to commit to a full Masters course.

Available in a wide range of subjects, postgraduate diplomas and certificates can be studied full or part time. Some are academic, with similar content to Masters degrees, while others are vocational and include work placements. They usually follow on from undergraduate study in a similar subject, and are also popular with professionals looking to improve their CV or change careers.

The main difference between the two qualifications is that a postgraduate diploma (PGDip, PgDip, PG Dip, PGD or PgD) is more extensive, generally taking around 30 weeks to complete if studied full time. This compares with 15 weeks for a postgraduate certificate (PGCert, PgCert, PG Cert, PGC or PgC).

These courses should not be confused with graduate diplomas (such as the Graduate Diploma in Law or GDL), which cover undergraduate-level content.

Types of postgraduate qualifications

While you can find postgraduate diplomas and certificates in many different subject areas, there are specific qualifications for entry into certain careers. Examples of these include: the Legal Practice Course (LPC), for those who want to enter the legal profession; the PGDip in Social Work; and the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE), for students looking to enter teaching. The latter's Scottish equivalent is the Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE). To see what else is available, search postgraduate diplomas and certificates.

How does it differ from a Masters degree?

Postgraduate diplomas and certificates are at the same level of study as Masters degrees, so the work involved is equally challenging, but there are some important differences. While a Masters degree typically takes one year to complete and is made up of modules worth 180 credits, a PGDip takes around two terms (30 weeks, 120 credits) and a PGCert one term (15 weeks, 60 credits). As such, they can be considered equivalent to two thirds and one third of a full Masters respectively. They may be more suitable for you if you're not interested in academic research, because you will not have to write a dissertation.

Some PGDip and PGCert courses are more vocational than a traditional Masters, while others are academic. Many universities offer the same subject in multiple formats, meaning it can be possible to switch between courses - for example, converting a PGDip into a Masters by completing a dissertation. Alternatively, if you're studying for a Masters but leave the course early, you may still be awarded a PGDip or PGCert if you have gained enough credits. Check with your institution to find out whether these options are available.

What does a postgraduate course involve?

Courses are usually taken on a full-time basis, but part-time study, distance learning and online options are also available. This flexibility means you can combine your studies with gaining work experience, which can improve your employability. Search for distance learning postgraduate diplomas and certificates.

The structure of courses is usually similar to a standard taught postgraduate degree, consisting of lectures, seminars and essays. You'll be expected to commit at least ten hours every week to your own study outside the classroom. Some postgraduate diplomas and certificates, such as the PGCE, contain work placements as a core feature of the qualification, and vocational courses will generally include more practical assignments.

Assessment is typically through coursework, a portfolio, practical assessments and sometimes exams. They are graded in the same way as Masters degrees and you'll be awarded a pass, merit or distinction.

What are the entry requirements?

Most universities ask for at least a 2:2 at Bachelors level, although some qualifications, such as the PGCE, may demand a 2:1. You should contact the department you want to study at if you don't meet the standard criteria, as many universities consider students with lesser qualifications but significant practical work experience.

English requirements vary, but generally your grasp of the language must be strong. Check the entry requirements for your chosen career with our job profiles.

How much does a postgraduate diploma cost?

Costs range dramatically, but it's generally not as expensive as you'd expect. Both postgraduate diplomas and postgraduate certificates usually cost less than a Masters. Many programmes are available for around £5,000 for UK or European Union (EU) students, but non-EU students can be charged twice this amount.

Although these courses are not eligible for the government's new postgraduate loans, other funding options are available, depending on your course. For example, PGCE students specialising in certain subjects may be awarded a bursary. Universities may also offer special rates for undergraduate alumni and you may be eligible for a Professional and Career Development Loan (PCDL). Alternatively, if you're employed, find out if your employer is willing to sponsor you.

What are the benefits of postgraduate study?

Postgraduate diplomas and certificates can be beneficial because they:

  • give you the opportunity to obtain a postgraduate qualification without the same financial or time commitments of a full Masters degree;
  • allow you to change career or kick-start careers in professions such as teaching;
  • give you the specialist knowledge, for example to progress to a PhD;
  • improve your career prospects and increase your earning potential.

The employment prospects of postgraduate diploma and certificate graduates are extremely strong, with 94% of 2013/14 graduates in employment six months after leaving university, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

However, it's important to remember that postgraduate study is not the best option for everyone. Employers in some sectors prefer that you have extensive work experience rather than additional academic qualifications. Therefore, you need to be sure that a PGDip or PGCert is right for you before committing, especially given the cost of taking a course.

How do I find a postgraduate course in the UK?

As you search for postgraduate diplomas and certificates and attend university open days, you should think about the following:

  • Course content - how many lectures and tutorials will there be? How many days a week do you need to attend?
  • Department ranking - which universities excel in your subject area in the various rankings that are available?
  • Employment prospects - is the qualification necessary for progression in your career? How many graduates have jobs, and what are these jobs?
  • Fees - are there cheaper courses available?
  • Funding - are there any scholarships, bursaries or grants on offer?
  • Institution's reputation - what impact will the university have on your employability, and what support will they give you following graduation?
  • Student satisfaction - how does the institution perform on the National Student Survey (NSS)?
  • Tutors - is the course taught by industry professionals, and what will you relationship with tutors be like?

It is also worth researching universities and departments to help you make your decision.

How do I apply for a postgraduate diploma or certificate?

Apply directly to your chosen university using their website. Deadlines are often set a few months before the course start date - however, apply as early as possible to avoid missing out, as places on popular courses are usually filled on a first-come first-served basis.

Different institutions have different admissions processes. You may be required to attend an interview, provide work examples, or even sit an exam. Some, however, will make a decision based solely on your application form. Get advice on applying for Masters degrees (which is a similar process) and writing personal statements for postgraduate applications.

Where can I get more advice before I decide?

  • Careers services - advisers can help you explore your options and decide which course is best for you. They can also assist with applications.
  • Current students - those taking courses can tell you how much work is involved.
  • Postgraduate fairs - take the opportunity to meet representatives from universities.
  • Tutors - they will be able to tell you more about the course content and how it matches your career goals.