Get practical training with a professional or vocational qualification and fast-track yourself into your dream job

Professional training is ideal if you've a clear career objective, as they're geared towards improving your capability to do a particular occupation.

What is a professional qualification?

Professional qualifications focus on developing the skills you need to work in a specific industry or job. Awarded by professional bodies, they generally give you the chance to gain valuable on-the-job experience through vocational training. Many courses follow on from a degree or equivalent qualification; however, such academic experience isn't always required.

Countless careers demand you possess a professional qualification. For example, it's impossible to become a qualified solicitor without taking a Legal Practice Course (LPC). Alternatively, you may wish to study a professional qualification simply to achieve a higher level of competence in your field and improve your chances of reaching the top.

Types of professional courses in the UK

Most industries offer some form of professional qualification. There are hundreds of awarding professional bodies in the UK, each accrediting numerous courses at locations nationwide. These include:

Discover more examples of professional qualifications by browsing job sectors.

How long do professional courses take to complete?

Vocational training can last anywhere between a few weeks and a few years, depending entirely on the qualification and whether you are studying part time or full time. For example, an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism can take 20 weeks, while the CIMA Professional Qualification takes an average of four years.

What does a professional course involve?

Professional qualifications vary wildly in structure. This is reflected by the fact that, of graduates who were studying for a professional qualification six months after leaving university in 2014, 41% were studying on a full-time basis and 59% on a part-time basis.

If you study full time, you will probably be in training for around 40 hours every week and the environment will be very fast paced. Meanwhile, part-time study usually takes place during evenings and weekends. It is much slower in pace but, when coupled with work commitments, it can be just as intense. Distance learning is another possibility in many cases; for example, awards administered by the Institute of Export (IOE) can be taken this way. Online courses are also available, with CIMA just one awarding body offering this option.

Vocational courses do not necessarily share fixed terms, with many courses running multiple times every year at locations nationwide. Assessment will comprise of coursework, exams or portfolio work, or a combination of all three. For example, the NCTJ Diploma in Journalism comprises five key modules and at least two specialist options. All modules are assessed by exams, except the portfolio module; this involves the submission of published news articles written by the student.

What are the entry requirements?

This is entirely dependent on the course and what job it leads to. For example, the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) requires students to have a 2:2 at undergraduate level, have been admitted as a student member of one of the four Inns of Court and have passed the Bar Aptitude test. Meanwhile, the Advanced Apprenticeship in Veterinary Nursing asks only that students have five GCSEs at grade A*-C. Possessing at least some work experience in the field of study is often essential, however.

If you're an international student you will need to prove your grasp of the English language. Usually an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) score of 6.5 or more will be accepted.

How much does it cost?

Cost is dependent on a range of factors and therefore varies hugely. In general, cost will be reflected by the course's intensity and how important it is in the context of the career you wish to take. For example, the BPTC can cost in excess of £16,000 to complete, while the NCTJ Diploma in Journalism can cost just £3,500. There are usually also no differences between fees for home and international students.

To find out tuition fees for a range of qualifications, search professional courses.

Will my employer pay for the course?

If the award is vital for career progression, you will most likely receive employer sponsorship. This is especially likely if you work at a company with 'Investors in People' status. However, employers may contractually oblige you to continue working for them for a set amount of time after completing the course, so be careful when accepting their backing.

Government support, such as the Professional and Career Development Loan (PCDL) and Courses for Forces, are also available on certain courses. Restrictions do apply, so check the qualification's website to see if you're eligible. If you live in Wales and are facing redundancy, you may be eligible for a ReAct training grant.

Why study a professional and vocational qualification?

  • Many professions, such as becoming a solicitor, require you to possess particular qualifications. If you're serious about forging a career in a certain field, you may have little choice but to take the course.
  • Gain skills, recognition and contacts - this will improve your specialist knowledge and career prospects.
  • Increase your potential earnings or current salary. A study by London Economics found that holding a professional qualification boosts lifetime earnings by an average of £81,000.
  • Meet employers' expectations of continual professional development by keeping your skills and abilities relevant and up to date.
  • Begin on the path to chartership. This will see you registered as a member of the professional body.

How do I find the right course for me?

Be sure to do your research; the length, cost, quality and content of courses can differ greatly. You therefore must figure out which option, if any, will benefit you the most. To get a better feel for what you'll be signing up to, you can get in touch with a range of people who will be able to give you good advice.

  • Current or former students - those who have studied the qualification can give you an unbiased view.
  • Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) - the trade association for awarding bodies, you will find a wealth of information and contacts here.
  • Employers - your line manager or HR manager can advise you on the benefits of undertaking a professional qualification.
  • Professional bodies - by engaging with the bodies that will be awarding your qualification, you can find out how it has benefitted those in similar situations.
  • Prospective tutors - speaking to those who will be teaching you can give you a strong idea of what the course involves.

Ultimately, there are several key factors you will have to consider before making a final decision. These include:

  • fees and the availability of funding;
  • how reputable the teaching institution and its tutors are;
  • impact on your employment prospects;
  • student satisfaction and employment rates.