Professional or vocational qualifications can help you to develop the skills you need to work in a specific industry or job, and having one is an essential requirement for some roles

What is a professional qualification?

Professional qualifications focus on improving your ability to succeed in a particular occupation, which is ideal if you have a clear career objective and want to gain valuable on-the-job experience through vocational training. Awarded by professional bodies within the relevant industry or sector, they often follow on from a degree or equivalent qualification, although this level of previous academic study isn't always required.

Many careers demand that you possess a professional qualification. For example, to become a qualified solicitor your must take a Legal Practice Course (LPC). In other cases, professional qualifications are not essential, but they allow you to achieve greater competence in your field and improve your prospects for progression. Search for professional courses.

Example professional qualifications in the UK

Most industries offer some form of professional qualification. There are lots of professional bodies in the UK that accredit courses, for example:

Explore professional bodies and vocational qualifications by browsing job sectors.

How long do professional courses take to complete?

The length of vocational courses can range from a few weeks to a few years, depending on the qualification and whether you study full time or part time. For example, the ACCA Qualification takes three to four years on average, while the NCTJ Level 3 Diploma in Journalism can be completed in 20 weeks.

In some cases where courses are offered on a part-time or modular basis, you can take as long as you want to complete your studies. You should check the length of your course with the relevant professional body or training provider.

What does a professional course involve?

If you study full time, you will probably be in training for around 40 hours every week; the work will be intense and fast-paced. Part-time study usually takes place during the evenings and weekends; the pace is slower, but can be just as intense when coupled with your work and/or family commitments.

Professional bodies increasingly provide multiple ways for you to study. For example, the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) offers its courses in several formats: face-to-face; through distance learning with internet access to tutors and resources; or via blended learning, which combines the two, with online resources complemented by face-to-face workshops.

Vocational courses do not necessarily have fixed terms. Instead, courses often run a number of times throughout the year at locations nationwide. Assessment is usually through exams, coursework, a portfolio, or a combination of the three. Many courses are structured around a number of modules that you must pass to gain the qualification.

For example, ICSA: The Governance Institute's Chartered Secretaries Qualifying Scheme (CSQS) includes eight modules, although those with degrees in law or finance can apply for exemption from two. The body recommends 150 hours of study per module, with exams held in June and November. The qualification can be achieved in four years, either through self-study or with a training provider.

What are the entry requirements?

These are entirely dependent on the course and what it leads to, so check job profiles to find out the entry requirements for your chosen career.

Some courses are open to anyone, some require A-levels or a degree in a particular subject, and others demand a number of years of on-the-job experience. Many accrediting bodies offer different levels of vocational qualification suitable for school leavers, graduates and experienced professionals. Possessing some relevant work experience or having a demonstrable interest in the subject is often essential, however.

If English is not your first language, you will need to prove your language skills. Usually an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) score of 6.5 or above will be accepted.

How much does it cost?

Cost depends on a range of factors and therefore varies significantly. The expense of a course will generally reflect its intensity and how important it is in the context of the career path you want to follow. For example, studying the CIPR's one-year Advanced Certificate in Public Relations at Birmingham City University will cost you £2,590, whereas taking an LPC can set you back £10,000 or more.

Different training providers can charge different amounts for the same course, so research your options thoroughly. There is usually no difference in fees for home and international students.

Will my employer pay for the course?

If the qualification is essential for career progression, you are much more likely to receive employer sponsorship. This is particularly common if you work at a company with 'Investors in People' status. Bear in mind, however, that your employer may contractually oblige you to continue working for them for a set period following the course.

Alternatively you may be eligible for other sources of funding, such as a Professional and Career Development Loan (PCDL) - in this case you'll need to check whether the course is offered by a registered provider.

Why study a professional and vocational qualification?

  • It can be the first step towards achieving chartered status, which will see you registered as a member of the professional body.
  • It will help you to meet your employer's expectations of continuing professional development (CPD) by keeping your skills and abilities up to date.
  • Many professions require you to possess specific qualifications, meaning that if you're serious about forging a career in one of these areas you will have to take the course.
  • Recent research for the Consultative Committee for Professional Management Organisations (CCPMO) showed that, on average, having a professional qualification increases lifetime earnings by £81,000.
  • You will gain skills, recognition and contacts through improving your specialist knowledge - demonstrating your ability to employers, and giving you greater opportunity to progress or change careers.

How do I find the right course for me?

It's important to research your options carefully to ensure that taking a professional course is right for you. If you decide to go ahead, remember that the length, cost, quality and content of courses can vary significantly - so you will need to carefully assess which one will benefit you most. There are a number of people you can turn to for advice:

  • Current or former students - those who have studied the qualification can give you an unbiased view.
  • Professional bodies - the bodies that award qualifications can give you information about how the taking their courses has benefitted others in similar circumstances.
  • Prospective tutors - those who teach professional courses can give you a clear idea of what the course involves.
  • The Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) - the trade association for awarding bodies can provide a wealth of information and contacts.
  • Your employer - your line manager or HR manager can advise you on which professional qualification is best to pursue.

In making your decision, you will need to consider things like:

  • fees and the availability of funding
  • how reputable the teaching institution and its tutors are
  • student satisfaction and employment rates
  • the content of the course
  • the impact on your employment prospects
  • whether the timetable fits with your work.

Search for professional and vocational courses.

How do professional qualifications differ from Masters degrees?

Masters degrees tend to involve in-depth academic study at university, which may prepare you for a particular career or provide general skills and knowledge that allow you to enter various fields of work.

Meanwhile, professional qualifications are typically more vocational in nature and act as an entry route into a specific job. They are accredited by professional bodies, which set the exams and regulate the standards you should meet to work in certain roles.

However, there is often overlap between the two as a range of Masters courses are now accredited by the relevant professional body. For example, many universities offer Masters courses in journalism - but only a few of them are endorsed by the NCTJ and therefore incorporate its professional qualifications and exams into the programme of study.

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