While professional qualifications accredited by a recognised industry body are essential for some careers such as law and accounting, they can also provide the knowledge and skills that will allow you to progress in your chosen field or even change direction

What is a professional qualification?

Professional qualifications are vocational training courses that relate to a specific industry or career path. Some can be taken directly after graduation, while others are aimed at professionals with several years' experience who are looking to develop their careers further.

They are typically awarded by relevant professional bodies and are designed to ensure that everyone employed in a particular job meets the minimum required standards of professional expertise.

For instance, to work as a qualified solicitor you must take the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), and to become a chartered accountant you'll need to pass the relevant accounting exams.

In other roles where professional qualifications aren't required, they still look great on your CV and can improve your chances of success by demonstrating your skills and knowledge in that specific area.

How do professional qualifications differ from Masters degrees?

Masters degrees tend to involve in-depth academic study at university, often including a written dissertation. This may prepare you for a particular career, but also provides general skills and knowledge that allow you to enter various fields of work.

Professional qualifications are usually more vocational and act as an entry route or pathway to promotion within a specific job.

However, there's often overlap between the two, with professional university degrees available in a number of subjects. Indeed, many Masters degrees act as professional qualifications because they're accredited by the relevant organisation.

For example, lots of universities offer journalism courses, but only some are recognised by the . Similarly, if you want to be a town planner, you might want to explore postgraduate programmes accredited by the .

Don't worry if you've already studied for a Masters degree that isn't accredited by the relevant industry body - you can usually still take the professional qualification later or study a conversion course.

Find out more about Masters degrees as well as postgraduate diplomas and certificates.

Professional qualifications in the UK

Among the best known are those awarded by the following organisations:

These are just a small selection - there are many more.

Discover professional qualifications related to these popular careers:

If you're a student unsure about which professional body is most relevant to your chosen career, speak to your course tutors or university careers adviser.

How long do professional courses take to complete?

The length of vocational training courses can range from a few weeks to a few years, depending on the qualification and whether you study full or part time. For example, the ACCA Qualification for accountants takes between three and four years to complete, including exams and work experience.

On the other hand, some professional bodies simply offer an exam and it's up to you how many hours of preparation you do beforehand, either through independent study or by attending a course run by a training provider.

In some cases, when 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 before making a decision.

What do professional courses involve?

If you do a full-time vocational course, you'll probably study for around 40 hours per week.

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, including:

If you already hold a full-time job, you can get advice on working while studying.

Bear in mind that vocational courses don't necessarily have fixed terms. Instead, courses often run several times throughout the year across multiple locations nationwide.

Assessment is usually through exams, coursework, a portfolio, or a combination of the three.

Many courses are structured around a set of modules that you must pass to gain the qualification.

What are the entry requirements?

The entry requirements for professional courses depend entirely on the qualification and what it leads to. Check the relevant job profile 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 professional bodies offer different levels of vocational qualification, suitable for school leavers, graduates and experienced professionals. Typically, when you complete one exam, you become eligible to work towards another qualification at a higher level.

Possessing some relevant work experience or having a demonstrable interest in the subject is often essential. In addition, if English is not your first language, you'll need to prove your language skills.

How much does professional training 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, one-year Bar courses that enable you to qualify as a barrister can cost between 拢12,640 and 拢20,220, while tuition fees for a four-year integrated Masters degree (MPharm) in pharmacy, accredited by the , currently stand at 拢9,250 per year.

Training providers can charge different amounts for the same course, so research your options thoroughly. You should also check whether there are additional fees for taking exams or whether that cost is included. There's usually no difference in fees for home and international students.

One potential advantage of studying for a professional qualification as part of a Masters degree is that you may be eligible for a government postgraduate loan.

You can also explore other funding sources for postgraduate study.

Will my employer pay for the course?

If the qualification you're interested in is essential for career progression, or you can show your employer how it will benefit them for you to gain new skills and knowledge, you may be able to convince them to pay for your course and exam fees.

This is particularly common if you work at a company with 'Investors in People' status. Bear in mind, however, that in return your employer may contractually oblige you to continue working for them for a set period following the course.

Learn more about employer sponsorship.

Why study for 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 and a recognised professional in your area of work.
  • It will help you to meet your employer's expectations of continuing professional development (CPD) by keeping your skills and abilities up to date.
  • By joining a professional body, you'll be kept aware of the latest industry developments, may be eligible for training and mentoring opportunities, and be part of a community of like-minded professionals.
  • 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.
  • You will gain skills, recognition and contacts through improving your specialist knowledge. This demonstrates your ability to employers and gives you a greater negotiating position when looking to progress your career.
  • The qualification can help you to earn a higher salary. For instance, the found that certified management accountants (CMAs) earn a fifth (21%) more than those without the certification - and possibly up to nearly half (43%) more.
  • Some professional qualifications such as conversion courses allow you to change careers.

How do I decide if taking a professional course is right for me?

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

For further advice, you can ask:

  • Current or former students - if you know somebody who has studied for a professional qualification, they can give you an unbiased view of a course or training provider.
  • Professional bodies - they'll be able to give you all the practical information you need about what's involved in gaining their qualifications as well as the benefits of becoming a member.
  • Prospective tutors - those who teach professional courses can give you a clear idea of what it takes to succeed.
  • - the trade association for professional awarding organisations offers a wealth of information and contacts.
  • Your employer - your line manager or HR manager will be well placed to advise on which professional qualifications you can pursue to further your career.

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

  • fees and the availability of funding
  • how reputable the training provider and its tutors are
  • student satisfaction and employment rates
  • the content of the course
  • the impact on your employment prospects - will it be valued by employers?
  • whether the timetable fits in with your other commitments.

Search for professional and vocational courses.

Find out more

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