For some careers professional qualifications are essential while for others they allow you to develop the skills you need to impress employers in your chosen industry
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 completing university, while others are aimed at professionals with several years of experience who are looking to develop their career further.
They are typically regulated and 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 some jobs, a professional qualification is essential. For example, to work as a qualified solicitor you must take the Legal Practice Course (LPC), and to become a chartered accountant you'll need to pass the relevant exams. In other areas of employment, professional qualifications aren't required, but nevertheless look great on your CV and improve your chances of success by demonstrating your skills and knowledge.
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 typically more vocational and act as an entry route or route to promotion within a specific job. They are accredited by professional bodies, which set the exams and regulate the standards you must meet to work in certain jobs.
However, there is often overlap between the two. Many Masters degrees act as professional qualifications because they are accredited by the relevant organisation. For example, lots of universities offer journalism courses, but only some of them are recognised by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) and therefore incorporate its professional qualifications into the programme of study. Similarly, if you want to be a town planner you might want to explore Masters degrees that are accredited by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).
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. Find out more about Masters degrees.
Professional qualifications in the UK
There is some form of professional qualification available in most industries in the UK. Among the best known are those awarded by organisations including:
- Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)
- BCS - The Chartered Institute for IT
- Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)
- Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE)
- Royal Horticultural Society (RHS)
- Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).
These are just a small selection - there are many more. Discover some of the others:
- Bar courses
- Finance qualifications
- Horticulture courses
- How to become an engineer
- HR courses
- IT training
- Management courses
- Marketing courses
- Sales training courses
- Social work courses
- Travel and tourism courses
If you're unsure about which professional body is most relevant to your chosen career, ask your course tutors or 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 a minimum of three 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 study a full-time vocational course, you'll probably train 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 online distance learning, face-to-face and blended learning (which combines the two).
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.
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.
Different 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 is 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.
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.
- 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 - demonstrating your ability to employers, and giving you greater opportunity to progress or change careers.
How do I find the right professional 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 that the length, cost, quality and content of courses can vary significantly - so you will 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.
- Prospective tutors - those who teach professional courses can give you a clear idea of what it takes to succeed.
- Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) - the trade association for professional awarding organisations offers a wealth of information and contacts.
- Your employer - your line manager or human resources (HR) manager are well placed to advise on which professional qualifications you can pursue to further your career.
In making your decision, you will 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
- whether the timetable fits with your other commitments.