You’ve probably heard of these tertiary qualifications: Degree, Diploma, Bachelor, Honours, Masters, the list goes on…

But you might not have any clear idea of the what these words actually mean and what the differences are.

Luckily for you, in this article we’re going to walk you through the different stages of tertiary education and the difference between all the qualifications!

So, what are you waiting for? Let’s jump right in!

Tertiary Qualifications Flowchart
Certificate Courses
Undergraduate vs Graduate/Postgraduate Degrees 
Associate Degree
Bachelor Degree and Bachelor Degree (Honours)
Graduate Certificate and Graduate Diploma
Masters Degree
Doctoral Degree

Tertiary Qualifications Flowchart

Here is a simple and ordered flowchart, from lowest (HSC) to highest (Doctorate), of the tertiary qualifications/awards.


See the below for more detailed information on each qualification.

Certificate Courses

Usually delivered by TAFE colleges, community education centres, private colleges and registered training organisations.

Certificate IBasic tertiary qualification after high school, gaining foundational knowledge and skills for initial work and/or further learning.

Usually 4-6 months and generally does not require HSC completion.
Certificate IIDeveloping knowledge and skills for particular work and/or further study.

Usually 6-8 months
Certificate IIIDeveloping factual, procedural, technical and theoretical knowledge and skills in a defined area of work. Greater depth of knowledge than Certificates I and II.
For people who are looking to change occupations or move out of entry-level roles.

Usually 12 months
Certificate IVDeveloping theoretical and practical knowledge and skills for work in a specialised or skilled area. Also leads to further learning.

For people looking to work in jobs with greater responsibility and complexity.

Usually 18 months
ExamplesCertificate II in Business, at TAFE NSW – Western Sydney Institute

Certificate III in Education Support, at Open Colleges

Undergraduate vs Graduate/Postgraduate Degrees 


What is itSpecialised knowledge and skills for skilled work and/or further learning.
How long1-2 years
Pre-requisite Depends on what and where the diploma is taken.
Diplomas at some universities may require you to be studying an undergraduate bachelor’s degree at the same time.

Minimum requirements of other diplomas require your Year 12 HSC, while others don’t require an ATAR.
ExampleDiploma of Language Studies, at UNSW

Western Sydney University Diploma Programs (do not require an ATAR)

Associate Degree

What is itShorter undergraduate academic degree that enhances competency and skills in a particular field, preparing you to enter into the workforce.
Associate degrees can be taken at universities and TAFE.
How long2 years
Prerequisite Year 12 or equivalent, Certificate III or Certificate IV
ExampleAssociate Degree in Business, at RMIT

Bachelor Degree and Bachelor Degree (Honours)

Sadly a bachelor degree doesn’t mean you’ll soon be Australia’s most eligible bachelor…you’ll have to become a perfect Ben another day (sorry if I just ruined your dreams).

What is itStandard university degree, basic qualification to enter a particular field/profession. You generally major in at least one area.

Bachelor degree is considered a higher qualification than an Associates Degree.

You can apply for and your institution may grant you the opportunity to extend your bachelor degree by 1 year of honours study. Honours is an advanced study with a specialised focus related to your bachelor degree. Honours can lead to postgraduate study.
How long3-4 years (longer if you’re doing a combined double degree)
For example, combined law degrees are 5+ years.
Prerequisite Year 12 or equivalent, Certificate III or Certificate IV
ExampleBachelor of Science, at USYD

Bachelor of Engineering (Honours), at UNSW

Graduate Certificate and Graduate Diploma

Graduate certificates and diplomas mean that you are going back to university for further study, following an undergraduate bachelor degree.

What is itCertificate = expands skills and knowledge from your undergraduate degree, or develops vocational (employment/occupation related) skills in a new area.

Diploma = more specialised, vocationally-focused. Develops advanced skills and knowledge in a new area.

Generally leads to professional or highly-skilled work.
How longCertificate = 6 months
Diploma = 1 year
Prerequisite Bachelor Degree (in certain circumstances and at some universities, relevant work experience may be sufficient instead).
ExampleGraduate Certificate in Commerce at UNSW

Graduate Diploma in Legal Studies, at UTS

Masters Degree

A Master’s Degree is actually one of the highest qualifications you can earn in Australia, below a Doctorate.

What is itAimed to enhance skills and knowledge in a specific area, consisting of independent research and/or course work.

Generally leads to professional practice and/or further research in a particular area.
How long1-2 years
Prerequisite Bachelor Degree or Bachelor Degree (Honours)
ExampleMaster of Psychology (Clinical), at ACU

Doctoral Degree

A Doctoral Degree or Doctorate is the highest qualification awarded by universities in Australia.

What is itProfessional Doctorate Degrees consist of research, coursework and sometimes professional work. Generally involves completing a research project and thesis in a particular area.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is a particular doctorate consisting of independent research in a specialised area, producing a written dissertation or portfolio of published works (contributing to the academic field).

Generally leads to further specialised research, professional practice or academic teaching.
How longAt least 3 years
Prerequisite Honours or Masters Degree
ExampleDoctor of Business Administration, at Charles Sturt University

Doctor of Philosophy, at Macquarie University

Looking for some extra help with your HSC studies?

We pride ourselves on our inspirational HSC coaches and mentors!

We offer tutoring and mentoring for Years K-12 in a variety of subjects, with personalised lessons conducted one-on-one in your home or at our state of the art campus in Hornsby!

To find out more and get started with an inspirational tutor and mentor get in touch today! 

Give us a ring on 1300 267 888, email us at [email protected] or check us out on Facebook!

Lauren Lai was keen to move on from anything HSC-related back when she graduated from Cheltenham Girls in 2013. However, after realising so many students go through similar academic, motivational and wider life struggles, she joined Art of Smart Education to share her experience with and encourage current students. Lauren is in her fourth year of Law/Social Research & Policy at UNSW and has a passion for Indigenous rights. Lauren loves Jesus, exploring forests and staring up at the moon for a solid few minutes whenever she gets the chance.