BlogStudyTertiary Qualifications: What Are Your Study Options After High School?

Tertiary Qualifications: What Are Your Study Options After High School?

Tertiary Qualifications/Studies - Featured Image

We talk about university a lot here at Art of Smart. So much so that sometimes it’s easy to forget that there’s a world of tertiary qualifications that lie outside of the standard Bachelor’s program. 

Maybe you’ve heard of advanced diplomas, graduate certificates and doctorate degrees in passing, but perhaps you’ve never had the chance to really delve into each. You never know, maybe you’ll find your perfect post-high school path. 

Below, we’ve outlined everything there is to know about each of your options for tertiary studies. 

Let’s begin!

What happens after high school?
Tertiary Qualifications Flowchart
Certificate Courses
Diploma, Advanced Diploma and Associate Degree
Bachelor’s Degree and Bachelor’s Degree (Honours)
Graduate Certificate and Graduate Diploma
Master’s Degree
Doctoral Degree and Higher Doctoral Degree

What happens after high school?

High school can be a weird few years. You’ve got 6 years of learning, making friends and meeting teachers before you’re hauled into an exam theatre with a couple hours to finish a bunch of exams.

It can be a lot of stress that reaches a climax for about a month and then, suddenly, you’re finished. While the wait for Results Day can be just as nerve-racking, planning your next steps can also be pretty overwhelming. 

It can feel like your ATAR is the be all and end all but it doesn’t have to be that way. Your ATAR is a rank (not even a mark) relative to your state and year level.

Universities use this ATAR to select the students that they believe will best suit their courses and the ones that they think will graduate with a Bachelor’s degree. 

You can find out more about what an ATAR means right here!

A Bachelor’s Degree is definitely not your only option for a tertiary qualification. In fact, you’ve got a plethora of options whether you’d like to graduate with a:

  • Diploma
  • Advanced Diploma
  • Associate Degree
  • Graduate Certificate
  • Graduate Diploma
  • Masters Degree
  • Doctoral Degree
  • Higher Doctoral Degree

The main takeaway is that a Bachelor’s Degree is nowhere near your only option once you finish high school. In fact, because there is such a push for high schoolers to go straight to uni, there are now skill shortages in areas like trade. 

Let’s See the Stats

According to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, there were over 1.5 million students studying some sort of Australian higher education in 2017 and it’s likely that this number has grown since. 

69% of this 1.5 million were domestic students while 31% were overseas students. It’s also safe to say that the number of international students has hugely decreased due to the pandemic which is a big reason as to why universities have been hit with widespread funding cuts and staff cuts. 

In 2017, public universities like USYD, UNSW and UTS provided 92.2% of tertiary education, compared to TAFE, who provided 0.5%. Not-for-profit and for-profit universities supplied the rest. 

So, it’s clear that universities provide a disproportionate amount of tertiary education and this number is likely to be on the rise. 

Tertiary Qualifications Flowchart

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

Tertiary Qualifications/Studies Infographic

Now let’s dig a little deeper into each of these tertiary study options.

Certificate Courses

If you’re looking into studying a Certificate Course, you’ll find that they are 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

Diploma, Advanced Diploma and Associate Degree

These are the pathways and tertiary qualifications most commonly offered by TAFE and universities, although if you’re doing a diploma at university, it’s likely you’re doing it as an alternative entry pathway into the Bachelor’s Degree.

Programs at the Diploma, Advanced Diploma and Associate Degree level will generally take you 1 to 2 years to complete.

To apply for a Diploma, Advanced Diploma or Associates degree, you’re required to have completed Year 12. These courses aren’t at all dependent on your ATAR but you will have to graduate high school to be eligible.

TAFE offers pathways for early school leavers to gain the credentials needed to do the HSC. So if you’d like to check that, you can do so here!

What is a Diploma and an Advanced Diploma?

Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas cover a wide scope of disciplines. They’re generally quite practical and hands-on courses aimed at developing technical skills so that you can hit the ground running when the job search begins. 

So, you’ll have your head around the industry as soon as you graduate. Hence its title, an Advanced Diploma will give you a more extensive understanding of a particular discipline in a shorter period of time. 


Here are some examples of Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas provided by TAFE NSW. Remember, these are the industry-focussed courses that are designed to get you into the workforce. 

Sometimes to be eligible for entry into the Diploma program, you’ll need to have a Certificate in the area.

Certificates are similar to Diplomas in that they’re taught by TAFE with hands-on skills and a job in mind. A lot of the time these aren’t needed to get into a Diploma course but to be eligible for courses like the Advanced Diploma of Graphic Design, you’ll need a Certificate IV in Design (Graphic Design).

Or you could fast-track your studies with a Diploma of Graphic Design. So, it’s good to be aware of the prerequisites, but don’t let them stop you! 

You’ve seriously got a world of options when it comes to which Diploma or Advanced Diploma you’d like to complete. Think of any industry and chances are, there’s a Diploma for it.

You can browse for yourself right here!

What is an Associate Degree?

While Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas are tertiary qualifications that generally focus on the more practical, industry-related qualifications, an Associate Degree is typically more academic. They’re offered at TAFE and universities but are again designed to prepare you for entering the workforce as soon as you graduate.

An Associate Degree will focus on a particular field and will typically last 2 years. It was introduced in Australia in 2004 as a more academically focused pathway. 


Bachelor’s Degree and Bachelor’s Degree (Honours)

What is a Bachelor’s Degree?

This is your standard university degree — it’s a basic qualification you can use to enter a particular field/profession of interest. Depending on how your degree is structured, you may have the opportunity to major or minor in different areas.

A Bachelor’s Degree is considered a higher qualification than an Associate Degree and will typically be 3-4 years in length, if you complete the degree across full-time study. However, if you choose to study your degree part-time or choose to do a double degree, it will take a little longer for you to graduate.

To be admitted into a Bachelor’s Degree, you are required to have completed Year 12 or equivalent, or have a Certificate III or Certificate IV qualification.


What does it mean to complete an Honours program?

If you’re really enjoying what you’ve been studying in your Bachelor’s Degree and are achieving fantastic marks, you may be eligible to complete an Honours program. This will extend your degree by 1 year.

Should you choose to add on an Honours program, you’ll be engaging in advanced study with a specialised focus related to your Bachelor’s Degree.

Being enrolled as an Honours student can also lead to postgraduate study, so if further study is necessary for you ideal career, you might want to consider taking working hard throughout your undergrad studies in order to be accepted.

Graduate Certificate and Graduate Diploma

As their names suggest, the Graduate Certificate and Graduate Diploma are for students who have graduated from a Bachelor’s Degree and want to continue their studies by specialising in a particular subject area. By studying a Graduate Certificate or Graduate Diploma, you can expect to gain an in-depth understanding of your chosen discipline. 

With a Graduate Certificate and Diploma you can gain your qualifications in 6 months to a year. So, it’s a course that fast-tracks your studies.

These courses can also be used as alternative pathways into a Master’s program. If you haven’t quite gotten the marks or met the entry requirements for your chosen Master’s degree, you’ll likely be able to study a Graduate Certificate or Diploma as a progression into the Master’s program. 

What is a Graduate Certificate?

A Graduate Certificate is a postgraduate tertiary qualification that will typically include 4 units of study that span only one full-time semester. The program is designed for students who aren’t quite convinced that a committed Master’s degree is the right path.

It’s good for those who are busy with other commitments who want a timely qualification that covers the foundations of almost any discipline. 

You could be eligible for a Graduate Certificate without a Bachelor’s degree, though you’d need other kinds of work experience. 


As shown in the Graduate Certificate in Physics for Science Teachers offered at UNSW, the option of Graduate Certificates are great for those already set on their career but would like a little extra help and confidence in particular areas. 

What is a Graduate Diploma?

The main distinguishing factor between the Certificate and Diploma, is that the Graduate Diploma typically takes a year to finish. So, it’s a little longer but is still a great option for students who want to gain a foundational understanding of a topic in a shorter period.

A Graduate Diploma will generally comprise 8 units over 2 semesters. Again, the Graduate Diploma can be used as a qualification on its own but it’s also an alternative avenue into a Master’s program. 


Both the Graduate Diploma and Graduate Certificate are predominantly provided by universities and TAFE. 

Master’s Degree

A Master’s Degree is the postgraduate step for students who are passionate about a particular subject and want to dedicate another 2 years to studying it.

A Master’s program usually comprises two major components: a coursework section, where you’ll be learning about the content and a research section, where you’ll work on a long-term project to do with your area of research like a thesis. 


Doctoral Degree and Higher Doctoral Degree

Doctoral and Higher Doctoral Degrees are tertiary qualifications that are up there with the best. These tertiary qualifications require intense passion and dedication to a particular field and will often take years to finish. If sticking with academia is your thing, this may be your goal. 

What is a Doctoral Degree?

This is pretty much the highest form of education that you can possibly get (aside from, of course, the higher doctoral degree). This degree might involve the completion of a PhD, unless you’re in an applied professional field like medicine or education.

With those, you’d be getting a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or a Doctor of Education (EdD). But the most common is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). 

A Doctoral Degree will usually take upwards of 4 years to complete. If you’ve already gotten your Master’s Degree then you might be able to squeeze it into 3 years — but it’s a lot of work.

Your aim in a PhD is to produce an original research paper, with 70,000 to 100,000 words, that thoroughly examines a particular topic or facet. 

What is a Higher Doctoral Degree?

Also known as a higher doctorate, the Higher Doctoral Degree is a tertiary qualification designed to formally and publicly acknowledge uni scholars who have made outstanding, new and innovative contributions to their field of study. Oh, and have written a research paper on it. 

So, you’re amazing if you’re aiming to get your Doctoral Degree but you’re somehow, even more impressive if you’ve scored a Higher Doctoral Degree. But either one is pretty dang amazing. 

We can’t give examples of the Doctoral or Higher Doctoral degrees that you could look forward to because that’s up to you! You get to choose exactly what you want to research. 

There you go!

We hope this has helped you get your head around some of those complex tertiary qualifications.

Before you go, here’s a reminder that university isn’t your only option. If that’s not your thing, that’s okay! There are so many other options that are usually more job-focussed anyway. Happy Studying!  

Gemma Billington is a Content Writer at Art of Smart and an undergraduate student at the University of Technology Sydney. While studying Journalism and Social and Political Sciences, Gemma enjoys spending her time at the gym or reading about Britain’s medieval monarchy – ideally not at the same time. She currently creates and administers social media posts for Central News and writes for the student publication, The Comma. After completing her undergraduate degree, she hopes to study a Masters of Medieval History and is very excited about the prospect! 

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