Certificate vs. Certification: what is the difference?

We are often asked for clarification on the difference between Certificate Program vs. Certification. Knowing the difference, what to consider when searching for programs, and what is available, can help professionals determine their learning path. 

Defining ‘certificate program’ and 'certification'

Certificate Program:

A certificate program is a series of training hours on a topic area or treatment method. It is designed to advance your skills and knowledge. This is a common training format in university continuing education programs. Completion does not represent that you have ‘certification’ or are ‘certified’. You are provided a frameable certificate of completion for the program if you meet all completion requirements. In addition, you receive applicable CEUs for the courses or program. Certificate course work provides resources for additional study. In some cases, it inspires pursuit of advanced intervention skills such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) or DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) offered through other training providers. A certificate program is not a substitute for a clinical license.


This should only be offered by programs that adequately assess both knowledge acquired and competent implementation of the skills. Ongoing clinical or administrative supervision may be required as part of the completion of a certification program. Clinical practitioners must comply with their professional codes of ethics in how they represent skills and knowledge acquired through continuing education programs, as well as applicable rules issued by their state licensing board. A certification program is not a substitute for a clinical license.

Considerations for individuals who want certificate program or certification training

Are you seeking to advance knowledge in a specific area beyond just taking a 6 hour training?

If yes, certificate programs will better meet your needs. Graduates often indicate that a certificate program helps them advance knowledge, acquire some core skills, and often helps them focus on specific client populations or career paths they had not previously identified or studied.

Do you have a clinical license and are interested in obtaining specific credentials in advanced therapy skills?

If yes, then in addition to a certificate program, you may want to pursue the specialized training related to the client population served. For example, obtaining Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Basic Training through an EMDRIA Approved Training Provider along with EMDR consultation is the first step toward EMDR certification. Other examples of training towards certification or additional credentials include, but are not limited to: Registered Play Therapist (RPT); Dialectical Behavioral TherapyTrauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT); and achieving provider status for Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). Please note that clinical supervision is often needed, and sometimes required for competency in the therapy modality.

Do you have a professional code of ethics and/or state regulations that you are required to follow related to treating clients within your area of expertise?

If yes, please make sure you are following them and are representing yourself accordingly. (e.g. NASW Code of Ethics

I want a certificate for myself or my agency. How do I get one from the UB School of Social Work Office of Continuing Education?

I want to advance my knowledge and skills as a clinical or administrative human service professional.

We offer in-person and hybrid certificate programs. Many, but not all are limited to licensed master’s level clinicians currently treating clients in therapy, and sometimes only to master’s level clinical supervisors. Program options change each year to allow for new courses and repetition of popular courses. If you have a learning path you are interested in and don't see it on the website, email us at sw-ce-director@buffalo.edu. We'd love to talk to you! 

I want to advance my understanding and ability to work with trauma survivors.

 We have 3 trauma-informed certificate programs and each has eligibility criteria. Select the one that best meets your needs and eligibility. Each of these programs can be completed entirely online. We also offer trauma elective and skill intervention workshops in Buffalo, NY.

  • We have a Trauma-Informed Organization Certificate Program: Basics for All Staff. This program is an overview of trauma-informed care for anyone interested in utilizing basic trauma-informed skills in their work or looking to make changes to create an agency environment that is trauma-informed.
  • The next level up is our Online Trauma-Informed Clinical Foundation certificate. This eligibility for this certificate is a bachelor degree or higher with at least a year of experience in a human service organization. The goal of the program is to set the foundation of clinical practice for working with individuals who have experienced trauma. This may be beneficial for clinicians as well as for individuals who are not clinicians but have a high level of interaction with individuals in a therapeutic or human service setting and would benefit from learning some clinical skills.
  • Our most advanced trauma program is our Trauma-Informed Care and Counseling certificate. This is a continuation of the Foundation course. It includes the same foundation level courses but expands on a number of specific clinical skills and requires additional electives to encourage a deeper clinical understanding of trauma-informed care. The program eligibility requires a master’s degree in a clinical human service discipline, current enrollment in a master’s degree program, or a bachelor’s degree in a human service discipline and at least one year of work with clients in a human service organization. 

It is important to keep in mind that gaining knowledge about trauma survivors will be invaluable in your work. However, you don’t want to accidentally confuse someone into thinking you are a therapist because they see a certificate of completion from one of our trauma-informed certificate programs hanging on your office wall. There have been situations where there has been a concern that clients might become confused over a person’s education and credentials. All clients in any setting tend to be vulnerable, and this is especially true of trauma survivors.

I am an agency administrator, and I want our staff and agency to have trauma-informed certification.

This is the most common request we hear from agencies that want to become trauma-informed. A continuing education certificate program that gives various staff core training will not transform an agency into a trauma-informed organization. It provides a starting place for conversation about the needs of trauma survivors, and what the agency needs to do to best serve these individuals.

There are many layers to consider and multiple steps that need to be taken for an agency to represent itself as trauma-informed.

  1. A continuing education certificate program that provides staff core training will not transform an agency into a trauma-informed organization. It provides a starting place for conversations about the needs of trauma survivors, and what the agency needs to do to best serve these individuals.
  2. Becoming a trauma-informed organization requires transformation at every level from on-going staff training and supervision, to policy and procedure, stakeholder feedback, etc. We do not ‘certify’ an agency as being trauma-informed. Agencies need to develop a strategic plan to achieve this.
  3. You may request the free Trauma-Informed Organizational Change Manual (a pdf file of 195 pages). This was published in January 2019 by the UB School of Social Work Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care (ITTIC), and focuses on pre-implementation, implementation, and sustainability.
  4. Agency-wide follow-up training to developing an organizational culture of trauma-informed care is provided by ITTIC.
  5. Additionally, clinicians and direct care staff members may want additional trauma-informed training specific to their roles and responsibilities. This can be achieved by taking specific, individual trauma courses, or by enrolling in our Clinical Foundation or Care and Counseling certificate programs.

Agencies that use our online self-study trauma-informed certificate programs can save money by having staff watch as a group. Handouts are included and the videos can also be downloaded for unlimited access. Participation in certificate programs are not required to take the courses listed in the program. Some agencies may choose to select only specific courses that meet their needs and forgo a full certificate. 

Published 4/23/19