The length and structure of a study program is a big decision.
Canada's constitution allows each province and territory to deliver its education programs. Despite regional differences, however, Canada's colleges, universities, and polytechnics use similar terms to describe common pathways and credentials. The length and composition of these programs is an important decision for prospective international students, as it may have a direct effect on eligibility for employment and immigration opportunities in Canada.
Undergraduate Studies in Canada
Undergraduate education in Canada follows completion of senior secondary or high school. The full duration of a standard undergraduate education (culminating in a bachelor's degree) is 3–5 years. International students should budget a minimum of four years to complete a bachelor's (undergraduate) degree. With a completed bachelor's degree, and the right combination of language skills and experience, international students may become eligible for a number of provincial and federal immigration programs. They may also decide to pursue a Master's degree, which requires completion of a bachelor's degree. Canada also offers a number of certificates, diplomas, and Associate Degrees at the undergraduate level. While these do not qualify students to undertake Master's degree in Canada, they may be useful for immigration or employment purposes.
- Certificate Programs
Less than 1 year (1-2 full time semesters), a first step post-secondary degree.
A typical certificate in Canada involves 3-8 academic months of post-secondary study in a single subject. Common subject areas include Business, IT, Health Care Administration, and other pre-diploma or pre-degree options. The aim of a certificate is to give post-secondary students the skills and knowledge for an entry-level vocation. All colleges and universities offer certificate programs of different lengths. A Canadian secondary school diploma or essential subject prerequisites are required for admission into a certificate program.
- College or University Diploma
2 years minimum, (4-6 full time semesters), a first step post-secondary degree.
College diplomas in Canada most often comprise a minimum of two full-time academic years of specialized postsecondary study. Like certificate programs, diploma programs are mainly developed to meet specific demands of trades and technical or vocational careers, and – depending on the job required - may span upwards of three of four years. Diploma programs are also likely to have a co-op internship component or other apprenticeship options, and diplomas can be upgraded or transferred into a bachelor’s degree (see especially Ontario). Admission into a college diploma program requires a completed senior secondary program in Canada (or its equivalent).
- Associate Degree
2 Years, (4 full time Semesters), a first step post-secondary degree.
An Associate Degree in Canada is a 60 credit, foundational undergraduate program in a classical area of study (sciences or arts). Unlike certificates and diplomas, Associate Degrees must comprise a breadth of general academic subjects as well as a specialization in an area of interest (similar to a major).
Common examples include the Associate of Arts (Business) and Associate of Arts (Science). The Associate Degree allows students to begin their studies at one college or university and transfer into third-year coursework at a university, pending recognition by the receiving institution (see especially British Columbia and the BC Transfer System).
- Bachelor's Degree
Approximately 4-5 years, (8 full time Semesters or Greater). A first step post-secondary degree.
A bachelor’s degree in Canada normally signifies completion of four full-time postsecondary years’ education. Subject areas most often include traditional academic subjects in Business, General Sciences, Engineering, and the Arts or Humanities. In this arrangement, students are expected to gain general and foundational knowledge over their first one or two years then specialize in a concentration called a major. Some faculties offer a fifth professional year comprising a supervised practicum (for teachers’ certifications, to name one).
Admission into a bachelor’s degree program requires a completed senior secondary diploma in Canada (or its equivalent).
- Postgraduate Diplomas and Postgraduate Certificates
Less than 1 year (1-2 full time semesters), a first step postsecondary degree.
In Canada, a number of diplomas and certificates are taken following the completion of a bachelor’s degree, and these credentials comprise approximately 2-3 semesters of full time study. These graduate diplomas and certificates can transfer into master’s degrees, and operate as an additional compliment to a bachelors degree showing intense specialization in one subject area. Common subject areas therefore include Business Administration, Sales and Marketing, and Resource Management, to name a few.
Approximately 1-3 Years (3-9 full time semesters), A Post-Graduate First Step.
Master’s Degrees comprise one to three years of highly specialized postgraduate study or in area leading to professional practice. These degrees are conferred by universities and tend to build on previous study areas explored at the bachelor’s level, and expect the student to propose and conduct significant original research culminating in a major project, thesis, and/or comprehensive examination. Master’s Degree programs in Canada require completion of a bachelor’s degree.
- Doctorate Degree
Approximately 4-6 Years.
In general, a doctorate in Canada comprises at least two to three years’ equivalent full-time study in “comprehensive” and analytical coursework followed by an independent dissertation or thesis. PhDs and other doctorates are required for many professions such as professor, doctor, or high-level administration jobs in government, health care, and education. The average range to compete a PhD is four to six years.
Common Scenarios and Questions
Do Colleges and Universities Offer the Same Credentials?
Generally speaking, career colleges and applied arts and technology colleges offer certificates and diplomas, while universities are the common domain for bachelor’s and master’s programs. Increasingly, however, accredited public colleges in Canada confer bachelor’s degrees and a limited number of graduate certificates and diplomas.
I'd like to find out more about University Transfer Programs
Many students go directly to university after finishing high school, while others decide on a college first, transferring over to university after 1 or 2 years of full time study. This has a number of advantages for international students, (learn more link here).
I'd Like to Receive Transfer Credit Standing From my Home Country
While overseas diploma and certificate programs are not nationally recognized towards completion of a Canadian bachelor’s degree, individual partner schools (i.e Canadian and Foreign school) may have articulation agreements, allowing students some transfer standing for completed undergraduate study at the first or second year level.
The completion of equivalent overseas bachelors’ programs (i.e.: similar four-year programs), however, may be used as a prerequisite for admission to postgraduate programs in the country.
What's a five-year program?
Regarding so-called five year Degree Programs, in cases where professional practice is required for students to meet provincial accreditation in a profession (such as teaching or health care), it is common to require an additional year (commonly called a professional development program or fifth-year program).