The Medical Science Liaison - Board Certification (MSL-BC®) logo with a transparent background.

Certificate vs. Certification:
What’s the Difference?

A certification is often confused with a certificate, which is often promoted falsely as a certification. However, there are key differences between the two. According to the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE), certificate programs and certification programs are designed to meet different needs. A credential is awarded following an advanced level examination which follows rigorous exam development protocols and standards which is psychometrically validated. The following table from their website lists the main differences between the two programs. The MSL-BC® credential is a Certification Program as outlined in the right column in the table below.

Certificate Program

PURPOSE: Build capacity and recognition of a specialty area of practice or set of skills

Provides instruction and training (non-degree granting)
Goal is for participants to acquire specific knowledge, skills, and/or competencies
Assessment is used to evaluate mastery of the intended learning outcomes; linked directly to the learning event
Assessment content may be narrower in scope
Awards a certificate to recognize mastery of the specific learning outcomes; it is NOT a certificate of attendance or participation, which is awarded to individuals who have attended or participated in a course or training program but did not have to demonstrate mastery of the intended learning outcomes
To earn accreditation, complies with the ICE 1100 Standard and follows the ACAP application procedures
Certification Program

PURPOSE: Recognize professionals who meet established knowledge, skills, or competencies

Assesses knowledge, skills, and/or competencies previously acquired
Goal is to validate the participant’s competency through a conformity assessment system
Assessment is best used to assure baseline competencies and to differentiate professionals; independent of a specific learning event
Assessment content is usually broad in scope
Awards designations to recognize achievement
To earn accreditation, complies with the NCCA Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs and follows the NCCA application procedures
Used with permission by © Institute for Credentialing Excellence. For more information, see

Key differentiators of certificate and certification programs include their purpose, the scope of their focus, and the type of assessment used. (The figure above highlights these differentiators.)


1. Primary Purpose

The intent of a certificate program is to provide instruction and training to aid participants in acquiring specific knowledge and skills.  

By contrast, the primary purpose of a certification program is to assess knowledge and skills which professionals are expected to have already mastered prior to applying for the program. 

Certification programs do not provide the instruction and training through which candidates acquire the knowledge and skills required to become certified.


2. Scope

When assessments are used in a certificate program, they are intended to evaluate whether learners have acquired the narrow scope of knowledge and skills that are the focus of the program. 

The assessments conducted by a certification program are independent of any class, course, or other education or training program and are designed to confirm that you possess the full range of knowledge and skills required to competently perform a specific professional role.

In many fields, the full scope of knowledge and skills required for competent professional practice cannot be acquired simply by participating in a single certificate program. 

And rarely is a single certificate program the definitive source through which knowledge and skills are acquired. 

Instead, the requisite knowledge and skills are acquired in many ways:  through formal education, self-directed learning, internships and apprenticeships, mentorships, work experience, and more. 

Certification assessments are designed to assess requisite knowledge and skills, regardless of how and where they are acquired.


3. Type of Assessment

The assessments used for certification programs are more rigorous and comprehensive than those for a certificate program. 

In addition, certification programs are expected to administer standardized assessments and to evaluate and provide evidence of the validity and reliability of these assessments.    


Why The MSL Society Chose to Offer a Certification

The Medical Science Liaison-Board Certification (MSL-BC®) was developed after several years of exploration and demands made by the Medical Science Liaison community for a certification that reflects the MSL as a distinct professional with specific skills and knowledge. 

The goal of the MSL-BC® is to set industry recognized standards for the MSL profession. 

To do so, the Medical Science Liaison Society hired one of the top certification industry testing leaders to help launch the program based on international certification standards. 

A large group of subject matter experts (MSLs and MSL leaders) volunteered and were involved throughout the development process including identifying areas of competency for testing, developing appropriate test questions, and assisting with validation of the exam.

Ultimately the MSL-BCL® was developed to:

  • Establish and elevate standards for the MSL profession;
  • Create a fair, valid and reliable mechanism through which MSLs and MSL leaders could validate their skills and knowledge; and
  • Provide a means through which qualified MSL professionals could be formally recognized.

Certificate and certification programs can play an important role in your professional development and career advancement. Use the information in this article to guide you in selecting the right program for you.