Professional Development vs. Continuing Education

December 7, 2022

In the pursuit of career growth, many professionals consider continuing education and enrolling in professional development programs. Both options can help you and your team learn valuable knowledge, develop core skills, network with other industry members, and gain countless tools you can use in your field. While professional development and continuing education are often discussed interchangeably, they have key differences that everyone looking to advance professionally should be aware of. 

For healthcare and science professionals, embarking on these career-growing pursuits to become experts is especially important. However, deciding whether continuing education or professional development programs is the right choice for you can be challenging. Let’s go over the differences between these two pursuits, the industries they apply to, and the benefits of investing in them so that you can get on the right track. 

Professional Development vs. Continuing Education — What’s the Difference?

Professional development and continuing education are often used interchangeably, particularly in healthcare and nursing. While both are essential for advancing a career, they are two very different pursuits. 

Professional development is a broad term that describes various ways of developing expertise and abilities related to a career field, typically by learning new skills and knowledge. Professional development includes training programs and workshops to improve in your current role. On the other hand, continuing education refers to continuing professional education by enrolling in an institution or academic program. Continuing education is also a method of developing professionally, allowing individuals to become professionally recognized experts in their fields. 

Both continuing education and professional development allow employees to grow in their careers, but continuing education is a more formal route to expanding knowledge. Another key difference between the two is that continuing education is even required for some professions, such as becoming a doctor or university professor. Professional development is not typically an industry requirement but a tool for reaching personal goals in your career. 

Additionally, continuing education is likely a larger investment than professional development, as you may need to take out a student loan to pursue a second or advanced degree. Professional development, such as an employer-provided employee training workshop, may be free. 

As you can see, there are stark differences between continuing education and professional development. While continuing education may be a form of professional development, it is its own career path that greatly differs from most informal professional development programs like training courses. Nonetheless, both are crucial tools to advancing in your field, particularly for the healthcare and nursing industries. To better understand these routes and decide which may be best for you and your team’s careers, let’s go over what continuing education and professional development look like in detail.

What Is Continuing Education?

Continuing education is pursuing further education beyond your initial degree. Typically, this refers to formal education, such as postsecondary education or Ph.D. programs. However, it may also mean completing short-term courses or training to obtain a certificate, license, or other credentials. CE is particularly useful in the public health industry so that employees can stay up-to-date with current practices and knowledge. It is also necessary for some public health professions to obtain a postsecondary degree. 

In some countries, states, and cities, pursuing continued education is legally mandated for certain public health professions. For example, many licenses and certifications must be updated after a certain period to remain legitimate. This may be every year, every few years, or another interval. Renewing a license may require taking courses with a certified vendor, but it may also include attending conferences, seminars, and workshops and completing research projects, depending on the requirements.

In the public health sector, there are a few main forms of continued education.

Formal education programs

In addition to obtaining a bachelor’s degree, many public health employees decide to pursue further formal education. Completing additional education or a degree may be a requirement to remain in your position or a method of rising to a higher position.

Types of formal education programs in the public health field include:

  • Master’s program: A master’s program is additional education following a bachelor’s program in which you obtain a master’s degree. A master’s program may last anywhere from one to three years and is completed at a formal institution like a university. A Master of Public Health and a Master’s in Healthcare Administration are two common master’s degrees in the public health industry. Enrolling in these programs may require prior work experience of one to three years. Completing a master’s degree can help professionals land higher-paying jobs as they gain recognized expertise in their fields. 
  • Professional doctorate program: Doctorate degrees for medical professions may be completed at a medical school and last anywhere from four to six years. Public health professionals often pursue a Doctor of Public Health degree. Those with a doctorate are recognized as “Doctors” in their professional titles. This is one of the most advanced degrees you can obtain to help you grow in your career. 
  • Certificate program: Public health employees may also pursue a certificate program at a formal institution. Certificate programs typically last anywhere from six months to two years. Obtaining a formal certificate is an excellent way to increase your credentials without investing as much time and money as the programs above.
  • Additional bachelor’s degree: Some professionals may pursue another bachelor’s degree in a subject unrelated to health and science that will aid them in their fields. For example, some people may choose to study a new language that can help them better communicate with patients.

These programs may be available online or on campus, with many catering to adult learners who already work full-time or part-time jobs. Completing these advanced studies can add a valuable asset to a resume and are sometimes necessary for certain higher-paying positions. While this route of continued education may be the most significant investment — in money and time — it certainly pays off if you can land a higher-paying role. These formal programs also help professionals learn valuable skills, improve their quality of work, and become experts on current best practices.

Certifications and Licensure

Another area of continuing education is certificates and licenses. While some certifications may be completed at formal institutions, many non-university organizations allow individuals to obtain certificates and licenses relevant to their fields. Certificates are simply documents that demonstrate your qualifications to work in your role and may be obtained from organizations like the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing. Common certifications include the Certified Health Education Specialist and the Certified Healthcare Administrative Professional. A bachelor’s degree may be required to pursue certain certifications.

A license is a legal document that proves you have met the legal requirements to work in your position. Some public health professions that require licenses are nursing, dentistry, health department officers, dietitians, acupuncture practitioners, and more. Licenses are typically required and administered by federal, state, or local offices.

Short-term Courses and Training

CE may also involve completing short-term courses or training. This can help professionals gain new credentials and stand out in their fields. Some professions or employers may require occasional coursework or employee training. Short-term continued education is an excellent option for those who do not have the time or resources to invest in a full degree or certificate program. Such courses may last only a few hours to several weeks and may be offered by a university or a certified course vendor like Caduceus International Publishing. Caduceus offers health science courses on medical terminology, human nutrition, sports nutrition, and more to refresh health professionals’ knowledge and teach valuable new skills.

No matter which route you take, all forms of CE can be an asset to your career. The added credentials from further education courses, degrees, and certificates help professionals become more proficient in their fields, stand out among candidates, and receive higher-paying salaries. 

What Fields Require Continuing Education?

Many fields require CE, from the food service industry to the medical industry. Careers that require at least one of the CE types mentioned above include:

  • Real estate agents: This profession requires a real estate license in your region of work, which can take eight weeks to six months and expires every few years. 
  • Mortgage loan originators: These individuals must complete continuing education courses after a certain period, which varies from state to state.
  • Construction: Construction workers must obtain necessary licenses in their regions and complete CE in alignment with local requirements.
  • Social work: Social workers must complete CE courses according to state requirements, such as 36 hours of CE every two years in Washington State.
  • Bartending: Bartenders must obtain bartending licenses and complete alcohol training programs, depending on their states.
  • Nurses: Nurses may complete CE by attending courses, enrolling in formal institutions, or renewing licenses.
  • Doctors: Doctors must complete CE requirements similar to nurses, which vary between the type of doctor and state. Doctors are also required to complete postsecondary degrees.

Countless professions require CE in some form. To learn what CE requirements exist in your state, you can visit your state’s government website.

What Is Professional Development? 

Professional development refers to how you develop in your career and most commonly includes things like employee training programs, webinars, workshops, conferences, mentorships, and other methods of increasing success in your profession. Through professional development, employees can learn new skills, become up-to-date on current practices and knowledge, network, and obtain tools for success. Once completed, employees can bring their new abilities and knowledge back to their positions to improve their quality of work, professional competency, productivity, company culture, and more. 

Employees may pursue these endeavors themselves, or employers might provide them to all staff to cultivate a stronger workforce and attract and retain top talent. By investing in their employees, employers can increase their companies’ overall productivity, allowing for a tangible return on their investments.

Virtually any endeavor that boosts professionalism, skills, and career growth can be a type of professional development.

Interoffice Presentations

With interoffice presentations, one or multiple teams may present research, findings, statuses, or advice to other teams. These teams may not communicate with each other otherwise, so this is an excellent way for all parties to gain new perspectives, skills, and information, as well as network with peers.

Conference Attendance

Whether online or in-person, conferences allow industry professionals and leaders to come together, network, and share knowledge and experiences, allowing for professional growth and potential new opportunities.

Courses and Workshops

Courses may be online or in-person, for individuals or teams, and through formal or informal organizations. Courses provide employees with valuable new knowledge and help them refresh their current knowledge, allowing them to feel more confident in their roles. Similarly, workshops will provide a space for new knowledge to be taught, as well as allow employees to interact with their peers, express concerns, and gain hands-on experience.

Leadership Courses and Opportunities

A leadership course, such as one facilitated by an outside organization, is an excellent way to strengthen the skills of both current leaders and those looking to grow into leadership roles. Opportunities for leadership experience, such as volunteer roles in professional organizations, also help develop professional leadership skills.

Research Projects and Publishing

Completing research projects, perhaps at a formal institution, and publishing the report can also help employees develop professionally through the new knowledge they’ve learned, potential recognition in their industry, and the overall professional experience they gain.  

Company-wide or Individual Training

Whether refreshing current skills or learning new ones, training is an essential form of professional development. Training allows individuals and teams to excel in their roles, resulting in higher-quality work and increased confidence.

Online or In-person Certificates

Obtaining a certificate, whether through a formal education program or online course, allows professionals to gain new credentials in their field, expand their knowledge base, and potentially reach new opportunities.

Guest Speakers

Listening to guest speakers from your industry brings new information and perspectives. Being a guest speaker also allows for professional development by honing presentation and networking skills and increasing credentials.

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing involves a leader or manager sitting down with an employee to discuss their concerns, career goals, and strategies for improvement. This provides the space for employees to gain insight into how they can grow in their careers at their current company.


Having a mentor can help one grow professionally through gaining insight, career advice, and professional connections. Mentors can help professionals grow in their roles and overall careers. They may pursue mentorships themselves, or companies might establish mentorship programs for employees.

Unlike continuing education, local government agencies do not often require professional development. Instead, it is an option you can pursue on your own to become stronger in your current roles, or it may be a requirement at your company. In addition, professional development tends to be more tailored to an individual’s professional needs and goals, unlike formal CE courses and programs with universal curricula. Professional development initiatives are also more job-specific, providing the skills and knowledge you need to succeed in your current role.

The Importance of Professional Development and Continuing Education

While continuing education and professional development have differences, both pursuits are essential for professional and personal growth. Professional development and CE can:

  • Improve individual skills and knowledge base
  • Increase quality of work, productivity, and motivation
  • Help employees receive or maintain licensing and certifications
  • Grow careers and gain new opportunities
  • Make employees eligible for higher-paying jobs
  • Allow employees to network with peers and leaders in the industry
  • Lead to a higher return on investment for the organization
  • Offer invaluable personal growth that can be applied to all aspects of an employee’s life

Professional development and continuing education are greatly beneficial investments. Depending on your budget, short-term course investments may be an affordable way to complete both CE and professional development to excel in your public health role. Caduceus International Publishing Inc. is an excellent solution for nursing and medical professional development. It offers customized, meaningful, and informative courses to empower the future of health professionals. The award-winning course materials are a top choice for universities, schools, and health science centers that want to further educate public health workers, improving health outcomes for all. All courses are third-party vetted.

Whether a public health employee or employer, contact us today to learn how we can help you take your career or workforce to the next level.

Are you an educator looking for turn-key curriculum solutions for your health science course?
Get a free demo