Human Resources

Is a Human Resources Master’s Degree Worth It?

Is a Human Resources Master’s Degree Worth It?
If you choose not to pursue a master's degree, you might want to consider adding some certifications to your credentials. Though optional, human resource certifications are a great way to advance your career. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella May 29, 2020

If you are looking to reach a senior-level management position in human resources, a Master of Human Resources Management (MHRM) or MBA in human resources can help you get there. Otherwise, a bachelor's degree might be all you need.

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It’s not easy to decide whether to earn a master’s degree, nor should it be. Completing a degree is a time-consuming process; it can take a full-time student two years, and a part-time student even longer. However, when you’re done, you’ll have an improved skill set and an impressive credential on your resume.

Advanced degrees are also expensive. According to US News & World Report, those who earn a Master of Arts took on a median debt of $59,000 in 2012. That’s $21,000 more than the median debt for the same demographic in 2004.

The good news is that you may not have to foot the entire bill yourself. Some employers are willing to pay for graduate school. Even when they aren’t, the right graduate degree—combined with necessary experience—can improve your earning potential enough to provide a pretty sweet return on investment. If you aspire to the upper ranks of management, know that executives at major corporations usually hold a graduate degree—frequently a Master of Business Administration, but possibly a Master of Arts or Master of Science.

So, is a human resources master’s degree worth it? We’ll explore that question by answering the following:

  • What is the best human resources undergraduate degree?
  • What is a master’s degree in human resources?
  • What do you learn in a human resources master’s program?
  • What can you do with a master’s in human resources?
  • Is a master’s in human resources worth it?

What is the best human resources undergraduate degree?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “a bachelor’s degree is sufficient for most positions” in human resource management. Many employers require job applicants to hold only a bachelor’s, although some state a preference for master’s degree holders.

You can earn a bachelor’s in human resources from:

  • Cornell University
  • New York University
  • University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Washington University in St Louis

Certifications in human resources

If you choose not to pursue a master’s degree, you might want to consider adding some certifications to your credentials. Though optional, human resource certifications are a great way to advance your career. According to the BLS, “many employers prefer to hire certified candidates, and some positions may require certification.” A certification probably won’t replace a master’s degree, but it can enhance your bachelor’s degree and work experience. Plus, acronyms look great on a resume.

Professional organizations offer many of the top certifications. The BLS recommends the following:

The certifications these organizations offer include:

What is a master’s degree in human resources?

Unsure that a master’s degree in human resources is the right choice for you? There is no harm in gaining work experience before applying to a program. Graduate schools want experienced applicants, and nearly all senior positions prefer professionals with extensive experience (often a decade or more) no matter how advanced your degree is.

You will need a bachelor’s degree to apply to graduate school, but it does not necessarily need to be in human resources. Each program has different admission requirements, but most want to see previous work experience in human resources. Some will admit you merely based on an excellent statement of purpose (and decent grades, good test scores, strong letters of recommendation, etc.). With that said, having a bachelor’s degree in HR can undoubtedly help you get into a master’s program.

The University of Southern California Master of Science in Human Resource Management program values current human resource professionals “who understand the value of a graduate degree from a topflight university and how it can advance their career.” Georgetown University is less specific about who should apply. It seeks letters of recommendation from former employers, but also mentions that “recommendations from former professors are acceptable for applicants with limited professional experience.”

The SHRM identifies three major categories of human resources graduate degrees:

  • Master of Arts in Human Resources (MAHR)
  • Master of Science in Human Resources (MSRM alternatively MSHRM)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)

Some schools offer more unique degrees that cover human resources topics. For instance, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee offers a degree called Masters in Human Resources and Labor Relations.

Top schools that offer an online MBA where students can opt for a concentration in Human resource management include:

  • Indiana University – Bloomington
  • George Washington University
  • Pennsylvania State University – World Campus
  • University of Massachusetts – Amherst
  • University of Nebraska – Lincoln

What’s the difference among these degrees?

An MBA with a human resources concentration covers a broad spectrum of business topics, including finance, management, operations, and economics. Students complete elective courses in human resources, but how many exactly depends on the program. This is a generalist degree best suited to those who want to understand all aspects of a business. It’sespecially for those who may hope to pivot away from HR later in their careers.

A master’s in human resources focuses more intensely on HR-specific content. It offers a deep dive into the theory and practice of human resource management, but as a result, it spends less time covering all other aspects of business practice. The difference between a Master of Science and a Master of Arts lies mostly in which department offers the degree. You’ll learn more about the difference between different programs by studying their curricula than from looking at the degree designation.

What do you learn in a human resources master’s program?

A bachelor’s degree is something you might earn because an adult has told you to. A master’s degree is something people get when they have a firmer idea of where they are going (or want to go) and hope to build on their existing education.

Master’s degree programs are getting more flexible. Most still take years to complete, but some accelerated degrees take a year or less—they’re generally made for more advanced professionals. Many schools offer online master’s degree programs or hybrid programs.

It’s worth spending time comparing the differences between your first-choice programs. USC’s online MS in Human Resource Management “emphasizes the strategic role that human resources plays in the performance of global organizations, providing students with the knowledge and skills needed to be effective HR leaders.” The University of Minnesota – Twin Cities MA of Human Resources & Industrial Relations focuses on imparting “a thorough understanding of contemporary practices, underlying theories, and the major areas of human resources and industrial relations” to help graduates further their careers in the public or private sector.

The George Washington University Master of Human Resource Management (MHRM), which includes several courses in the school’s MBA program, prepares you for a more management-focused career. The program concentrates heavily on organizational dynamics, ideal if you want to work in a large company managing large teams.

Among the classes you might take in an HR master’s program include:

  • Business Strategy and Ethics: Explores the intersection between strategic business planning and ethical decision-making, focusing on ethical considerations in strategies, corporate social responsibility, and ethical challenges in competitive environments.
  • Compensation and Benefits: Focuses on designing and implementing compensation and benefits programs, including job evaluations, salary surveys, pay structures, incentive plans, and legal compliance.
  • Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management: Examines methods for resolving disputes and managing conflicts within organizations, covering negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and other resolution techniques.
  • Information Technology: Covers the role of information technology in HR management, including HR information systems, data management, and technology’s use in recruiting, training, and employee engagement.
  • International Human Resource Management: Addresses HR management practices in a global context, including cross-cultural management, global staffing, expatriate management, and managing a global workforce.
  • Labor Relations and Collective Bargaining: Focuses on the dynamics between employers, employees, and unions, including labor laws, bargaining processes, contract negotiations, and labor disputes.
  • Managerial and Executive Coaching: Explores coaching and mentoring skills for leadership development, performance improvement, and supporting personal and professional growth.
  • Organizational Culture and Employee Outcomes: Investigates how organizational culture affects employee behavior, motivation, and performance, including strategies for cultivating a positive work environment.
  • Organizations and Human Capital: Examines the strategic role of human capital in achieving organizational objectives, covering workforce planning, talent acquisition, and retention strategies.
  • Strategic Human Resource Management: Focuses on aligning HR practices with strategic business goals, covering strategic planning, talent management, and measuring HR’s impact on success.
  • Talent Management: Addresses strategies for identifying, developing, and retaining talent, including career development, succession planning, and managing high-potential employees.
  • Using Data and Metrics in HRIR: Focuses on using data analytics and metrics to inform HR decisions, covering techniques for data collection, analysis, and interpretation to assess HR practices and workforce trends.

What can you do with a master’s in human resources?

Graduate programs often provide a list of job titles—frequently senior positions—that past graduates hold or have held. Visit one of these websites and you’re likely to find some of the following listed:

  • Director of Human Resources: Oversees the HR department, developing policies, strategies, and programs to manage and support the organization’s workforce. This role involves strategic planning, employee relations, compliance, and enhancing workplace culture.
  • Global Senior Director: A senior-level position responsible for leading and managing HR strategies, operations, and teams across multiple countries. Focuses on aligning global HR practices with business goals, and managing diversity and inclusion in a global workforce.
  • HR Coordinator: Supports the HR department’s daily operations, including recruiting, onboarding, benefits administration, and maintaining employee records. Acts as a liaison between HR managers and employees, facilitating HR processes and communications.
  • Human Resources Manager: Manages various HR functions such as recruitment, training, performance evaluation, and employee relations. This role involves implementing HR policies, ensuring legal compliance, and addressing employee grievances.
  • Recruitment Manager: Specializes in overseeing the recruitment process, from identifying staffing needs to attracting, interviewing, and hiring new employees. Develops recruiting strategies to meet the organization’s talent acquisition goals.
  • Senior HR Representative: A more experienced HR professional who handles complex employee relations issues, policy implementation, and HR program administration. Often acts as a mediator between staff and management to address workplace concerns.
  • Senior Leader, Talent Management: Focuses on developing and implementing strategies for talent acquisition, development, and retention. Works on identifying key talent, leadership development, succession planning, and performance management systems.
  • Vice President of Human Resources: A top-level executive role responsible for leading the HR function, formulating and executing HR strategies that drive organizational performance. This includes oversight of all HR activities, policy development, and executive leadership advising.

You can earn excellent money as a human resource professional. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), human resources managers earn a median income of $116,720. However, that number doesn’t include managers whose jobs revolve around compensation, benefits, or training and development.

Like all fields, the amount that you can make as a human resources professional depends on factors like experience and job title. For instance, the average human resources director earns just over $88,000, whereas a Vice President of Human Resources earns an average of about $137,000, according to PayScale.

Is a master’s in human resources worth it?

Some companies and organizations––especially small ones––may not list a graduate degree as one of their requirements. However, the very top jobs, such as VP of human resources, will likely want you to have both experience and advanced education. If you aspire to a top slot, you should seriously consider earning a graduate degree. If not, you need to determine whether the return on investment—not only in income but also in the improvement to your skills and understanding of your work—is worth it to you.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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