Human resources is one of those rare professions that draws from multiple disciplines, which is why so many employers insist on a bachelor’s in HR. To reach the top of the profession, employers look for a master’s in human resources.
In a survey of more than 1,000 HR practitioners of all levels, 81% held an undergraduate degree; 42% had a postgraduate degree, with a master’s degree the most common (38%).
Among those in the most senior HR job – Chief Human Resources Officer – 56% have at least a master’s degree; 14% have a law degree. In the analysis of CHRO trends, The Talent Strategy Group found advanced degrees becoming more common among the top HR professionals.
Is a Master’s in Human Resources a Competitive Advantage?
A master’s degree is a competitive advantage, and that shouldn’t be a surprise.
As talent management and employee relations have become more complex and employment law now affecting so much of labor relations, the need for more highly skilled HR professions has grown. On-the-job training and development can only do so much to improve HR competencies. The kind of training found in the coursework of graduate degree programs can’t be matched purely through work experience.
Not long ago, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) surveyed employers about their requirements for an entry-level HR position. Most wanted a four-year degree. But 16% preferred a Master of Science in Human Resources. About the same percentage would accept a master’s degree in business with an HR concentration.
For anyone considering a career in the human resources field and wondering if a master’s degree in HR would help, the statistics and studies tell us the answer is yes.
Also, consider that the median pay for an HR manager is $121,000 a year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The business environment for these jobs is strong, growing at 9% a year. Moving up from HR manager to director or chief human resources officer takes deep and broad experience and, as the data shows, a master's degree doesn’t hurt your chances.
Getting that degree, however, is an investment of time and money. A full-time student can complete the required coursework for a Master of Science in Human Resources in about a year. Required credit hours vary from school to school, though SHRM suggests the majority are right about 36.
Most universities have programs tailored to working human resources professionals, with part-time programs largely or entirely online. Online learning programs can take two years generally.
The Society for Human Resource Management lists more than 100 SHRM-endorsed universities and colleges with online master programs. Most are in the US, but the list includes a few in the UK, Pakistan, Greece, and elsewhere, all offering master’s degrees in HR and labor relations. HR employed graduates of these programs are automatically eligible to take the SHRM-CP certification exam.
Admission Requirements Are Flexible
Admission requirements for most HR graduate programs lean toward the flexible. The only ironclad requirement is a bachelor's degree, preferably in HR or in business administration. Some schools might require leveling coursework for bachelor's degrees outside HR. Here, work experience will often be taken into consideration.
The GRE or GMAT exam may be required, though many schools no longer depend on these for enrollment decisions. A 3.0 GPA or better more often than even a good score on the GRE is more persuasive. Most of the top schools look for a 3.5 GPA as well as a 320 score on the GRE.
Each school sets its own standards, so consider these nothing more than a basic guide. In the United Kingdom at the London School of Economics, the enrollment requirements for the Master’s in Science Human Resources and Organisations don’t include an HR specialization, but a 2:1 (more or less equivalent to a US B+) undergraduate degree is a minimum.
Tuition can be substantial, running into the many thousands. At the London School, tuition for the 2021 session is $36,000.
In addition to the degree programs, there are capstone and executive development opportunities. The Wharton Schooll at the University of Pennsylvania has a CHRO program designed for the most senior HR professionals. A key benefit of the online, high-level coursework is the connections participants make. Wharton even sets aside two days for networking at the end of the coursework
Networking, Mentorship Are Key Benefits of HR Programs
Besides the training and development advanced degree programs provide, the networking is an important competitive advantage for HR professionals as they advance their career. U2, the online counseling program advisory service, says, “One advantage of earning a master’s program in Human Resources is that it may help you expand your network—connecting you with mentors and fellow professionals that can support you as you pursue new roles.”
Before the Covid pandemic forced all academic programs online, networking was face-to-face. While that’s still the preferred method for most people, online programs like Wharton’s make special efforts to encourage these connections. Plus, with dozens of schools offering online HR master’s degrees (U2 lists 41 accredited programs), building a virtual network is becoming common.
Regardless of whether in-person or online, all graduate HR programs emphasize strategic human resources and the role of human capital in meeting organizational goals. Courses focus on such key areas as talent acquisition, performance management and organizational development. Increasingly, corporate social responsibility is part of the curriculum.
Among the electives many schools offer are courses in strategic management, decision-making, international business and information systems. The latter is increasingly important as data and analytics are rapidly becoming a focus of human resource management programs.
Many Programs Are Designed for Working Professionals
The decision to become a graduate student is a big step. Earning an HR master's degree can't help but enhance your career prospects, but it comes with a cost; both financial and in time. While the trend is clearly toward senior HR leaders with advanced degrees, human resource development that encompasses broad experience and business knowledge is also important.
Writing in an HR blog, consultant and HR executive search professional Marc Effron says companies more than ever are looking for a well-rounded HR leader. A master’s degree is important, but leadership and business know-how are just as essential.
“There’s strong demand for the type of strategic, influential, practical talent leader that creates a true difference in the business.”