Home » Human Resources » Education

Human Resources Degrees and Certifications: What You'll Study in an HR Program


Human resources is a broad field that could potentially offer employment opportunities at every degree level.

From associate's degrees to master's and MBA degrees in HR, the field has lots of options, and there are even a number of professional certifications that could help you progress in your career. In fact, U.S. News and World Report included HR Specialist as one of their top 100 careers in their Best Jobs in America in 2020. Read on to learn more about human resources degrees and how they can further your career in human resources.

What degree levels are available?

Associate's Degree Programs

Graduates with an associate's degree in human resources management might qualify for entry-level positions, such as basic human resources generalists. HR associate's degree holders often also enter into specialized HR roles in private, public, and nonprofit organizations; human resource clerks, HR assistants and assistant recruiters are some of the most popular jobs. Others could work as training and development coordinators, payroll assistants and compensation or benefits specialists.

Bachelor's Degree Programs

A human resource management bachelor's degree can equip you with the necessary tools to enter an HR career in a variety of business settings.

Programs typically include a comprehensive overview of human resources principles and practices, business and technology training, and communication courses.

Students can expect a human resources bachelor's program to include core business training in areas, such as accounting, finance, information technology, and marketing. Additionally, most programs require an array of general education courses to meet various general studies distributions and also allow room for electives.

An example of a typical course load could include 120 credit hours of undergraduate courses for a Bachelor of Science in Business with a concentration in Human Resources:

Examples of Core Courses

  • Business Communications and Critical Thinking: Students will develop skills in critical thinking and decision making through the forms of written communication, including memos, emails, business letters, and reports. Other topics include communication ethics and cross-cultural communications, personal communication styles, solving organizational problems, and the evaluation of an organizations strategic direction.
  • Introduction to Computer Applications and Systems: Students learn to apply Microsoft® Office tools including work processing, spreadsheet, database, and presentation software to accomplish business objectives.
  • Management Theory and Practice: This course explores the rich field of management in theory and practice, and as both a science and an art. Students learn to apply management concepts to current workplace issues
  • Ethics and Social Responsibility: This course provides a foundational perspective for ethics and social responsibility in relationship to individuals, organizations, and the community.
  • Organizational Development: This organizational behavior course encompasses the study of individual and group behavior in organizational settings. Other topics include strategic elements of organizational behavior, workforce diversity, managing change, effective communication, and performance systems.
  • Fundamentals of Human Resources Management: This course will provide students with a critical perspective on the development of human capital in the context of a unified system of attracting, retaining and developing talent that creates and supports the vision and values of the organization. Students will develop an understanding of the critical business implications for human resource professionals today.
  • Strategic Human Resource Management and Emerging Issues: The course explores how to align human resource management (HRM) with the business strategies, and the emerging issues facing business, and to understand the HRM competencies and leadership skills necessary to be a true strategic business partner.

Master of Business Administration (MBA) Programs

Both an MBA with a concentration in human resources and a human resource master's degree can prepare you to take on HR leadership positions across industries. For example, an MBA or master's in human resources graduate could go on to attain a position as director or vice president of human resources.

While each track offers advanced training in human resources and managerial concepts and theories, the human resources MBA allows students to develop a broad set of business skills that can also transfer to other arenas.

In contrast, the highly specialized master's in HR offers students the opportunity to focus almost exclusively on issues related to human resources.

What certification do I need?

Schools and universities now offer short, intense certificate programs in HR specialties such as compensation and benefits management or employee relations. These certificate courses are ideal for those already pursuing a career in HR, or who want to make a lateral move from one area to another.

If you are new to HR, a certificate course may also enable you to test the waters and help you decide whether a career in HR is for you. By sampling a few courses, you can assess your interest level. Often, universities might allow you to enroll in their certificate courses and then transfer the credits into their full-time degree programs.

Professional human resource certifications can provide a widely recognized way to demonstrate your HR knowledge and training. The Human Resource Certification Institute (HRCI) awards several levels of professional certification:

  • PHR (Professional in Human Resources)—The PHR Certification exam is comprised of a test in the following areas: strategic development, workforce planning and employment, human resource development, total rewards, employee and labor relations and risk management.
  • SPHR (Senior Professional in Human Resources)—The SPHR Certification exam is comprised of a test in the following areas: strategic development, workforce planning and employment, human resource development, total rewards, employee and labor relations and risk management.
  • GPHR (Global Professional in Human Resources)—The GPHR Certification exam is comprised of a test in the following areas: strategic HR management, organizational effectiveness and employee development, global staffing, international assignment management, global compensation and benefits and international employee relations and regulations.
  • PHR-CA and SPHR-CA (PHR and GHR with state certification in California)—The California certification is designed to augment the PHR and SPHR certifications and it focuses on California laws and practices that are different from federal laws and practices.

HRCI certifications require a "hands-on" experience component, which generally translates to approximately two years of experience as an HR professional. This qualification can add a great deal of value to the certification and may be helpful in convincing employers that you are as well-versed in HR practice as you are in theory. These certifications can also require you to complete a certificate or degree program and pass an exam.

What will I learn in my courses?

In general, coursework for an associate's degree in human resources covers personnel recruitment and evaluation, employee relations, staff training and development, employment law, business ethics, and compensation and benefits. Students should also expect to take some general education courses, such as math and writing. Coursework for a human resources management bachelor's degree covers contemporary HR issues, including the following:

  • Organizational theory and design
  • Behavioral science
  • Legal issues in HR management
  • Performance management and assessment
  • Employee training and development
  • Compensation and benefits

The curriculum for an MBA in human resources generally involves corporate management and business strategy concepts, organizational behavior and design, ethical leadership, and in-depth HR concepts and tools as they relate to general management.

Coursework for a human resources master's degree typically involves detailed studies of human resource subsystems, including legal issues in the workplace, compensation and benefits, and recruitment and training. Students might also take classes covering leadership and strategic management concepts, organizational psychology and organizational design.

How long will it take?

Depending upon your level of dedication, a human resources major can take the following time to complete:

  • Associate's degree programs, which provide entry-level opportunity, usually take two years
  • A bachelor's degree program can take four years
  • Master's degree programs and MBAs generally require one to two years

Are online programs available?

Yes! There are many online courses available for those wishing to earn a degree in HR. Online human resources training from an accredited school can offer the same high-quality education that you would expect to receive through a traditional campus program.

Depending on your degree level, you can expect coursework for your HR online program to encompass general or advanced studies of human resources policies and procedures, which may include:

  • Contemporary HR issues
  • Employee relations
  • Ethics
  • Compensation and benefits
  • Legal issues in the workplace
  • Training
  • Organizational psychology

Different colleges may also require classes in core business subjects, information technology and general electives as part of their online human resources training.

With a completed online human resource degree, graduates may qualify for jobs in such HR areas as these:

  • Human resources generalists
  • Compensation or benefits managers
  • Training and development coordinators
  • Corporate recruiters
  • Employee relations managers

Are there prerequisites?

Undergraduate: A strong college preparatory high school education is a good start for a human resources degree program. Since HR is a field that deals with people, courses in English, communications, speech and debate are highly recommended. If your school offers computer technology classes make sure you enroll, as these skills can be integral throughout college and into your career. Make sure you join business clubs at your school, or work at a part time summer job that is in an office setting.

Graduate: A completed, four-year bachelor's degree in human resources or a related business field can prepare you for graduate school.

GRE and GMAT: The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is not required for admission to degree programs in the U.S. However, you may submit a score for review with your admission materials.

What accreditation is there for my program?

Accreditation shows that an institution or program meets standards of quality set forth by an accrediting agency, and that it is committed not only to meet those standards but to continuously seek ways in which to improve the quality of education and training provided. There are two types of educational accreditation: institutional and specialized.

Specialized accrediting agencies for HR degree programs include the following:

In addition, the HRCI was granted accreditation status to their PHR, SPHR and GPHR certification programs by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCAA), ensuring high quality and standards for their professional credential program.

Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges, such as The Higher Learning Commission. Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges. There are six regional associations, each named after the region in which it operates (Middle States, New England, North Central, Northwest, Southern, Western). Learn more about accreditation.