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A Guide to a Master's in HR Management

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What Is a Master's in Human Resources?

A master's in human resources is a graduate degree designed to help students gain the strategic knowledge and skills to succeed in positions at the managerial level and beyond.

In this Article

What Are the Prerequisites to Enter a Master's in HR Program?

While requirements vary by program, applicants can expect to see some or all of these requirements for admission:

  • Bachelor's degree, in some cases in a business field
  • GPA of 3.0 or higher
  • GMAT or GRE standardized test scores
  • HR work experience
  • Professional and/or academic references
  • Personal statement

What Will I Study in a Master's-Level HR Degree Program?

Coursework varies from program to program, but some common courses include:

Leading organizations explores individual and group behavior in the workplace and how leaders can influence that behavior.

Designing talent acquisition systems focuses on creating hiring systems that align with an organization's strategy and culture while delivering a measurable return on investment.

Human capital analytics looks at the knowledge and skills necessary to use data and analytics in creating human resources policy.

HR management regulations covers public policy and legal issues facing HR professionals.

Strategic reward systems examines how compensation and employee reward systems contribute to an organization's success.

Ethical and socially responsible decision-making looks at an organization's responsibilities to various stakeholders, including employees, owners, consumers, and the community.

Research methodology covers fundamental research methods, how to use published research, and how to produce high-quality research.

Managing diversity in organizations introduces theoretical and practical ideas about establishing and maintaining diversity, reducing discrimination, and increasing fairness and equity.

How Long Will It Take to Earn My Master's in Human Resources?

Generally, full-time students can complete their program in one to two years, while part-time students can earn their degree in two to five years.

Will I Need to Complete an Internship or Capstone to Graduate?

The short answer is that it depends on your school's specific requirements; some programs will require a capstone but not an internship, while others might require both or neither.

Internships give you real-world experiences and training under the guidance of a mentor. A capstone project is an independent body of work, such as a research project, that demonstrates your mastery of the knowledge you've gained in your program.

You'll want to make sure you understand the expectations of an internship or capstone project before you choose a master's program, especially if you prefer one over the other. Some programs may let you choose.

Can a Master's in HR Be Completed Online?

Yes, it's common for students to pursue advanced degrees while they continue to work, and online programs for master's in human resources accommodate the needs of these students and others who can't commit to attending onsite classes regularly or don't live close to a school.

Depending on your needs and learning preferences, you can find master's in human resources programs that offer classes onsite, online, or a combination of the two. Some online master's programs also allow you to complete courses at your own pace, with the option to move faster through content you already know and complete your degree sooner than you would in a campus program.

Depending on your needs and learning preferences, you can find master's in human resources programs that offer classes onsite, online, or a combination of the two.

Note that you'll have to attend internships in person and likely do fieldwork for a capstone project. In addition, some online degree programs require students to attend periodic seminars in person.

What's the Difference Between a Master's in Human Resources and a Master's in Business Administration (MBA)?

You may wonder whether a master's in human resources or a master's in business administration (MBA) is the best option as you look to advance in your profession.

Courses for a master's in human resources—such as finance, law, employee relations, and strategy—are taught with an HR focus. This curriculum can be ideal if your goal is to work as a leader in HR, but it may be too narrow if you want the flexibility to pursue leadership positions in other areas such as finance.

An MBA degree educates students in general business disciplines such as accounting, finance, operations, and marketing. While the focus is general business knowledge, an MBA program may offer the option to pursue a concentration in human resources or another area.

When choosing a master's degree, consider your career goals and what you want to do in the long term. An MBA may be the best choice for you if:

  • You want to expand your expertise in areas beyond human resources
  • Your career goals include positions in general organizational leadership
  • You have an undergraduate degree or extensive professional experience in human resources  

Which HR Certifications Will a Master's Degree Prepare Me For?

Common HR certifications that require advanced levels of experience or education and move beyond HR specialties at lower levels include:

SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP)

Who Grants It: Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)

Who It's For: SHRM-SCP certification is for HR professionals with at least three years of experience performing strategic-level HR or HR-related duties, or professionals who have held an introductory certification for at least three years and are working or transitioning to a role involving strategy.

Requirements: At least 1,000 hours of work each year devoted to strategic level HR or HR-related work

Test Format: Four-hour, computer-based exam with 134 questions, of which about 50% are based on knowledge and the rest on situational judgment

Prep Resources: Online fee-based practice tests and instructor-led courses

Professional in Human Resources (PHR)

Who Grants It: HR Certification Institute (HRCI)

Who It's For: This certification is for an HR professional who has mastered the technical and operational aspects of management and has responsibilities that focus on the HR department rather than an entire organization.

Requirements: Varies depending on education levels; applicants with a master's degree must have at least one year of professional HR experience

Test Format: Two-hour, computer-based exam of 90 scored questions that are mainly multiple-choice and 25 pretest questions

Prep Resources: Practice exams, exam outlines, HR Body of Knowledge guide, exam preparation courses, HCRI LinkedIn community

Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR)

Who Grants It: HR Certification Institute (HRCI)

Who It's For: SPHR certification is for HR professionals who have experience with the strategic and policy-making aspects of HR management, with responsibilities for planning rather than implementing HR policy

Requirements: Applicants with a master's degree or higher must have at least four years of experience as an HR professional

Test Format: 2 1/2-hour, computer-based exam of mostly multiple-choice questions, including 115 scored questions and 25 pretest questions

Prep Resources: Self-study preparation options include practice exams, exam outlines, exam preparation courses, HCRI LinkedIn community

Professional certifications complement your education with advanced skills and knowledge in your field, and earning one demonstrates your expertise. They're optional for HR professionals unless required by your employer, but having a certification can help you stand apart from your peers and demonstrate your commitment to lifelong learning.

"After college, a human resources professional will need professional HR certification" to be equipped to do their job and advance, says Dooley.

What Can I Do with a Master's Degree in Human Resources?

A master's in human resources, combined with experience, helps HR professionals move into the highest levels of HR management, including director, executive, and leadership roles.

The curriculum builds on associate and bachelor's degrees by allowing students to delve deeper into core competencies and specialties such as:

  • Recruitment and hiring
  • Compensation and benefits
  • Compliance and regulation
  • Human resources analytics
  • Strategic workforce planning
  • Employee relations

Professionals seeking career advancement in human resources increasingly need a graduate-level education to remain competitive.

A master's in human resources, combined with experience, can help HR professionals move into the highest levels of HR management, including director, executive, and leadership roles.

"While in college, students should generally consider preparing themselves for graduate school, because the future of human resources will include more formally educated competitors for jobs," says Rue Dooley, SHRM-SCP, HR Knowledge Advisor with Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

A master's degree can give you the tools to become a leader in the development and administration of HR policies and procedures in positions such as:

  • Chief human resources officer
  • Director of diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • Vice president of human resources

While many factors affect the salary you'll earn in an HR position, a master's can prepare you for roles with higher levels of responsibility and typically higher pay.

anna giorgi

Written and reported by:

Anna Giorgi

Contributing Writer

rue dooley

With professional insight from:

Rue Dooley, SHRM-SCL

HR Knowledge Advisor, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)

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