Many human resources professionals are beginning to consider graduate education to help advance their careers. One important question prospective students often ask is whether an HR professional should pursue an MBA or an advanced degree in HR (MHRM).
There’s no easy answer — it really depends on the type of education already obtained, experience level and career objectives of the individual. It also depends on the details of the particular MBA or MHRM program the individual plans to pursue.
MBAs: A way for recent grads to break into HR
Many MBA programs offer specialties in HR, but it’s important to look closely at the particular courses offered. They tend to focus on general management principles and often do not cover HR fundamentals.
Executive MBAs that allow a student to continue working — an option that is attractive to many HR professionals — typically have an even more abbreviated HR component.
MBAs can be a good option for professionals who have recently graduated from an HR program and lack work experience, but are well-versed in the hard skills of HR. An MBA will add the credibility and broader knowledge base needed to land a good HR position.
An MBA is also recommended for anyone looking to understand business in a broader sense. But it’s important to be aware that even the best MBA programs will not give you an understanding of HR if you have no prior experience or education.
In addition, many MBA programs offer well-funded career counselling and placement services that you won’t find in most MHRM programs — again, this would be most valuable to those looking to break into HR for the first time.
MHRMs: Work shoulder-to-shoulder with other HR pros
A masters degree in Human Resources Management typically
involves courses that examine the functional and core areas of HR, such as selection, training and compensation.
But at the graduate level, these areas are examined from a different perspective. There is a well-known and oft-referred-to "research-practice gap" in HR, and MHRM programs seek to narrow the distance between research and practice.
A central goal of many MHRM programs is to help HR professionals learn how to make decisions and implement innovative practices based on recent research, rather than on benchmarks set by other organizations — or worse, management fads.
MHRM programs also offer invaluable opportunities to think strategically about HR. Through the use of case analyses and other experiential forms of learning, as well as classroom discussions among experienced HR professionals, MHRM programs allow students to gain a richer understanding of the importance of an organization’s context in the practice of HR.
As a result, graduates of MHRM programs have rare and marketable skills in understanding how to apply the fundamentals of HR in ways that take advantage of the strategic and cultural uniqueness of their organizations.
For some students, the greatest value of an MHRM program is the opportunity to be in the same room and work shoulder-to-shoulder with other experienced HR professionals.
The relationships and shared experiences of classmates can greatly expand not just career learning, but also the social networks of graduates long after their degree is obtained. I am often humbled by the excellent discussion, insights and advice offered from one student to another during the program.
In general, there are two types of students I believe are perfect candidates for an MHRM program:
•Professionals who have experience working in HR, are in a senior role or are in a position to make HR decisions and are looking to move into a leadership position in HR. For these students, the ability to consolidate HR research into their workplace practices and HR initiatives could be transformative.
•Professionals who are moving into HR from another area of the business and who have little or no formal training in HR. For a person in this situation, an MHRM will enable them to connect their understanding of the business to solid foundations of HR practices, and also enable them to make the most of HR analysis and managers who have a wealth of HR knowledge and skills to contribute.
Both an MBA and an MHRM are an excellent way to help increase your knowledge and advance your career.
However, it is important to choose the degree that will best capitalize on the work you have already done, as well as build on your strengths, address your particular weaknesses and provide you with the kinds of relationships and networking connections that will help you to take your career to the next level.
Mary Jo Ducharme is graduate program director at the School of Human Resource Management at York University in Toronto. She can be reached at
or for more information, visit www.yorku.ca/laps/shrm.