Degree by design

HR practitioners head back to school for grad degree and competitive advantage
By Danielle Harder
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/14/2011

For Patrick Mack, working on a master’s degree has allowed him to marry the practical side of his job as the senior HR officer at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta with the most current research from the field.

“It’s easy to get caught in the ‘best practice boat,’” he says. “We do it but there’s no understanding of why you might want, or not want, to do it. We’re getting to the root of why.”

Mack is midway through the master’s program at Toronto’s York University, having worked at it part time for several years. Although he had always intended to have a graduate degree, he’s glad he waited three years between degrees, he says.

“It’s been an advantage for me to have HR experience,” says Mack. “Being in the field lets you test a lot of things. It also gives you insight.”

Of course, attaining a graduate degree comes with a cost, financially and time-wise. Mack commutes from Lethbridge, Ont., to Toronto once a month for three or four days at a time. Add to that the $30,000 tuition fees he considers a “good deal” in comparison to an MBA, which can reach as much as $100,000.

Mack says he is confident a master’s degree will give him a competitive advantage as he climbs the career ladder. Now that the Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) is a mandatory designation in most provinces, a bachelor’s degree no longer sets practitioners apart, he says.

“I want to be the best that I can be in HR,” says Mack. “Having a master’s degree specific to HR will give me more credibility, more knowledge and, hopefully, lead to a position of leadership.”

26 laters later, back in school

As he neared his 50th birthday, Keith Davis made a commitment, as much to his children as to himself. After spending 26 years working in labour relations, he would attain a graduate degree to back up his experience.

So, in 2004, Davis headed back to school at the University of Regina where he achieved his Master of Human Resource Management (MHRM).

“It was frightening but, after I made the decision, I had to do it because my kids were watching,” he says with a laugh.

With a diploma in architectural technology from the 1970s, Davis initially considered pursuing an MBA but, after consulting with faculty, he realized he was looking for a broader depth of knowledge across the field of HR. His career had focused on pay equity and job evaluation. Although some instructors told him he had enough experience to teach a class and the in-depth class discussions confirmed some of what he already knew, they also opened up topics he had never considered.

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he says. “For example, I didn’t understand the legal aspects of recruitment. Getting a degree gives you a level of confidence.”

While Davis was pursuing his MHRM, he was still working for the City of Regina. He brought two of his project management exercises to his job where he was able to test the theory and practical application.

He has since left that role to start a consulting firm with several partners. Although they scoff at the idea of a graduate degree, it has given him a new kind of confidence, says Davis.

“We’ve had lengthy discussions about ethical practices,” he says. “I’ve been adamant about my position because of what I know about ethical practices based on research and what I’ve learned. So I’ve stood my ground with confidence.”

Graduate pursues academic side of HR

The ongoing questioning of a degree program enticed Nadia deGama to pursue her MHRM at York University. Her undergraduate degree was in business administration with a concentration in HR, but that wasn’t enough for her, she says.

“Because it’s modeled so much on the CHRP, it only gives you the bare bones,” she says. “It’s giving you the ‘whats’ but you’re left questioning the ‘whys’ and ‘hows.’”

There are many assumptions in HR that should be questioned and analyzed through the lens of research, says deGama. At graduate school, where many of her classmates were senior-level HR practitioners with vast knowledge and experience, she found the challenge she was seeking.

“I had the theoretical and they had the practical. They would say, ‘In the field we do this, this and this.’ I would say, ‘Yes but the research doesn’t support that,’” she says. “You don’t get into those kinds of intense conversations otherwise.”

Aside from gaining deeper insight into HR, graduate school also provided her with a great networking opportunity. DeGama went to graduate school fresh from her undergrad. At York, one of her classmates happened to be the chief HR officer at the accounting firm BDO Dunwoody. That connection landed deGama her first position as an HR co-ordinator.

“She really values education and thought what I was doing was great,” says deGama. “She was my boss at work and my peer in class. At work, she would give me specialist kind of work to do.”

DeGama is the only one of the three who plans to pursue further education. After spending time in the field, she has decided to pursue the academic side of HR.

“Working in HR was a frustrating experience at times,” she says. “I got asked to organize a social committee. Do you think I’m in HR because I want to organize parties?”

Instead, deGama hopes to raise the bar for the profession from the academic side.

“The way it is, there is ‘HR the profession’ and ‘HR the discipline,’” she says. “There needs to be a bridge. I want to be the one generating the information to help HR practitioners in the workforce.”

Danielle Harder is a Brooklin, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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