Is an advanced degree in HR a competitive advantage? (Analysis)

Different degrees position practitioners in different ways

Whether an advanced degree in HR confers some kind of advantage in the marketplace prompted a broad range of opinion. One-quarter (24.8 per cent) of respondents to the latest Pulse Survey felt an advanced degree gave a significant advantage, 28.6 per cent felt there was a small advantage and 29.3 per cent saw no particular advantage. Interestingly, 52 per cent of respondents agreed an advanced degree in HR might be overkill. Given such a diversity of opinions, the comments were very useful in teasing out the main themes.

Many comments placed experience and advanced degrees as competing assets. Clearly many respondents felt advanced education cannot substitute for experience, and experience is ultimately a more important factor than academic credentials in shaping one’s career progression in HR. But the question was really about competitive advantage: Does an advanced degree confer some kind of advantage on top of experience or does it provide an opportunity to acquire the right kind of experience to progress to a more senior position? This is where things get interesting.

A number of comments suggested an interesting phenomenon — an advanced degree is likely more useful to those in more senior HR positions in large organizations, but an advanced degree gives no real advantage to most entry-level positions and may even be a disadvantage at times. This suggests those who go for an advanced degree right off the bat may find it difficult to land a job that makes use of the education, and it may be difficult for individuals with advanced degrees to leapfrog over these starter positions. So advanced degrees might work best when individuals have accumulated some experience before they get the higher education.

It is also clear not all advanced degrees are the same — different advanced degrees position individuals in different ways. The survey asked people to rate five different advanced degrees — a master of human resource management (MHRM); master of business administration (MBA); master of industrial relations (MIR); master of industrial relations and human resources (MIRHR) and a master of industrial/organizational psychology (MIOP).

The ratings were on a scale of one (most valuable) to five (least valuable). We looked at the proportion of respondents who gave a rating of one or two for each. The MHRM and the MBA were virtually tied at 50.5 per cent and 50.4 per cent respectively. The MIRHR came in just below this at 46.3 per cent. The MIR came in at 31.0 per cent and the MIOP came in at 28.2 per cent.

While the MHRM would likely be more useful to those pursuing an HR specialist career, the MBA would be more useful to those pursuing a generalist career, said some respondents. And a specialization in industrial relations is perhaps not as useful as it once was given the decline of unionization in the workplace. Finally, an advanced degree in areas such as industrial/organizational psychology was seen as a benefit only to those who are truly specialists and most likely in consulting.

There is an interesting relation between tenure and the perceived degree of competitive advantage derived from an advanced degree in HR. The relationship seems to be U-shaped, with those who have not yet entered the workforce with a high of 40.9 per cent. This fell to a low of 27.4 per cent for those with 10 to 14 years’ experience and rebounded to 36.2 per cent for those with more than 25 years of experience in HR. The fact those who have yet to enter the workforce see a greater advantage to an advanced degree is not surprising. What is surprising is the rebound for those with 25 years or more of HR experience. Perhaps this latter group is thinking about the doors that might have opened with an advanced degree.

It is not surprising then that the most frequent response to a friend seeking advice as to whether she should go for an advanced degree in HR was “it depends,” with a 44.7-per-cent share of responses. Still, those who would say “go for it,” at 32.9 per cent, significantly outweighed those who would say “don’t bother,” at 22.4 per cent.

Claude Balthazard is director of HR excellence and acting registrar of the Human Resources Professionals Association in Toronto. He can be reached at [email protected].

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