New PhD in HR launches

Most grads go on to teach, some consult

York University is launching a new PhD in HR management this fall, further demonstrating the growing credibility of this field in Canada. But the move is also part of a larger effort by schools across the country that have an urgent need for faculty.

“Right now, there’s a glut in the market in terms of PhD graduates and that’s where business education is heading,” said Parbudyal Singh, chair of the PhD HR program at York University in Toronto.

“For a lot of occupations, from Statistics Canada to colleges to universities, a PhD is an asset and a lot of the bigger organizations are putting PhDs in HR departments, rather than bringing in consultants. But, for us, the biggest reason was the shortage of faculty, so we’re focused on training teachers and faculty for higher education.”

York’s new program — housed in the school of administrative studies at the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies — follows a master’s degree in HR introduced in 2004 and emphasizes methodological approaches to research and pedagogical training, covering issues such as staffing, performance management, strategic compensation and international HR.

“There is a global shortage of HR PhDs,” said Ken McBey, director of the graduate program in human resources management (HRM) at York.

“As an evolving area, HR has to have people doing the frontier research. And if you don’t have the PhDs, not only do university programs suffer, at the micro level, but the field also suffers because we’re not actually doing the research to the same degree that we should be doing to push back and make new discoveries. It’s also a logical extension from a master’s, but nominally it’s because there’s a real crying need for it.”

He said York’s is the only PhD program in Canada that focuses exclusively on HR, instead of being added on to other disciplines, such as industrial relations or organizational behaviour.

“When you have a blended degree, it kind of waters it down,” said McBey. “For example, HROB (HR organizational behaviour) programs spend a lot of research and time on individual motivations, micro things that are not normally of interest to people involved as HR managers, who are looking at macro things, such as compensation systems.”

Different names, same field

For those considering a PhD, the choices are not only growing but somewhat confusing, considering the variety of programs in the field of HR (such as a PhD in industrial relations and human resources at the University of Toronto or a PhD in management, specializing in organizational behaviour, at Montreal’s McGill University).

Many schools define HR differently, said Naresh Agarwal, acting PhD director and human resources and management professor at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton. For example, McMaster’s program started as a PhD in business administration in the fields of labour relations and HR in 1990. But in 1997, labour relations was subsumed under HR.

“It’s nomenclature,” he said. “We define the HR field as the study of all aspects of the employee relationship and labour relations is part of that.”

In addition, every university is structured differently and often the name or setup of a program depends on how it was approved. So “it’s quite comparable,” he said, that McMaster’s PhD is offered through its faculty of business while York’s is offered through its faculty of liberal and professional studies.

The University of Alberta has offered a PhD in HRM and industrial relations for at least 15 years, said Yonatan Reshef, department chair, strategic management and organization, for the school of business at the Edmonton-based institution. The program was previously governed by industrial relations but now HR is the more dominant and popular component.

“But you have to take the same courses and when it comes to what defines whether it’s HR or IR, it’s really the thesis project. In the end, if you look at the transcript, you won’t be able to tell if it’s HR or IR,” he said.

Academia the ultimate goal

On average, five students graduate from the Alberta program each year, with about one or two admitted per year, and “by and large, it is very heavily dominated by people who want to become academics. Sometimes it’s for personal development but there’s no doubt the program attracts mainly future academics,” said Reshef, adding an HR career doesn’t really demand a PhD.

“There are so many professional development courses available today, especially with the Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation, it forces people to keep themselves up to date, so they can do very well without the PhD degree. A PhD degree, in my mind, is an academic degree — you do it because you want to stay in academia.”

For the most part it’s a challenge to persuade candidates to consider a PhD with the lure of high-paying MBA jobs, said Brian Bemmels, chair of the PhD in OBHR program in the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, which started at least 30 years ago. And some PhD graduates decide to take an advanced consulting role in the corporate world since they have more sophisticated research and problem-solving skills than a typical MBA.

“In all of North America, people are very concerned about the future supply of academics in business,” said Bemmels. “Business schools grew and boomed in the 70s so they hired a lot of baby boomers and a lot of those people will be retiring over the next 10 years. So we need to have a good supply of them coming in.”

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