Human resources has gradually ascended to the top of business administration priorities, as corporations recognize the importance of attracting and retaining qualified employees. Competitive advantage no longer turns on production and operational efficiency alone. Today, companies rely on a talented and technically skilled workforce for an edge in the marketplace.
A master's degree in human resources prepares you to take on the challenge of building a solid, well-trained workforce. In one to two years, you can build the social science and applied business skills to function effectively as an HR leader. Programs are career-friendly, with part-time and distance learning programs that allow you to earn a master's degree online.
WorldWideLearn.com's guide to the Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Master of Science (MS) in human resources takes you through the graduate school planning process step by step, from defining your academic objectives to submitting a competitive application.
Guide to MS and MBA Degrees in Human Resources
Human resources focuses on the human side of business operations, where people and policy intersect. The discipline draws on a broad spectrum of social science fields: psychology, communications, business strategy, system theory, education, and law. At the master's degree level, HR students learn to think critically about human capital and to develop initiatives for recruiting, retaining, and developing a qualified workforce.
Graduate HR programs typically allow you to focus on a specific area of human resources, either through elective coursework or an independent research project. Specializations can closely track professional HR roles; examples of applied HR fields include:
- Staffing and Recruitment
- Training and Development
- Performance Assessment
- Compensation and Benefits Administration
- Cultural Diversity Policy
- International Human Resource Management
- Strategic Human Resource Planning
- Bargaining, Negotiating, and Dispute Settlement
Or specializations can encourage you to take a step back, adopting a more analytical or theoretical approach to human resources issues. These HR fields include:
- Organizational Behavior
- Labor Law
- Labor and Employee Relations
- Employee Productivity
- Corporate Communications
Finally, HR students can specialize in the application of technology to human resource development. Many graduate schools offer an elective course or even a degree focusing on Human Resource Information Systems (HRIS).
Because not all schools feature the full array of human resources specializations, it's important to get a sense of your academic interests before you apply to graduate programs.
Master's Degrees in Human Resources
Master's degrees in human resources generally take one of two forms: a business professional degree (MBA) or a social science academic degree (MS). Each graduate degree approaches the discipline from a different point of view and presents a slightly different advantage on the job market.
Master of Business Administration
The MBA in human resources is an applied business degree, focusing on the management and administrative best practices of corporate HR. The curriculum encompasses HR elective courses as well as business fundamentals, producing a well-rounded graduate. The MBA program emphasizes course and applied group project work. Geared for career-focused professionals, MBA programs typically allow you to complete a master's degree online.
Master's of Science in Business
The MS in human resources facilitates a deeper engagement with HR, approaching the discipline through the lens of organizational psychology and policy. The degree culminates in an independent capstone research project investigating a specific HR issue or problem. An MS in human resources is appropriate for students just starting out in the field, or mid-career professionals looking to contextualize or develop specialized expertise.
WorldWideLearn.com features several resources to explore your graduate degree options. See the sections on online MBA programs and master's degrees.
Whether you choose an MBA or MS, your master's degree sets you up for a leadership role in human resources management. Opt for a senior-level supervisory position as director of human resources or apply your specialized skills as:
- Recruitment and placement manager
- Compensation and benefits manager
- Executive compensation analyst
- Training and development manager
- Director of labor relations or labor relations manager
- Mediator or arbitrator
- International human resources manager
- HRIS specialist
While both master's degrees offer versatile credentials for human resources management careers, each offers a unique professional advantage. MBA graduates bring the broad administrative skill set to function effectively across an organization; MS graduates, meanwhile, have an edge in consulting and specialist roles. The Master of Science may also lead to an academic career, serving as a stepping stone to a PhD in human resources or organizational psychology.
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts robust growth across human resources careers. HR management positions are set to increase by 22 percent from 2008 to 2018. Specialists in training and development, recruitment, and benefits and compensation should fare the best. In addition to traditional corporate roles, HR professionals can find opportunity in management consulting and HR outsourcing services.
Plan for a Master's Degree in Human Resources
Understanding your graduate education options is the first step toward getting your master's degree in human resources. From this point, preparing for graduate school is simply a matter of lining up the right resources.
Step One: Find the Right Graduate Human Resources Program
With hundreds of human resources programs to choose from, finding the perfect match for your career goals takes some research. WorldWideLearn.com helps you cover the bases with several program research features:
- Search. A searchable database of online degree programs and online MBA degrees. Search Degrees by Location for campus graduate programs near you.
- Collect Information. Links to information websites for individual graduate human resources programs.
- Connect. An interactive search tool that puts you in touch with schools that match your criteria.
These resources help you develop a list of programs in your field of interest. Focus your research by taking into account the following four factors:
The most fundamental feature of a graduate program is its accreditation status. The federal government approves national and regional accrediting agencies to conduct regular graduate program reviews and verify their quality. Accreditation ensures the value of your degree and your eligibility for many financial aid programs. The U.S. Department of Education Web site lists approved accreditation agencies.
Leading accrediting agencies such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International), a prestigious evaluator of business schools, publish member lists. These databases help you find accredited master's degree programs in your field. The AACSB allows you to search by degree level, field of study, location, and campus or online format.
2. Program Format: Earn a Master's Degree Online, Part-Time, or on Campus
Master's degrees in human resources are designed to accommodate working professionals. Program format options meet any lifestyle and schedule. Choose among:
- Campus and online master's degree options
- Full-time and part-time, self-paced study
- Day, evening, and weekend schedules
The ability to earn a master's degree online allows you to work toward the graduate degree on your own time and on your own terms, working from home. The online MBA makes advanced human resources education a possibility for students managing other commitments. Three out of four MBA students work more than 35 hours a week while completing the master's degree.
Explore your program format options at WorldWideLearn.com. The Online Degree Programs and Campus Education sections can help you decide which delivery format matches your lifestyle.
3. Academic Resources
The heart of your research takes you into the unique features and resources of the programs on your list. Look for programs that reflect your interests and goals. Criteria include:
- Curriculum. Take into account course emphases and requirements.
- Specializations. Look into specialized elective courses, self-directed independent projects, and faculty expertise to determine support for your specialization area.
- Educational Format. Whether you complete a master's degree online or in person, you encounter a diversity of educational activities ranging from lectures and case studies to industry competitions.
- Faculty. Instructors can bring academic or industry professional knowledge into the classroom. Check into both the background and expertise of faculty.
- Industry Relationships. Recruiting fairs are just the beginning of industry presence on campus. Check out clinics, internships, research grant opportunities, and networking events.
- Career Support Services. Career-focused degree programs offer placement counselors and a range of job search resources.
- Student Life. A collegial environment and opportunities to collaborate with peers helps you build valuable business relationships.
School websites offer a starting point for gathering information about the master's degree program. Look for course lists and descriptions of degree requirements, faculty areas of expertise, campus facilities, and special programs. Some schools link to a graduate student handbook and faculty publications.
Informational interviews with admissions counselors, faculty, alumni, and current graduate students give you a sense of the academic experience and the long-range value of the degree. If possible, plan an in-person visit to tour school facilities and investigate local resources.
4. Program Quality and Selectivity
Finally, narrow down your list by evaluating schools for quality and selectivity. Top programs typically maintain high admissions standards for their applicants. Look for programs that offer both strong educational value and an admissions profile that matches your competitiveness as an applicant. Schools express selectivity in terms of the undergraduate GPA and test scores of admitted applicants.
Quality metrics to consider include:
- Job placement and salary statistics
- Student background, including years of industry experience
Graduate Admissions Data. Ask admissions counselors for data about admissions selectivity, job placement rate, and student demographics. You may be able to glean detailed information about starting salary and employment upon graduation.
Rankings help you gauge a program's reputation. Each publication focuses on a different type of master's degree: online MBA, MS, executive programs, etc.
- Financial Times. Online MBA rankings
- U.S. News & World Report. Business Schools Specialty Rankings in Management
- The Wall Street Journal. Executive MBA
- BusinessWeek. Full-time, part-time, and online MBA degrees
- The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Full-time international MBA programs
- The Sloan Consortium. Online Master's Programs in Business and Management
Step Two: Apply to MBA or Master's Programs in Human Resources
Armed with a list of your top five to ten master's degree programs, you're ready to prepare your applications. Applications requirements vary, but you're likely to encounter these steps:
1. Complete Prerequisites
Plan to complete the following prerequisites to be eligible for graduate study:
- A bachelor's degree in business administration, communications, psychology, or a related field. If your degree is in another area, the program may require additional coursework in business fundamentals before you apply.
- Standardized tests. Common required tests include the GMAT (for MBA programs), GRE (for MBA or MS), and TOEFL (for international students only).
- Work experience. Executive MBA and some accelerated programs require work experience before applying.
WorldWideLearn.com's Education Resources Guide features resources to help you meet these prerequisites, including test preparation materials, prerequisite courses, and online learning tools.
2. Prepare Application Materials
Next, download or send for each school's admissions application. In addition to an informational form, you need to supply the following supporting documents:
- Academic transcripts
- Letters of recommendation from faculty or professional colleagues
- Test scores
- Personal essay
Assemble these materials well in advance to guarantee that all pieces of your application arrive in advance of the deadline.
Step Three: Finance Your Graduate Human Resources Degree
Most graduate students qualify for some financial aid to help manage the cost of their education. One way of limiting the cost of your education is to earn a master's degree online and keep working full time. Other options include:
- Grants and scholarships
- Corporate tuition assistance
- Student loans
Sources of funding include the university, private and civic foundations, your employer, and state and federal governments. Steps to take include:
- Meeting with the university's financial aid advisor.
- Filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which helps the school determine your eligibility for a range of grant and loan programs.
- Researching your options online. The Graduate Management Admissions Council offers some guidelines for financing your b-school degree, for example.
WorldWideLearn.com also features an overview of your options for financing a master's degree in human resources, in the graduate education funding section.
Step Four: Network, Network, Network
Getting a master's degree is as much about building a professional network as it is about building knowledge and expertise. Whether you earn a master's degree online or on campus, you'll have access to a vast pool of collective experience and business contacts. Make the most of the opportunity by:
- Joining professional associations.
- Attending networking events and conferences.
- Reading human resource industry publications, such as the Human Resource Development Quarterly or the Journal of Organizational Behavior.
Preparing for graduate school will set you on a trajectory to career success. Take the time now to define your goals and interests in human resources. This perspective will help you make important decisions about your education, tracking you into a master's degree program that supports your long-ranging professional objectives. Graduate human resources programs expose you to a world of opportunities. With the right foundation, you'll be able to seize them and realize your potential as a leader in human resources management.
- "2009 Full-Time MBA Ranking," Economist Intelligence Unit. The Economist.
- AACSB Accredited Business Schools Database, AACSB International--The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
- Best Business Schools Specialty Ranking: Management, U.S. News & World Report (2009).
- "Business School Rankings and Profiles," BusinessWeek.
- Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education.
- Exploring Graduate Business Degrees, Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC).
- Human Resources Management, The George Washington University.
- Human Resources, Training, and Labor Relations Managers and Specialists. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-2011 Edition. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- MBA in Human Resources, Baldwin Wallace College.
- "MBA Rankings and Executive Education Programs," The Wall Street Journal.
- MS in Human Resource Management and Development, NYU School of Continuing & Professional Studies.
- Online MBA 2009, Business School Rankings. Financial Times.
- Programs in Business and Management, The Sloan Consortium.
- Strategic Human Resource Management, Wisconsin School of Business.