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The Debate: Certification vs. Masters Degree

You knew it the first time you helped your fellow co-worker settle that complicated health claim or the time you navigated through complex details in your organization’s 401K plan – Human Resources is the right fit for you. How do you remain competitive, however, in an ever-changing field like HR? The answer is career development.

Today’s HR professional must be prepared to tackle the growing business challenges present in our globally interactive economy.  The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Statistics predicts a 13% increase in demand for HR managers from 2012 to 2022 and 7% for HR Specialists for the same years. Continuing your education with an HR masters degree or receiving your HR certification are two great options available in a competitive market, but which route is best for you?

Masters level degrees in Human Resources

A Masters level degree in Human Resources provides you a variety of options.  Most programs can be divided into two distinct paths – Masters of Human Resources Management and an MBA (Masters of Business Administration) with a concentration in HR Management.  Both programs can be taken in a traditional classroom setting or online, and range between 1 to 2 years of full time course study. The average cost for a program can range from $10,000 up to $40,000. provides a great overview of both degrees available in HR. Below are some key characteristics for each degree:

MBA (HR Concentration)

Masters of Human Resources Management

  • Focuses solely on HR functions
  • Offers additional concentration in HR related topics, including:
    • Advanced coaching strategies
    • Organizational development
    • Talent management
  • See Top 20 Online HR Masters Degree programs

HR Certification

There are four basic types of certifications through the HR Certification Institute, HRCI.  Below is a brief description of each:

  • PHR – Ideal for the newer HR professional with a minimum amount of HR experience
  • SPHR – Ideal for a seasoned HR professional with a minimum of 4-7 years experience in HR
  • GPHR – Available only to HR professionals with a minimum of 2 years of Global HR experience
  • PHR-CA and SPHR-CA – Requires the equivalent of a PHR ad SPHR for California designation

SHRM also offers their own certifications (SHRM-CP & SHRM-SCP) with similar levels of experience and degree requirements.

HRCI offers certification exams and partners with organizations like Human Resources Certification Prep, HRCP for preparatory resources and study materials.  HRGirlfriends members are very fortunate to receive an HRCP member discount for PHR and SPHR study materials. SHRM designs their own testing materials while entities such as universities complete the teaching portion. Certification prep programs can take as little as 12 weeks to complete. Certificate programs usually range between $1000 – $2000 depending on the preparatory materials you choose.

Feedback on the Masters vs Certification debate

Who wins the debate? Experts have determined that the issue isn’t an easy one. Katie Bardaro, Payscale’s Economist, was quoted in a 2012 Forbes article evaluating the value of a Masters degree for career development.  She stated that, “Two absolute benefits of graduate education are increased knowledge in a field and the ability to set oneself apart from those with only a bachelor’s degree.”

Workforce Management also published a 2011 article on the HR certification and Masters debate.  In this article, Amy Dufrane, CEO of HRCI, stated that an increasing numbers of employers are requiring certification for several of their HR positions.  Patrick Wright, Strategic HR professor at Cornell University’s ILR School, however, stated, “If you have an SPHR and you’re competing against someone with a master’s degree in HR, the master’s will weigh more heavily, especially with the larger companies.”

When in doubt, choose both!  Many individuals choose to invest in both, a certification and a Masters degree. It’s not easy, but choosing both options provides the right mixture of credentials necessary to land great roles and command a higher salary.

Making the right choice

Once you familiarize yourself with the available choices, it’s time to evaluate your lifestyle, work/life balance and career goals.  Below are some questions that will help you determine the right path for you:

1. How much time and money am I willing and able to spend?

What is your budget and how much time are you willing to invest? Will my company reimburse me? Review the time frame of completion for the degree or certificate program that best suit your interest before committing.

2. How much balance do I want between my work and home life?

Are you raising a family or are you a single employee with extra time on your hands?  Determine how much time you can dedicate to your education. Obtaining a certification requires less time than a degree if you’re short on time, but not as many growth opportunities as a degree.

3. What are my career goals?

Where do you see yourself in the next two to five years? A certification might be a good choice if you’re looking to remain competitive in your field, but not as good if you have aspirations to work as an HR manager or HR director.

4. How do I learn best?

Do you learn best in a classroom setting or independently online?  Both certifications and degrees offer classroom learning or online groups and resources.  Catering your education to the way you work best will help you succeed.

Career development in Human Resources is important now more then ever.  Whether it’s an HR certificate or a Masters degree, both options offer commitment to a field you love.  The real question is “Which one is right for you?”

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