A master’s in human resources is one of the top degrees for the highest-paying business careers – but so is a Master of Business Administration (MBA). If you’re wondering which degree is more useful, it depends on factors like what your career goals are and what coursework your program covers. A specialized human resources degree is more relevant to advancing your HR career than a general MBA, but MBA programs that offer a human resources specialization may rival the relevance of a Master of Science in Human Resources, or MSHR degree. For the best job prospects, you should weigh whether your MBA HR or MSHR program aligns with the educational standards set by the Society for Human Resources Management.

Graduate Education for Human Resources Professionals

Is a Masters Specifically in HR More Useful Than a General MBA

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In the field of human resources, a master’s degree is relatively rare. Even among human resources managers, just 9 percent of the occupation reported having a master’s degree, according to O*NET. Another 9 percent had earned a post-baccalaureate certificate, but 74 percent of the occupation reported that an undergraduate degree is their highest level of education. There is a wage premium for having a master’s degree as a human resources worker, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported, but that wage premium is not as pronounced as in many other business occupations.

Human resource manager job postings sometimes list a master’s degree as required, especially for high-level roles like Vice President of Human Resources. However, even for manager roles, a master’s degree is often only “preferred,” not “required,” and candidates with only a bachelor’s degree are still qualified to apply. In many cases, employers don’t differentiate between a Master of Science in Human Resources and an MBA in human resources. To many employers, a master’s degree in HR is a master’s degree, regardless of whether the title is MS or MBA. If anything, an employer is likely to be more concerned about whether the curriculum matches the academic standards set by the Society for Human Resources Management than the precise title of your degree.

What else do employers look for in HR manager candidates? Most job postings specify a minimum amount of human resources work experience required, and some express a preference for professional HR certifications.

Master’s Level Requirements Under the Society for Human Resources Management

The Society for Human Resources Management recognizes both MS and MBA programs in human resources, but the organization outlines different standards for these two different types of graduate programs. The human resources coursework requirements are noticeably less rigorous for MBA programs, which are only expected to include 5 to 6 classes in the subject but must feature both introductory and capstone HR courses. The curriculum should include an overview of human resources management, studies in managing the performance of individual employees and teams, coursework on managing change for competitive advantage, classes in risk management and in training and development and a capstone course in strategic human resources management.

Under the standards of the Society for Human Resources Management, the bulk of these 30-to 42-credit-hour Master of Science programs should consist of many specialized classes in different facets of human resources. Coursework should include compensation, global human resources practices, employment law, labor management relations, staffing and talent management, workforce planning, employee training, problem-solving, metrics, change management, organizational behavior and leadership.

As of 2020, the Society for Human Resources Management recognizes human resources MBA programs at more than 60 institutions around the world that align with the professional organization’s standards. However, more Master of Science in Human Resources programs have acquired certification from the Society for Human Resources Management, with more than 90 such programs across the globe.

SHRM also recognizes 17 Master of Arts (MA) human resources programs, as well as more than 30 HR master’s degrees with different titles and program structures.

Distinguishing Between MBA HR and MSHR Degrees

The biggest difference between a specialized human resources master’s degree and an MBA in human resources is perspective. A human resources master’s degree has a narrower focus. Through electives, you can gain graduate-level knowledge in the areas of HR that are of the greatest interest to you and build more expertise in these areas. An MBA degree program that includes a concentration in human resources is a business administration degree first and an HR degree second. Most of your coursework will come from a broader business core curriculum, and the relatively few HR courses you take will likely be chosen for you or limited to a few electives.

Ultimately, the broader MBA program is better if you aren’t sure where you want to take your career, while a specialized master’s in HR will allow you to develop the more in-depth knowledge of the field that is ideal for senior-level human resources management roles.

Additional Resources

What Is the Difference Between a Human Resources Degree and a Business Degree?

What Is the Benefit of Earning a Human Resources Degree vs. a Business Degree?

What Are the Benefits of Earning a Business Degree vs. a Human Resources Degree?