While a bachelor’s degree is enough to get started in a human resources career, there may come a time when you need more to keep your career moving. When HR professionals weigh the options for enhancing their skills and their resumé, they often compare professional certification to graduate school. Either option could help you advance your career, but the financial and time investment needed to earn them are very different.

Advancement in the Field of Human Resources

A bachelor’s degree in human resources or general business is enough to get started in entry-level human resources positions in most cases, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Even human resources managers usually need just a bachelor’s degree as far as formal college education goes. Professional certification is voluntary and often awarded only after the HR professional has attained at least a few years of relevant work experience.

Why would HR professionals choose to go to graduate school or work toward a certification if it is not mandatory? There are many reasons. Human resources specialists take pride in the work they do. The field is surprisingly complicated, and its complexity is only growing. Some form of professional development or continuing education is needed to learn all of the evolving skills used in the occupation. For HR management roles, in particular, the competition can be strong, so having additional qualifications can differentiate you from your fellow HR job applicants.

HR professionals have considerable earning potential, with the BLS reporting a $60,350 median wage for human resources specialists and a $110,120 median salary for human resources managers.

What Is the Difference Between a Certification in Human Resources and a Master’s Degree in HR?

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Types of Human Resources Certifications

Numerous professional organizations offer certification programs for human resources personnel. Perhaps the best known of these associations is the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), which also established the Human Resource Curriculum Guidebook and Templates for Undergraduate and Graduate Programs. Two types of certifications, the SHRM Certified Professional (SHRM-CP) and SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP) credentials, are available from this association. Candidates for certification must meet experience and education requirements and complete a four-hour exam that consists of 160 questions. The cost to take the exam is $300 for members of the association or $400 for non-members, and exam pass rates generally hover around 65 to 70 percent for the SHRM-CP and 50 to 60 percent for the SHRM-SCP.

The HR Certification Institute (HRCI) offers eight different certifications for HR personnel. In addition to the Professional in Human Resources (PHR) credential are international (PHRI), global (GPHR) and California-specific (PHRca) certifications. The Associate Professional in Human Resources (aPHR) and Associate Professional in Human Resources—International (aPHRi) credentials are intended for workers at the beginning of their careers. For experienced HR professionals, the HRCI sponsors the Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) and Senior Professional in Human Resources—International (SPHRi) qualifications. Like the SHRM, the HRCI requires candidates for each type of certification to meet eligibility requirements that include education and experience as well as passing an exam. The HRCI exam pass rates vary widely from one credential to another, with just 49 percent of test-takers passing the SPHR but 85 percent passing the aPHR. The total cost of an exam, including application fees and exam fees, ranges from $400 to $595.

In addition to the SHRM and the HRCI, WorldatWork and the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans are among the many other professional associations that offer certification for HR professionals.

Attaining certification from any of these associations can improve your career prospects by demonstrating qualities such as credibility and expertise, the BLS reported. While not all HR manager roles require certification, some do, and employers may favor this credential.

 Graduate Programs in Human Resources Management

 When you study HR at the graduate level, you will take advanced courses that equip you with the skills you need to succeed in management roles. Your classes will teach you to create productive and professional relationships with stakeholders, learn leadership strategies to solve problems and encourage collaboration and use effective strategies for building, training and measuring the performance of your workforce. Specialized and practical classes in managing difficult conversations and rewards and benefits accompany concept-driven courses in the global contexts of human resource and strategic human resource management.

There are numerous graduate education options for HR professionals. Human resources masters degrees can take the form of a specialized Master of Science in Human Resources or a broader Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree with a concentration in HR. If you aren’t prepared to commit to a full master’s degree program, a shorter graduate certificate program can offer you a taste of what grad school is like while boosting your career opportunities.

Naturally, a certificate program that comprises half as many classes as a full master’s degree program is not as comprehensive, but it can be a great deal quicker and more affordable.  

Is a Graduate Degree or a Certification More Valuable?

Which option for career advancement is right for you depends on what you are willing to invest. Earning a master’s degree offers more prestige and adds to your skills and education, not just your resumé. It requires a big commitment of tuition dollars, time and hard work.

There are some benefits of certification over graduate school, as well. Certification proves the merit of your existing work experience, education and professional abilities to prospective employers. You must complete continuing education to become recertified on a regular basis. Unlike a certificate or degree that is awarded only once, certification shows employers that you continue to work toward excellence every day, because you can’t let your participation in professional development waver. Of course, the cost of taking a certification exam is just a few hundred dollars, while a master’s degree will probably cost you tens of thousands of dollars.

Either a graduate degree or professional certification can help you move forward with your HR career. These options aren’t mutually exclusive. The most ambitious HR professionals pursue both.

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?