Selecting a Graduate School

Create your own list of criteria to evaluate potential HR graduate programs and find the one that's best for you.

By Kathryn Tyler Dec 1, 2006

HR Magazine, December 2006

When Natalie Cuartelon decided to obtain a graduate degree, she took her time choosing a graduate school. “I looked for an institution in the Southeast that had small classes, a program 100 percent dedicated to HR” and was accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, says Cuartelon, now an HR information systems (HRIS) analyst for RE:Sources–IT, a division of the communications company Publicis Groupe in Chicago.

She decided on the University of North Florida Coggin College of Business in Jacksonville and graduated in December 2003 with a master’s in human resource management. “I liked the affordability of the tuition, the supportive professors and the opportunity to do a lot of fieldwork,” Cuartelon says.

Cuartelon was wise to reflect on her criteria before choosing a school. Earning an HR graduate degree takes a lot of time, effort and money. For these reasons, it’s crucial to evaluate schools carefully based on many factors.

Thus, the first thing you must do is list your criteria for measuring potential schools. While each HR professional will have a unique list based on what is important to him or her, commonalities do exist. Here are some fundamental criteria to consider, and some tips to help you sort through your options.

Subject-Matter Criteria

When putting together your list of criteria, take some time to determine what type of information and educational experience you want to receive.

Curriculum. What HR topics will be covered by the program you are considering? Do they represent the most important elements of an education in HR? The recently released Human Resource Curriculum Guidebook and Templates for Undergraduate and Graduate Programs from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) lists subject areas that HR education experts have deemed the most important for HR (see sidebar “Core HR Topics”). Compare the list with the school’s curriculum to see whether it offers all or most of the recommended topics.

In addition to the HR curriculum, Robert L. Heneman, professor and director of graduate programs in labor and HR in the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University in Columbus, advises that HR graduate students take a course in research methods. “Employers expect [HR graduate] employees to be able to create an attitude survey, tally the data, evaluate the conclusions and make recommendations,” he says.

Available coursework that will help you better understand your industry and particular business also may be important.

For example, Dana McDaniel, former vice president of HR at Citigroup and now a doctoral student in organizational behavior at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California-Irvine, wishes that her program required more business and finance classes. “On my first HR rotation at Citigroup in New York, I was assigned to a credit card client group in risk management. There were heavy analytics. I knew very little about how risk management fit into the scope of the business. I had to take an entire course in risk management,” says McDaniel, who received her master’s in human resources and industrial relations (HRIR) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 2001. She recommends taking courses in financial reporting and reading balance sheets: “Sometimes one course isn’t enough.”

Micky Candia, an HR generalist for DuPont Fluoroproducts, a chemical and material manufacturing company in Ingleside, Texas, who graduated from Cornell University with an MBA with an HR concentration in 2003, would have liked more classes on employee relations, such as how to coach and counsel managers. “Graduate schools are designed to teach you how to build strategic HR systems to meet a business need, but they aren’t designed to teach you the tactical ins and outs of running an HR organization,” she says.

Cuartelon agrees: “I wish there was more emphasis on conflict management and employee relations.”

Theory vs. practice. The method in which the curriculum is delivered is just as important as the content. “You’re looking for a program to have a balance between theory and application,” says Deb Cohen, SPHR, chief knowledge officer at SHRM. Cohen recommends courses with lots of case studies, guest speakers, discussions and interviews with HR practitioners. Cuartelon agrees: “I wish I had more practical experience with HRIS. I learned a lot more about theory rather than actual applications.”

But at Cornell, says Candia, “the majority of HR electives had a major project with a real business need. A company would present a problem and we acted as HR consultants, developing an HR solution to their business needs. It was a good opportunity to apply the learning in class to real-world problems.”

Reputation. A school’s reputation is hard to quantify, but some schools consistently show up on “best” lists and are well-known nationally, while others are known only regionally. “Consider the reputation of the school. The network you create there will be with you for the rest of your life,” says McDaniel.

Cohen agrees: “If the purpose of your degree is career advancement or job placement, you want to think about where your degree is from. It makes a difference.”

Overseas study opportunities. Some HR graduate degree programs include international components. For instance, at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, students have the option of taking courses in India, Austria or France.

Anne E. Stohr, HR coordinator for Multilingual Word Inc., a translations services company in Minneapolis, who received a master’s degree in HRIR from the University of Minnesota in 2002, wishes she had been able to participate in an international experience. “It’s an excellent opportunity to compare international systems and what approaches work in an HR context,” says Stohr.

Logistical Considerations

You should also consider your life outside of work and your personal preferences when selecting an HR graduate program.

Program options. Most schools offer choices that include traditional, full-time, daytime classes; accelerated weekend executive programs; and part-time night school. HR professionals need to determine what’s best for their work and family life.

Eimile Tansey, manager of HR for VetCentric, an online veterinary pharmacy in Annapolis, Md., said her “program needed to be flexible. I worked full time in a job with demanding travel; I couldn’t pick up and leave.”

At the University of Maryland, University College, where Tansey graduated with a master’s in management with an HR concentration in 2003, “I had the ability to take some of my classes online, which was good. Other classes were evening classes.”

Online, brick-and-mortar or both. Virtual degree programs—and traditional degree programs with online components—are becoming increasingly common. “I chose the online option because it afforded me the flexibility needed because of my work schedule, which consisted of overtime and travel, as well as family commitments,” says Fred, an HR generalist for the Department of the Navy who didn’t want to use his full name. Fred earned a master’s degree in organizational management through a degree program that was completely online. Online degrees are more challenging than the marketing would lead you to believe, he adds. “It takes a lot of discipline to take an online class, especially if you’re working full time. Nobody’s pushing you.”

Tansey agrees: “A lot of people look at an online curriculum as an easy way to get a degree, but my online courses were much more rigorous [than my classroom ones]. We were working with a virtual team. Being able to communicate that way is more difficult. You have to prove you can produce valuable work in a written format,” says Tansey, who took both online and classroom courses in her program. “You have to be able to present yourself virtually the way you would face to face.”

Cohen, a former professor of HR management at George Washington University, notes, “You’ll find a wide range of quality in any school—brick-and-mortar or online. It’s just easier to look under the hood of a brick-and-mortar school than an online school.”

Location and size. Don’t ignore basic but subjective preferences such as the location and size of a school. Are you willing to move for school? If so, where? “You need to have an environment that fits,” says McDaniel. “Personally, after living in New York, I couldn’t go back and live on a rural campus. I had to live by a city.”

“The size of the program is critical,” says Heneman. “How many students are there? How big are the classes? What kind of individual attention would you get?” Heneman recommends programs graduating classes of about 50 students because they are big enough to not be in danger of canceling but small enough to develop good relationships with professors and fellow students.

Making Connections

Consider the types of career opportunities you want to get out of an HR graduate program.

Networking opportunities. What is the profile of the average student? Are other students mostly straight out of undergraduate schools or do they have some work experience? How many years’ experience is average?

“One of the biggest benefits [of graduate school] is interacting with students, especially people who had work experience before going into the program. I have friends working in all different countries and industries. That network has been phenomenal,” says McDaniel.

Whom you meet and how well you get to know them depends a great deal on program options. Full-time day students take classes with the same people throughout the program and have more time together. Evening students may meet fewer people and spend less time with them.

But if you already have an extensive network of colleagues through your career and professional memberships, building a network may be less important to you than to a student coming directly out of undergraduate school.

Internships and work-study opportunities. “Internships are important for students who have never practiced HR who are pursuing graduate degrees,” says Steve Williams, SPHR, director of research at SHRM.

“What work experience can you gain while in the program? Can you help professors do consulting or get involved in research projects?” asks Heneman. If you already have a job you intend to keep while you go to school, the availability of internships or faculty-directed work may be irrelevant to you.

Post-graduation job placement. “Ask what the placement rate is. What companies come to recruit?” suggests Heneman.

Candia found that graduating from Cornell afforded her opportunities. “A lot of companies target and recruit students who are graduating from HR master’s degree programs for their rotational HR leadership development programs. I went into an HR leadership development program within DuPont, and it has been beneficial. I got a broad array of experiences quickly,” she says.

McDaniel agrees, adding that the most important benefit of attending the HRIR program at the University of Illinois was the corporate connections. “They have internships, on-campus interviewing, seminars and mingling events. … They had [excellent] placement records for every student.”

Evaluate Potential Schools

Once you have established your personal criteria for selecting a graduate school, you will want to do some research. First, search for HR graduate degree programs and read profiles of individual schools at the online Graduate Programs in Human Resource Management, a directory compiled by the SHRM Foundation.

After narrowing the choices to two or three schools, visit and arrange meetings with faculty members. “Call the program office or faculty members who teach HR,” advises Cohen. “Ask how often they revise their curriculum and how they interact with HR practitioners to see how reality-based the program is. See if they have a student chapter of SHRM [and] if the faculty are involved in local SHRM professional chapters.”

Tansey researched University of Maryland faculty members’ resumes before she registered. “What impressed me was many of them were in high-level jobs in the field. They weren’t full-time faculty. They were teaching these classes in addition to their jobs. These were people who had a real day-to-day perspective,” says Tansey.

During your visit, “look at what kinds of program resources they have, such as library facilities and video teleconferencing,” says Williams.

McDaniel adds: “How is the day-to-day environment? How are the classrooms and IT facilities? In my experience, all of the classes were in one building; it was its own little community. It was great,” says McDaniel.

Select Carefully

“Grad school is a big investment in money and time, in career and future,” says Cohen.

Tansey agrees and summarizes, “Pick a program that works for you and you can get through. It’s a lot of work, and you can’t put an unfinished degree on your resume.”

Selecting an HR graduate program may be one of the most critical decisions of your HR career because where you go to school may determine which companies recruit you upon graduation and the types of opportunities open to you thereafter. Thus, it’s critical not to select a school lightly. Review the curriculum, faculty, options, reputation and networking opportunities before you commit, and be prepared for HR graduate school to change the course of your career.

Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich. She has written business-related articles for the past 12 years.

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