MBA vs. HRM: Should you pursue a masters in HR Management or an MBA?


What is the difference between the two? Where will the different degrees lead you? Read on for valuable advice and insights on this issue from grad students, professors, and HR practitioners across the country. The following comments were taken from a discussion on the SHRM Student Union, an online bulletin board open to SHRM members. For more information on specific universities and programs, visit SHRM's Directories of HR Programs page.

Graduate Student Perspectives

"The difference is very fundamental. An MBA gives one a thorough grounding in all aspects of the business profession. An individual may concentrate in a particular area, but will still be required to take a certain number of core courses in finance, economics, accounting, marketing, MIS, and management. Electives will be used for your concentration. In the MS in HRM degree you will spend all your time on the principles of HR, from org design, to training, to everything else the HR profession covers. Are you a business major? If not, you will be required to take leveling courses to get you up to speed. If your undergraduate degree is in management or HR, the MBA would do you a world of good. Also, more and more of the trade journals are showing that HR professionals need to get an MBA to have any clout in the firm (that way they know about the financial and business aspects of the firm). If you are getting a degree in something else it may be best for you to pursue the HRM degree and after working for a while go back for the MBA. My MA is in HRD, but after being in an MBA program for a while I can definitely say that my eyes have been opened." 

—Dennis Berger

"I'm going to stick my neck out, here it goes. An MBA concentrates on the bottom line. People are secondary. The concern for people and the concentration in HR will probably not consider issues of right and wrong, good versus bad practices. HR Management also cares about the bottom line but takes a much more people centric view. The individuals who make up an organization are our charges. We must balance the good of the organization with the good of the workforce. In HR we are advocates for employees and representatives of the company. 

Having never gone for my MBA I can only make conjecture as to the actual differences between an MBA with HR concentration and a MS in HR. But I am pretty sure an MBA will get you more money. But I still chose to go for a MS in HR. Talk to professionals working in the field ask them what they perceive to be the difference." 

—Timothy Kresge

"I am currently working on my MS in HRM at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. I started in the MBA with a concentration in HR, then switched to the MS in HRM. My reasoning for switching programs is simply because the MS offered more opportunity for me to take the classes I wanted. The MBA program will offer you a better overall knowledge of business. For instance, our MBA program is 12 classes - only four of which are electives. If you have a concentration, those four classes are chosen for you. With the MS we have to take 10 classes - only 4 of which are chosen for us, those being the HR classes. 3 of the other electives must be in certain areas (i.e. economics, a quantitative class, and an operations class). The other 3 electives can be chosen in a variety of areas.

In making my decision to switch programs I spoke with several HR professionals I know through our local professional SHRM chapter. They, my advisor, and our dean of business graduate studies, all gave me the same advice. In a nutshell, what they told me was that if HR is really what you want to do, then the MS is your best option. If you do not have a background in business, then the MBA w/HR might be better for you. I have a BS in Business Mgmt, I went with the MS. Also, (and this is no reflection on any MBA program, and I only quote someone else) a lot of schools have MBA programs, an MS is something that can set you apart in the industry." 

—Sheila Russ

"I have just completed my first course on my way to an MSHR. I chose Loyola University's Institute of Human Resources and Industrial Relations (Chicago), and the degrees they offered were MSHR (Human Resources) or MSIR (Industrial Relations). Every course required for the degree is either HR- or IR-related. There are no "Project Management" or general management classes, as you would find in an MBA program. Economics is not just a general economics, it's a "Labor Economics". Law class is either "Labor Law" or "HR Law." In an MSHR(M) degree program, the entire focus is on HR, and you can concentrate in Comp & Benefits, Global HR, Organizational Development, Labor Relations, etc. vs. an MBA with a concentration in HR, where only a few of the classes were truly HR-focused.

Take a look at the course descriptions, required classes, and electives to find out what curriculum will best serve your career objectives. I believe that the complete focus on HR vs. general business management/administration is the major difference between the two types of degrees. It's my opinion that if you have a choice, and your career goals definitely lie only in the HR arena, then choose the MSHR, IR, HRM (or whatever they happen to call it at the school). However, whether the company you work for, or hope to work for, identifies the difference in your choice is another matter. Managers may simply see a Master's degree as a sign of your intelligence, initiative, and desire to advance professionally, regardless of the curriculum required to obtain it." 

—Annette Betka

"Essentially, it depends on your program of studies. There is no real agreement as to content of the degree between schools as long as the content meets a minimum set by the accrediting body. The best in the US is the AACSB (the American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business), so I recommend you start by choosing an accredited program. Most major schools of business are accredited these days, but the minor schools, some of the church affiliated schools, and most regional schools are not; they usually don't have the resources to muster 95% faculty with Ph.D.'s, the library holdings, and the research support. Examples of accredited schools by league affiliation: all "big 10," all "big 12," and "pac 10." Most Ivy League schools, most Atlantic Coast and Southwest and Southeast conference schools too. 

In accredited schools, the MS in HRM is designed to provide a more explicit coverage of HR topics and specialties with the intention of preparing the student for a more quantitative and research-oriented focus, probably opening the way to enrollment in a Ph.D. program. Most MS programs have a thesis requirement. The MBA, on the other hand, is more generalistic in its orientation designed to prepare business practitioners (or people who want to be...) for career ladder succession. With that out of the way, the only thing else to say is that content then belongs to the school. Better HRM schools (Purdue, Cornell, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, UCLA) probably with also have a very rigorous content in the MBA curriculum related to HRM. You may notice very little difference in the MS content of some schools and the better MBA schools then. Ask for the required courses you have to take, apply to the programs that meet your objectives best, accept offers from the best programs you can get into." 

Doug Peterson, Ph.D. candidate, Nebraska

Academicians' Advice

"An MBA will give you a very broad business background. You will be required (at most schools) to take courses in all areas of business, such as accounting, marketing, finance, management, statistics, etc. You will be able to take at most, 4 maybe 5 courses in HR. The degree will probably be anywhere from 48 to 60 credit hours, depending upon the school. An MS in HR is much more focused to HR. It is usually shorter, 36 to 48 credits. Most of your courses will be in HR or in a related discipline. You might have to take a statistics course, but you will generally not be required to take a lot of other courses in outside disciplines such as accounting, finance, etc. So, which you go for depends on what you want to be able to do. If you are positive you want HR and you want to be a generalist, the MS degree may be the way to go. If you want to explore HR as well as other areas of management, the MBA may be the way to go. Each degree has its pluses and minuses. In addition, your background (i.e., whether or not your undergrad degree is in business) will also make a difference as to what you do." 

— Debra J. Cohen, SHRM, Chief Knowledge Officer, formerly George Washington University

"An MBA program with a concentration in HRM provides a broad spectrum of coursework on general business practices with some coursework (generally about 4 courses) on basic HRM issues/practices. In contrast, an MS/MA-HRM (or MS/MA-IR) program provides a broad spectrum of coursework on general HRM issues with some coursework (generally about 4 courses) on basic business issues/practices." 

—La Verne Hairston Higgins, Le Moyne College

"The answer to the differences between the MBA with HR emphasis and the MS in HRM depends at least somewhat on the particular program in which you are interested. In general, however, the HRM emphasis in an MBA program requires far fewer specialized courses in HRM, normally three to four courses is sufficient for an emphasis. In an MS program, you will take 30-35 hours of classes that are all in HRM. In addition, you generally must have an undergraduate degree in business from an accredited university in order to be admitted to the MS in HRM program. The MBA admission is open to any major. 

There is some disagreement regarding which program is more marketable. In my opinion, if you are certain that you want a career in HRM, a MS in HRM from a top school such as Cornell is the best way to go. This top tier school has excellent placement rates and good salaries for graduates. On the other hand, it's difficult to get in. Many other MS programs also have successful graduates and good placements, but then so do the best MBA programs. Many feel that the MS is not as flexible as the MBA and that may be true. However, all MS graduates do have a broad exposure to business since they receive the business core at the undergraduate level.

In sum, it's a tough decision, and one that depends on your selection of program and career goals. Successful HR managers have come from both tracks. Whatever you choose, good luck!" 

—Steve Thomas, Southwest Missouri State University

"I wanted to pass along some advice (I get this question on a regular basis from my students). An MBA/HR concentration means that you will take between 11-14 classes, only 2-4 of which are HRM classes. The rest are general business classes (like accounting, yech!). An M.S. in HR or Industrial Relations will allow you to take 10-12 out of 14 classes in HRM. As you can see, there is quite a difference. In addition, I think you will find it easier to get an HR job with an M.S. -- particularly if you get a degree from one of the top five programs (Cornell, Univ. of Wisconsin, Univ. of Illinois, Univ. of Minn. and Michigan State Univ.)..." 

—Mark J. Keppler, California State University- Fresno

"Well, as best I understand it, An MBA is a Masters in Business Administration - meaning a general business degree. The concentration in HR is nice, but that only indicates that most of your "free" or "elective" choices were in HR fields. The MS in HR is a Masters of Science geared specifically toward HR. In this case, your "electives" will be in other business fields and your primary concentration will be in HR. How does that affect you later? Well that depends. I have an MBA with an emphasis on HR. From there I went on the get my DBA. You'll have to examine your specific needs and aspirations to determine what would be best for you." 

—Mitchell Adrian, Longwood College 

"I am replying to you from Australia, hence my response is in the context of the design of courses here. I can only assume a similar situation would occur in the States. An MBA with a specialization in HR would include material that is broad based management in context. That is you would likely cover Marketing, Finance, Strategic Management, Economics, TQM etc in addition to your specialization in HR. Hence with the MBA you are receiving a generalist business education with a particular specialization. Some would suggest that this is preferable for HR specialists as they have traditionally (here in Australia anyway) lacked a business focus to their operations.

An MSc specifically in HR would include nothing but HR subjects. At the end of the day, you need to determine which is best in terms of your career. If you had an undergraduate degree in HR, I would be inclined to go for the MBA. If your undergraduate degree was in a specialist field other than HR, say Economics, Accounting or other business field I would go for the specialist degree i.e., the MSc. If your undergraduate degree was in say Psychology, Sociology etc I would be inclined to the MBA. I suppose what I am saying to you is, to what extent do you lack knowledge in particular areas? Make your decision on that basis. But make sure you have some business education at the end of the day. If I can offer any further advice please let me know." 

—Dr. Alan Fish, International MBA Program, Charles Sturt University, NSW Australia

HR Practitioners' Perspectives

"I received my MBA from the University of Chicago in 1993, with concentrations in HR and Marketing, and have been very happy with my choice. My HR and case-study oriented marketing classes taught me about the regulations you need to know to be effective in HR, and helped develop the 'soft' skill of decision-making when a situation is not black and white. These are the skills that I'm sure a good MA HR program teaches. The MBA program teaches the hard skills of accounting, finance, and statistics.

The things a good HR professional will need to know to a) understand the business in order to b) impact the business and c) communicate HR's impact on the business. In a world where HR still struggles for 'respectability', these are the skills that will help you gain credibility and allow you to effectively communicate with peers in other functions. Only then (IMHO), can you put your other HR skills to good use. I'm not convinced that the MA program teaches these skills. I've seen too many MA people who think their role as HR professional is to make sure managers abide by FLSA. Puhleese. What the MBA probably does not offer is the more technical HR skills (i.e. how to do a salary survey, behavioral based interviewing technique, expatriate administration, etc.). I have had no problem picking these skills up on the job, though. If at all possible, find a company, benefactor, long-lost-relative, ANYONE to pick up the tab for your degree...student loans are great when the money is coming in, but hell when you are paying them off!"

​—Karen Aleck, Staff Recruiter for a leading healthcare company

"As a graduate of Cornell's Masters in Industrial and Labor Relations (MILR), I have some insight that might be helpful. The main difference between MBA with a HR concentration and a Masters of Science in HR Mgmt. or a Masters in Labor Relations (which in today's world can be almost totally HR-based and not traditional mgmt.-union focused) is this: an MBA has a ton of general business courses and only a few HR ones. The MILR has a ton of HR courses and a few general business ones. Employers go to both schools, but I think the national recruited MILR schools are limited (Cornell, Minnesota, Michigan State, Illinois are the ones I ran across). Also, if you have a geographic preference, there may be a local school (MNA or Masters) that is recruited heavily by companies in that area." 

—Gary Garber



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