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Which Degree is Right for You?

There are a variety of degrees offered in the human resource field. Each degree program features its own combination of courses and overall emphasis, preparing students for slightly different career paths. To help you select the right degree program for your situation, we have categorized the degree programs into seven broad types.

No one program can be right for everyone. When selecting a program, consider your own background, your strengths and weaknesses, and your future career plans. For example, if you have an undergraduate degree in general business and you have selected human resources as your career, then a specialty degree such as an MS in HR would be a good choice to round out your education. However, if you majored in HR as an undergraduate and you would now like to learn more about general business, pursuing an MBA might open up new options for you.

The following is a general overview of each degree type. Keep in mind that there is considerable variation among the programs within each category, so an individual program may or may not fit this description. Use this information as a starting point to help you narrow your search. For any program you are considering, review the required courses and most popular electives, as well as the points of excellence, to get a better sense of the degree's content and emphasis.​​

  • Business Administration (MBA, MBA/HRM, MBA/HR, MBA/HRIS). An MBA degree is highly respected in the business world. It demonstrates that graduates have a solid understanding of how a business operates and how HR fits into the big picture. An MBA program provides a broad overview of all business functions, including accounting, finance, marketing, strategy and human resources. This degree offers flexibility in future career options, as it will prepare you to move into other areas of business in addition to human resources. However, if you are seeking in-depth technical HR knowledge, then an MBA might not be the best choice for you. In most MBA programs, students take only a few HR courses. Obtaining professional HR certification in addition to an MBA is a good way to supplement a student's technical HR knowledge.

  • Human Resource Development (MSHRD, MAHRD). Traditionally, these programs place a strong emphasis on training and development and have a more narrow scope than a general business degree. Many HRD programs are very similar to the master's in human resources degree, as they provi​de in-depth technical knowledge of the HR function. Career paths include HR generalist, training specialist and consultant. These degree programs are often housed in the education or business school.

  • Human Resource Management (MSHRM, MSHR, MA/HRM, MHRM, MAHR, MAHRM, MHR). These programs provide a thorough base of knowledge in all aspects of human resource management and the employment relationship. Such a degree is a good choice for someone changing careers and entering human resources from another field or for someone interested in advancing within the HR profession. This program is also good preparation for achieving professional certification. Graduates may work as generalists or specialists in large organizations or as generalists in small to medium-size companies. Those who receive this degree are perceived as experts in human resources; however, they may or may not have acquired a broad understanding of general business concepts such as finance, marketing and accounting. To be credible in today's organizations, an individual must understand how the HR function fits into the overall mission of the organization and how HR adds value. If your HR master's program does not cover general business subjects, consider adding these as electives.

  • Industrial Relations/Labor Relations (MSILR, MILR, MAILR, MSIR, MIR, MALER; combined with HR: MHRIR, MA/HRIR, MLRHR, MLHR, MHRLR). Most industrial/labor relations programs were developed in the 1940s and 1950s in response to the growth of American labor unions. Though the names of these degrees have not changed, the curriculum has. In addition to the traditional focus on labor relations and collective bargaining, these programs now cover the full breadth of HR knowledge. For students interested in working in labor-management relations, this degree is the natural choice. It generally covers issues from both a management and an employee perspective giving graduates a thorough understanding of the employment relationship. Graduates work as HR generalists or as specialists in occupations such as labor relations, union representative or researcher, mediator or arbitrator. This can be a good complement to a law degree for people interested in working in labor and employment law.

  • Industrial/Organizational Psychology (MAP, MAOP, MA-I/O, MSIO, MAIOP, MSIOP, MAP-I/O, MSP-I/O). These programs focus on assessment, measurement and evaluation of human behavior in organizations. In "I/O psych" programs, courses like motivation, learning and cognition, and behavior modification help students to understand human behavior in the "real world." A "scientist/practitioner model" is developed, which helps the student understand the employee or person. Psychology students focus on data-based problem solving, and they rely on hard data to help avoid bias. Students develop strong data analysis skills in statistics and research and they learn to approach their work in a systematic and scientific way. The content area of I/O psychology covers a combination of HR, organizational behavior and some organizational theory, but I/O programs do not cover other areas of business such as accounting, marketing or economics. Education in HR topics is extensive, deep and technical. Career options include test validation, personnel assessment, selection, research and employment.

  • Management (MSM, MSOLE, MSM/HR/CM). These programs tend to focus on management and organizational behavior. They can be found in both business and arts schools. They are broader in scope than an HR master's degree; however, students will take fewer HR courses. Career paths include management positions in public or private organizations.

  • Organizational Development/Organizational Behavior (MAOD, MOD, MSODA, MSHROD, MSOB). These degrees combine both organizational behavior and HR development, with an accent on organizational change. The programs are designed to provide theoretical, analytical, diagnostic and change agent skills. Courses focus on applied behavioral science areas such as leadership, motivation, planned change and research. This is a popular degree for those interested in consulting work.


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