What Degree Do You Need for Human Resources?
If you want to work in human resources management (HRM), HR may seem like the obvious degree choice—but it’s not the only one. Because HR has so many branches, from talent acquisition and training to total rewards and analytics, you can leverage the skills and knowledge gained across many educational backgrounds and experiences in your human resources career.
“HR has something for everyone,” said Deborah Guenther-Alexiou, MSHR, SHRM-SCP, a Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) adjunct instructor of business. “If you are interested in the more analytical side, you can focus on people analytics or payroll; whereas, if you like the people side of the job, there is recruiting, succession planning and employee relations—to name a few.”
With such expansive pathways, you can choose the degree program that interests you and gain skills that can be applied to multiple fields, including HR.
What Degree Do You Need to Work in HR?
You’ll likely need at least a bachelor’s degree if you want to land an entry-level job in human resources. “In most companies I have worked for, a 4-year degree is required to get a starting HR position—and then additional (education) to grow to senior levels,” said Rhett W. Beyer, a director (of) training and an SNHU Master of Business Administration (MBA) adjunct instructor. "My recommendation is to find what you enjoy most about the field of HR and then tailor the rest of your education to support that.”
You might also decide to earn an HR certificate before a degree if you want an introduction to the field without committing to a degree program. Through the experience, you may realize you enjoy taking HR courses, or it might lead you to a different program that still allows you to build the pertinent skills HR professionals need.
To show employers you’re serious about taking your career to a senior level, you could also consider a master’s degree. Recruiters for management positions may prefer or even require job candidates to have that graduate credential.
What are the Different Types of HR Degrees?
If you want an HR-specific education, your best bet is to earn an HR degree. If you don’t already have a bachelor’s degree, you might earn a bachelor’s in HR management. Or, if you’re already at the graduate level, you could consider a master’s in HR management. These two degrees will introduce you to the different roles and responsibilities of a human resources department, giving you a look into the career possibilities out there and helping you hone the skills needed to succeed as an HR professional in the changing workforce.
You could also choose to earn a business administration degree with a concentration in human resources. If you take that route, you can expect to study the foundations of business while also taking several classes specific to human resources. Like the HR-specific programs, you can also earn a business degree at an associate, bachelor's or master's degree level.
Some schools include credentials focused on important industry knowledge and skills built into their course assignments, allowing you to earn more than a degree as you navigate HR classes. At SNHU, for instance, you can earn credentials developed by the HR Certification Institute (HRCI), including:
- HR Ethics Series: Common Ethical Challenges
- HR Ethics Series: Issues in the Workplace
- Fostering an Inclusive Culture
- Leading and Managing Change
- Negotiations: Resolving Disputes
“More recently, universities like SNHU are offering specialized and modern degrees in HRM at both the undergraduate and graduate level, and these can be a great stepping stone into several HRM positions,” said Dr. Ranjit Nair, the CEO of an organization focused on empowering others to navigate business challenges and an SNHU human resources management adjunct instructor.
Some HR programs align their coursework and outcomes with certifications offered by the HRCI and the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). This approach to learning can help prepare students to sit for certification exams, such as:
- HRCI Associate Professional in Human Resources® (aPHR®)
- SHRM Certified Professional (SHRM-CP®)
- Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP®)
While certification preferences vary by employer, Beyer, who holds an SHRM-SCP® certification, believes the experience of achieving and maintaining certification is worthwhile.
Explore what you can do with an HR degree.
Other Degrees to Consider
It’s okay if you're eyeing or working on a program other than HR. HR professionals hail from a variety of backgrounds. Nair, for example, earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and an MBA in Information Systems. His career began in technology and finance, but he transitioned to HR management, where he now has more than 25 years of experience in areas such as talent acquisition, total rewards, talent management, and learning and development. “The technical skills I acquired through my undergraduate and graduate degree helped me to become that well-rounded professional,” Nair said.
Here are some non-HR degree programs that can pair especially well with a human resources career:
- Analytics: If you’re aiming for an HR analytics position, which can involve data relating to engagement, turnover and financial performance, according to Nair, you might consider earning a bachelor’s degree in data analytics or an MBA in Business Analytics. In these programs, you’ll have an opportunity to advance your technical skills and soft skills as you explore professional tools and methodologies that can support important organizational decision-making. Courses may include data analysis and visualization techniques, leveraging data analysis for organizational results and business strategy.
- Communication: Since HR departments work with teams throughout an organization, effective written and verbal communication skills are a must. A communication degree could serve you well if you know you want to spend your days interacting with people. During a communication program, you could practice crafting messages for different mediums, audiences and purposes. You might have the option to further specialize with concentrations in public relations, business communication or professional writing, depending on what type of HR role interests you.
- Finance: A finance degree could be beneficial if you want to work in the total rewards space of HR, assembling and reviewing compensation and benefits packages for employees. While studying finance in college, you’ll learn about corporate finance, investment, financial ethics and applied statistics, as well as have a chance to take other business courses that could help you gain a holistic perspective of business functions.
- Psychology: A bachelor’s degree in psychology can help you understand the human mind—a skill that could be particularly helpful for HR professionals working with employees. Classes focused on theories of personality or social psychology, for instance, can come in handy when you’re mitigating workplace conflicts or analyzing employee behavior. Some schools offer business psychology degrees that combine business core classes and classes that can help you build foundations in areas such as social psychology, industrial-organizational psychology and cross-cultural psychology—all of which can help you better understand the employees you’ll serve as an HR professional.
As you work on your degree, you’ll want to determine how the skills and knowledge you’re gaining can translate to the field of human resources.
“A professional with a bachelor's degree in a field other than HR can position themselves for an HR career by highlighting transferable skills in their resume, utilizing volunteer opportunities to build transferable skills, seeking an HR certificate or certification and completing projects in their current jobs that align with the day-to-day operations of HR professionals,” said Lisa Jammer, an HR adjunct instructor at SNHU.
Be Strategic with Electives
Depending on the number of credits you already have and the program you decide to pursue, you may find you have free electives. Free electives allow you to explore additional subjects and topics that interest you. While you could choose these classes at random, you might also think about the skills and knowledge you'll need as an HR professional and take classes that can help you get where you want to be.
“For example, a student interested in pursuing an HR analytics role may want to take electives that build their knowledge of data analysis and analytics,” Jammer said.
If you have a non-HR major, you might consider using some of your electives to explore HR-specific topics. Guenther-Alexiou suggests classes involving:
- Compensation and benefits administration and payroll
- Employee relations and conflict resolution
- Federal and state regulations and labor laws
- Performance management
- Recruiting, hiring and onboarding
Accounting, business, communication and information technology courses can also be helpful, according to Guenther-Alexiou. “Skills in those areas can help you work with different individuals and departments organization-wide,” she said.
You can also use your free electives to add an academic minor to your program. Your academic advisor can help you match your interests and existing credits to a minor that aligns with the skills you hope to develop.
Learn more about what minors are and how you can use them to your benefit.
Is it Hard to Get into Human Resources?
Breaking into any field can feel intimidating, but there’s good news when it comes to HR: You probably already have relevant professional or academic experience that you can point to in job interviews. This makes HR a solid field for career changers to consider.
“HR is not necessarily a difficult field to break into because, many times, individuals will have had previous work experience that involves the people element or management,” Guenther-Alexiou said. Even if you don’t have professional experiences relating to human resources, she said you can join HR organizations and associations to help you network and make connections.
When you are ready to start applying for entry-level HR jobs, Guenther-Alexiou recommends seeking out HR coordinator or assistant positions and working your way up. That’s what she did: While working at a resort, she took an interest in human resources.
“When an HR coordinator position opened up in the company, I threw caution to the wind and applied for the position,” she said. “To my surprise, the HR director hired me.” Now, with the help of a master’s degree and HR certifications, Guenther-Alexiou is an HR director herself.
Jammer is also a career changer who came to HR after working in accounts receivables and treasury roles. “To successfully transition, I located a mentor, completed (informational) interviews, accepted volunteer opportunities to expand my transferable skills and pursued HR courses,” she said. “After 18 months, I was able to transfer into the HR profession, and it's been extremely rewarding.”
To ensure you're a competitive candidate for HR positions, Jammer suggests:
- Doing your research to help you learn what roles interest you most. This can involve reading through job descriptions and studying organizations.
- Earning credentials such as a bachelor’s degree, professional certificates and industry certifications illustrate your qualifications.
- Gaining relevant skills through professional experience—whether from a current or former job, volunteering or internships. According to Nair, some of the most popular HR internships are in recruiting, talent acquisition and people analytics.
- Networking with professionals already working in the field through informational interviews and professional associations. Beyer recommends joining SHRM, for example, or the Chamber of Commerce. Networking can “raise brand awareness of who you are and what you bring to the table that can differentiate you from other candidates,” he said.
“So long as the desire to work in HRM is there, and you have certain skills and competencies, making the career transition to HRM can be quite seamless,” Nair said.
What Skills Do I Need for HR?
That entirely depends on what you want to do in human resources, but certain soft skills can be helpful no matter where you end up.
Written and verbal communication skills, for example, are what Jammer believes to be the most important. “HR professionals are required to draft policies, communications, training, strategic plans, etc.,” she said. “Additionally, they verbally strategize with leaders, communicate change, facilitate resolution and much more.”
Some other interpersonal skills that can be helpful, according to the SNHU adjuncts and HR professionals, are:
- Active listening and confidentiality
- Adaptability, flexibility and resiliency
- Collaboration, cultural curiosity and empathy
- Perseverance and work ethic
- Strategic thinking and problem solving
Some additional subjects the adjuncts recommend you familiarize yourself with for success in HR include:
- Business acumen
- Organizational development
- Relationship management
- Social awareness
Ultimately, you’ll want to have a well-rounded skill set relating to business and people. "One of the key differentiators I have seen between successful HR professionals and non-successful HR professionals is the ability to become a business partner,” Beyer said. “It doesn’t mean you have to specialize in every area of a business, but it does mean you need to understand the business well enough to understand how decisions made in HR will affect business overall.”
As you narrow in on your human resources interests, read through job descriptions to identify what types of skills would be essential to develop.
How to Become a Human Resources Manager
If you discover you love human resources, you may aspire to become an HR manager one day. Your years of experience may be enough to unlock the position, Nair said, but earning a master’s degree can signal how serious you are about climbing the ladder. “Having a relevant graduate degree tells your employer that you are intentional about moving into more senior roles,” he said.
While your bachelor’s degree can be in a variety of fields if you want to enter human resources, focusing on an HR-specific degree can be worth it if you’re eyeing a management position. “I’d recommend one with (an) HR focus, or, at a minimum, a strong business focus,” Beyer said. “Both will help you better understand some of the higher-level requirements that come with working in HR.”
Two of your best options include the Master of Science (MS) in HR Management or an MBA program. The one you choose depends on whether you’d like to narrow in on HR in your classes or gain a greater holistic understanding of business in general. Either way, you can expect to work toward important learning outcomes.
“These competencies include being a change champion, a relationship builder, a technology integrator, an innovative thinker and a credible activist to drive the engagement of employees in the workplace,” Nair said.
Discover more about SNHU's bachelor's in HR management: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you'll learn and how to request information about the program.
Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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