Should you get an HR Certification or a Graduate Degree?

Want to get a certain group of HR professionals fired up?  Just go ahead and question the value of PHR and SPHR certifications.  Some folks are passionately for certification, and others are just as passionate that business leaders don’t give a darn if you drop a PHR or SPHR after your name. It’s a fun debate to watch sometimes.

So, what’s new?  Well, last month, ran an article entitled Costly Degrees in HR Could Be Wise Choice vs. Certification. In it, an associate professor from Cornell, a top HR program, said that a graduate degree is much more conducive to today’s business world than an HR certification.

I wonder if the folks at HRCI might have gasped a little when they read that title.  Here’s a taste from the article:

With graduate studies in human resources or business costing from about $25,000 to more than $50,000 per year, why make the financial investment? Why not just snag a certification as an HR professional and call it good?

Because in today's business climate, where expectations of HR professionals have never been higher, that's not good enough. (emphasis mine)

So says Christopher Collins, associate professor in Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “The job is so much more complicated than it was 10 or 15 years ago. The demands placed on HR generalists in particular have grown so they have to be so much more in tune with business strategy, operational strategy and finance than ever before.”  Such are

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the skills and training acquired in a master's program, Collins says. 

Embedded in the Cornell professor’s comments, you could argue, is the implication that an HR certification is not “in tune with business strategy, operational strategy and finance.”  It sounds to me like he is saying that a simple test of HR knowledge does not adequately prepare HR pros for today's challenges.

Do you disagree?  Some will, and I expect to hear about in the comments…

I usually take the stand that the only people who care about your HR certification are other HR people.  If you are trying to push your résumé for an HR gig, they can use it as a differentiator.  Certification in this pile, no certification in the other.  Also, if you are early in your career, it’s probably a decent way to show some foundational knowledge.  Laurie talks about how preparing for the tests can help struggling HR pros learn about the profession.  Personally, I have never seen the presence or absence of a certification impact someone’s career performance past their initial few years in the business.

The decision between pursuing a graduate degree (either MBA or Masters in HR) is an apples and oranges comparison, I admit.  A multi-year graduate degree is more complex and involved than a certification test, so you could understand that business leaders possibly perceive more value.  The problem, of course, is that getting your PHR or SPHR does not require demonstrating applied learning.  It’s just a test.  If you buy a study system and can memorize, you’ll pass.

Me?  I went ahead and got both, but that has to do with my own truckload of self-esteem issues.


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RJ Morris
R. J. Morris is based in the STL as the Director of Talent Acquisition and Management for McCarthy Building Companies, a multi-billion dollar national firm. Like many others in the FOT clan, he’s a sports nut who can endlessly draw the parallels between athletes, sports and the talent management game. I know, I know, as if we needed more of that. He has 10 years of practitioner experience leading talent efforts in corporate HR and another 7 years in leadership roles on the agency side, so he gets both sides of the desk. Talk to R.J. via emailLinkedInTwitter...


  1. Heather Kinzie says:

    Great post and indeed, interesting debate. I think we’d see a difference in perspective depending on where we were in the country. I’ve been preparing HR pros for success in their exams for 10+ years but often, when traveling, I get ‘phr’ or ‘sphr’ WHAT? In Alaska, where it had been impossible to get a Masters locally in HR, certification was a good alternative. Now that our local universities have expanded, perhaps there is no longer that demand? Either way, if HRCI continues to challenge its test takers, success in that exam will continue to mean something good!

  2. Shana says:

    I agree that a degree is more valuable than the existing HR certifications – to the point that I let my SPHR lapse. I periodically consider taking the test again, but I don’t see the point in stuffing my head full of non-critical, semi-useless information. There are no unions in high tech – memorizing NLRB rules is simply not a good use of my time – but is close to 30% of the test last time I looked…

    I would however like to see a discussion about the most useful type of degree for an HR professional – I’m not sure that an HR degree is actually the most useful although I’m sure it depends on the program. I find that in my daily work, I tend to use a combination of statistics, legal knowledge, finance and accounting, basic marketing, and general business operations knowledge. In contrast, my HR degree only covered a sliver of those items and instead consisted of a lot of classes on organizational development and behavior. I’d love to hear the thoughts of others on what the most useful degree specialization would be or what combination of classes would make the ideal HR degree.

  3. Dan G. says:

    I agree with Heather. In my state (where the Bachelors degree is still a big deal) the certification will get you pretty far in the private sector. Most HR Directors that I’ve met don’t have an MBA. I personally think it’s helpful for career progression but it’s not going to get you into the business like a certification. That being said, at a certain point it’s not the letters after your name, it’s you and your reputation that are going to push your career to the next level. The next question is: does it matter where your degree comes from? Is a UofP degree going to carry the same weight as a MBA from Cornell? Probably not, at least in the eyes of Christopher Collins. My last take on this is that experience will always be the most effective differentiation between you and the next applicant.

  4. David Anderson (Twitter: @RaisingHR) says:

    Mr. Cornell professor said what he said because he’s paid to say it.

  5. Interested says:

    “Me? I went ahead and got both, but that has to do with my own truckload of self-esteem issues.”

    Love the article. I’m in an organization that has three regions (East, Central, West) and this debate has a different outcome for each area. One is only interested in candidates that have PHR/SPHR, while other’s look at experience and education. While I have an M.A. in HRM, I got it because I wanted to do recruiting — which means this debate would really have interested me more had I entered the field! (I was no longer super pumped for all that hard work when I finished the degree, go figure, but I’ll still study & do the Assurance of Learning exam just to see what happens.)

    I’m more interested in your comment about self-esteem. Do you recommend any ways of dealing with the unpacking of such issues with a professional angle? I know you may only be able to point to professional help, but are there any good books you’d recommend or favorite authors – lessons? This ties into HR for me because often people need to work on Impactful Communication or first building their voice within their Annual Development Plans. Self esteem ties directly into that, but that can be a personal journey that people may or may not want to write up in a work IDP. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

  6. I agree with David … The college professor wants people to go to college. That’s called job security – also interesting that eCornell (I know not the same as the university but they did put their name on it) offers a “Master’s Certificate” in PHR/SPHR certification.

  7. RJ Morris
    RJ Morris says:

    I agree that there is an element of self-service, but Cornell is really considered to be a top grad program, so I don’t think they are starving for applicants. In addition, HRCI does plenty of their own marketing, as well. I agree with his overall premise…a concentrated degree program that focuses on larger business issues probably better prepares people for challenging roles in HR than a 175 question exam.

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