Should you get an HR Certification or a Graduate Degree?

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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.