Choosing an MBA concentration in human resources could set you apart

BY Sydney LakeMay 05, 2021, 3:00 AM
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“Are you looking for depth or are you looking for breadth?”

That’s the question that Sue Oldham, associate dean of MBA operations at Vanderbilt University, poses to human resources professionals weighing their options between an MBA in HR or a master’s degree in human resource management. The answer to that simple query determines rigor and program length, while also shaping career prospects.

Experts agree that earning an MBA with a concentration in HR provides breadth, with a strong foundation in finance, accounting, operations, and marketing—plus the people skills necessary for HR careers. Vanderbilt’s MBA program with a concentration in human and organizational performance (HOP), for example, offers additional graduate-level HR courses for MBA candidates. 

Meanwhile, a master’s degree in HR or adjacent fields of study, such as industrial or organizational (I/O) psychology, can often provide a deeper dive into the science of people. Students who pursue I/O psychology, which focuses on employee behavior, may choose to pursue a research position instead of becoming an HR practitioner.

MBA candidates pursuing HR concentrations are also a rarity—and no matter which route you take, studying HR at a graduate level gives you a better chance of promotions, raises, and future leadership positions, says Jaime Klein, CEO of Inspire HR, an HR consulting firm. “To differentiate yourself in this job market, I think having other feathers in your cap to differentiate you is a smart move.”

There’s no one path that best fits all HR professionals, but if you’re seeking the benefits of an MBA program and want to sharpen your people skills, the HR concentration may be the way to go.

Why an MBA concentration in HR makes sense

This degree can be the best of both worlds for professionals looking to earn an MBA for the breadth of business education it provides while emphasizing more intangible people skills.

“It’s one thing to have skills in finance, in marketing, in strategy, and in operations. All of those are extremely important; they will never go away,” Oldham says. But there’s also a notion among business leaders that putting their employees first has risen to the top of their priority list.

With a greater emphasis on workplace flexibility, diversity, equity, and inclusion, HR has become a more coveted skill set in prospective employees. 

“Most people don’t find out about HR as a career path until they’ve already graduated,” says Nancy Woolever, vice president of certification operations with the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional association that promotes HR education and certification. “Making the right kind of choice for your career path when you return to school for a master’s degree is increasingly important.”

Business school students may choose to concentrate in HR because doing so shows focus and better aligns with the job search, Oldham says. And an MBA with a concentration in an HR-adjacent field will also help students develop general management skills just like other business school students.

“The fact of the matter is getting an MBA still carries a certain amount of cachet with it,” says Woolever. Plus, with this degree, you’ll be in the pool to be hired for MBA-level jobs with MBA-level salaries, Oldham adds. 

What you’ll study in graduate-level HR courses

“If you’re at the table and you’re in the HR arena, don’t think that you’re not going to be asked to understand a financial statement,” Oldham says.

In Vanderbilt’s HOP program, students take their core MBA classes in strategy, accounting, and operations while also taking HR-centric classes. Some of Vanderbilt’s popular HOP electives include leading change, diversity in organizations, negotiations, and ethics. 

A master’s degree in human resource management (MSHRM) focuses on subjects like the psychology of group dynamics, how adults learn, and moral development. An MBA program with an HR concentration delves into the business aspects of the HR profession, Klein says. It’s more common for people seeking research positions to study I/O psychology, while those looking to grow in the HR profession pursue an MBA with an HR concentration or an MSHRM.

“It’s good business to really understand better how to attract, retain, and motivate people because that’s the secret sauce of the organization,” Klein says.

Careers you can pursue after the MBA

People who earn MBAs with a concentration in HR tend to follow one of two career paths: HR management or HR consulting.

“From where I sit, I think that anything related to people and HR is really becoming more strategic, more of a coveted skill,” Klein says. 

An HR management career path could include managing certain lines of a business or specialization in benefits, talent, or retention. Many MBA students who concentrate in HR, however, choose to pursue consulting jobs, which tend to offer more flexible schedules and higher salaries, Oldham and Klein agree. 

Whichever path you choose, employers will look beyond your résumé and grades to evaluate your fit for a role in today’s HR world. Employers will interview with an eye for the ability to pivot and adapt, Oldham says. 

“You need to come across as flexible, open to anything, going any direction,” she says.