Earning a master's degree in human resources equips you with the knowledge and skills needed to take on supervisory and leadership roles in the field, such as training and development manager. It can also significantly improve your earning potential.
Most human resources master's programs require about one year of full-time study, though many students pursue their degree on a part-time basis while they work. In addition to an internship or field-based capstone, these programs generally involve coursework in areas like workforce planning, managing difficult conversations, and business research.
This page provides an overview of graduate programs in human resources, including information on admission requirements, common classes and concentrations, and a listing of possible career paths to pursue after graduation.
What Is Human Resources?
Human resources concerns the people who work at an organization. It also describes a department of an organization tasked with hiring and training new staff, administering payroll and benefits, and complying with labor laws and employment policies. While some smaller companies may not need a dedicated human resources team, these professionals play an indispensable role in larger organizations.
With a degree in human resources, you can take on a variety of roles. For example, you may serve as a compensation and benefits specialist, using your skills in data analysis to shape an organization's pay structure. You may instead choose to work as a labor relations specialist, drafting labor contracts and negotiating with union representatives.
Leadership positions in this field can be quite lucrative. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), human resources managers earned a median salary of $113,300 in 2018, nearly $75,000 more than the median pay for all other occupations. Many of these jobs, however, require a master's degree.
Our ranking of the nation's best online master's degrees in human resources includes detailed information on each program's accreditation, admission standards, course requirements, and financial aid opportunities.
What You Can Do With a Master's in Human Resources
- Human Resources Managers
Working closely with top executives, HR managers develop strategic planning surrounding talent acquisition. They plan, direct, and coordinate recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and onboarding new employees. HR managers oversee employee benefits programs and policies regarding equal employment opportunity and sexual harassment. They typically hold a bachelor's degree and several years of experience in the field. An advanced master's degree in human resources can make you stand out against competition when searching for an HR manager job.
Median Annual Salary: $113,300
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 7%
- Compensation and Benefits Managers
Compensation and benefits managers oversee pay and incentive programs. Compensation and benefits managers develop benefits packages, including health insurance and retirements benefits. They conduct research on competitive wage rates and set compensation structures. Most compensation and benefits managers hold at least a bachelor's degree in human resources or business administration.
Median Annual Salary: $121,010
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 3%
- Training and Development Managers
Training and development managers oversee professional development activities. Responsibilities include assessing employees' training needs, coordinating new programs, teaching training methods to specialists, and evaluating the program effectiveness. Training and development managers must ensure programs are up-to-date and align with their company's strategic goals. They typically hold at least a bachelor's degree, but many employers require a master's.
Median Annual Salary: $111,340
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 8%
- Labor Relations Specialists
Labor relations specialists are responsible for interpreting work contracts and resolving negotiation issues. Working closely with the department of human resources, labor relations specialists provide advice and guidance to upper management. They also conduct trainings and maintain employee data and documentation. Labor relationship specialists hold at least a bachelor's degree in human resources or a related field, but many employers prefer candidates with a master's in human resources degrees.
Median Annual Salary: $67,790
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): -8%
- Human Resources Specialists
HR specialists are an important part of a human resources department, performing key tasks such as fielding employees' questions, processing payroll, interviewing job applicants, and administering benefits and training programs. Some HR specialists focus on strategic planning and ensuring compliance with company, state, and federal rules and regulations. HR specialists typically hold a bachelor's degree in human resources.
Median Annual Salary: $60,880
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 5%
Review our Careers for Human Resources Majors page to learn more about educational and licensure requirements, job prospects, and earning potential for human resources graduates across industries.
What to Expect in a Master's in Human Resources Program
When pursuing a master's in human resources, your experience will depend greatly on the program you choose. Online programs, for example, offer considerably more flexibility, though they often do not provide the same structure and support as in-person programs. As you can see below, the available courses and concentrations can also vary significantly from school to school.
Concentrations Offered for an Online Master's Degree in Human Resources
- Project Management
Project managers oversee large and small business projects, ensuring teams of individuals work toward a specific goal and stay on track to meet planned deadlines. In many cases, they are responsible for managing budgets, communicating with upper management or investors, and handling any contractual or legal paperwork involved with the project.
Careers This Concentration Prepares For: Information technology manager, human resources manager, operations director, program manager, senior project manager
- Recruiting and Staffing
Those with a human resources degree with a concentration in recruiting and staffing typically hold positions wherein they interview and hire new employees. These individuals help managers determine the desired employee qualities needed to fill specific roles in the company. In most cases, those in recruiting and staffing positions schedule and manage appointments, file paperwork for background checks and drug screenings, and create advertisements for open positions.
Careers This Concentration Prepares For: Recruitment coordinator, human resources specialist, public relations specialist
- Compensation and Benefits
Workers with training in this area help determine the best pay and benefits plans for large organizations. They analyze trends and keep track of market conditions and government regulations to ensure their company offers competitive pay and benefits. They may also handle employee retirement plans, wellness programs, insurance claims, and disability policies.
Careers This Concentration Prepares For: Compensation and benefits manager or specialist, customer service representative, labor relations specialist
These individuals work directly with company employees to ensure they understand how to carry out specific tasks. Training takes place in one-on-one and group settings. Professionals who specialize in training need strong presentation skills and understand the complexities of the learning process. In addition to being able to teach employees about any relevant technology and software, today's training experts must explain topics such as industry standard communication skills, office etiquette, and rules and regulations.
Careers This Concentration Prepares For: Training and development managers or specialists, human resources generalist, placement specialist
- Organizational Development
Professionals in human resources who specialize in organization development strive to improve company performance by working directly with the workforce. These individuals typically need an understanding of behavioral science-related topics to handle issues in the workplace that may hinder company progress. They also help companies make large transitions, including mergers and moments of significant employee turnover.
Careers This Concentration Prepares For: Organizational development consultant, senior manager in organizational development, human resources manager
- Employment Law
Individuals who specialize in employment law work with companies to construct fair and up-to-date company policies regarding compensation, company code of ethics, insurance plans, and benefits. These professionals ensure companies stay current with local, state, and federal employment laws.
Careers This Concentration Prepares For: Human resources manager or specialist, placement specialist, compliance and reporting analyst.
Curriculum for an Online Master's Degree in Human Resources
- Human Resources Management
- Students learn about the role human resources employees play in managing employees and company workforces. This class explores introductory information on diversity training, sexual harassment, cost benefits, and general legal topics commonly encountered in the field. It also exposes students to key HR functions like employee compensation, labor relations, new employee recruitment, and cultivating a progressive and supportive work environment.
- This course examines civil rights and personnel laws. Degree seekers learn to solve or handle issues as they arise in the workplace, including those related to sexual harassment, discrimination, and gender or racial equality.
- Employee Hiring and Retention
- Students learn headhunting techniques to locate the best employees for their companies. They develop interview skills and learn how to evaluate prospective employees' application materials. This course covers the strategic hiring methods that help companies remain stable during moments of uncertainty or transition. Additionally, they learn techniques to help reduce employee turnover and keep a consistent workforce.
- Organizational Strategy
- In this class, students learn how to increase employee productivity by aligning the HR system with organizational objectives. Students explore how to identify and create the best practices for workforce partitioning, value identification, performance variability, and employee impact. They will learn how these techniques help organizations run smoothly and produce positive financial results.
- Leading Organizational Change
- Learners acquire the skills to anticipate, facilitate, and sustain positive changes in organizations. Students learn how to assess the need for alterations in a variety of business scenarios and turn their original ideas into concrete strategies that affect positive change.
Read our master's in human resources degree page to learn more about how to choose a program, common admission standards, and the educational requirements for specific careers.
Our comprehensive career guide offers a wealth of information on human resources job prospects, earning potential, and professional development opportunities. It also features an interview with a current human resources director.
Interview With Matthew Burr
Matthew Burr founded and manages Burr Consulting, LLC — a human resource consulting company. Matthew is the continuing education and business administration department liaison at Elmira College, an SHRM certification exam instructor, and a trainer at community colleges and Penn State University. Matthew published his book $74,000 in 24 Months: How I Killed My Student Loans (and You Can Too!) in 2017.
- Why did you choose to earn a master's degree in human resources? Did this field always interest you?
At the time, I was working as an HR generalist for Bombardier Transportation in upstate New York. I had the opportunity to spend time working on a three-month assignment in Toronto, Canada and thought about applying for a senior HR generalist position at the facility. The HR director gave me advice early in my career: In order to move up in the field, you need a master's degree.
I took the advice and starting applying to graduate schools, knowing that there was opportunity in the field. I received an acceptance letter to the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations with a partial scholarship. I also received a scholarship from SHRM. It wasn't a field I was always interested in, but it was the first field I worked in as an intern at Elmira College. I wanted to attend law school but found my way into HR.
- Why did you choose to concentrate your master's degree in industrial relations? How was it different from a general master's program in human resources?
Industrial relations has always fascinated me; working in a foundry as an industrial relations intern as an undergraduate student, it truly piqued my interest. I had the opportunity very early in my career to work in a union shop and go to grievance meetings, mediations, arbitrations, etc. I reviewed labor contracts and knew the language.
The top programs in the country are labor schools; industrial relations is the foundation for a great HR education. I focused on labor and employment law, collective bargaining, and dispute resolution as a graduate student. It is different from a regular HR degree because it has that industrial relations component. You have the opportunity to learn from both unions and management.
- What are some of the most crucial skills you gained in your master's degree program in human resources that apply to your job on a day-to-day basis?
I think the labor and employment legal side has truly helped me in my consulting practice. I had the opportunity to take courses in the law school and this prepared me for researching and truly understanding case law and legislation. Not all HR professionals enjoy law, [but] it's a must in this field.
The other area is conflict resolution and collective bargaining. I work as an on-call mediator and fact-finder for the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) for the state of New York. I work with public sector labor unions and management to resolve conflict. This has provided me the opportunity to grow in my career as a mediator and investigator.
- What was the job search like after completing your master's degree in human resources? Did you feel fully prepared when making the transition from school to the workplace?
The job search was relatively easy; the career service office at the School of Labor and Employment Relations was a great resource. I had the opportunity to interview with great companies and had a tremendous internship experience with GE Aviation. During the internship, I had the opportunity to sit at the table as a notetaker during union negotiations.
My full-time position I found on LinkedIn. I took a different path than many of my classmates at the school. I found that the opportunity offered a more challenging assignment. I was prepared to make the transition from school to the workplace. I had the experience and knew the field very well.
- What are some of the challenges you face in your work on a day-to-day basis?
The challenges I face vary [from] day to day. I currently work with 30+ clients on multiple issues. The issues can vary from day to day. I also teach full time at Elmira College as an assistant professor of business administration. I manage many of the standard HR issues: conflict between employees, disciplines, workplace investigations, legal questions, policy questions, compensations, and benefits. I also get involved in more strategy and operations now, with the 12+ years of experience I have.
I also focus on training for organizations and local colleges. These trainings provide a tremendous opportunity to answer questions and build relationships. The variety of challenges provides better insights for my clients and it is an enjoyable experience.
- Why did you decide to open your own consulting firm?
I applied to law school in early 2015 and was waitlisted at six schools. At the time, I was in an interim HR director position, doing part-time work as an adjunct professor at a local community college, and had just started working on a few consulting projects. I waited into the summer on law school admissions and I was unsuccessful in being admitted to law school. I put all my eggs in one basket and really had no path forward.
After not being accepted, I took a job as an HR business partner at a manufacturing facility in upstate New York. I knew it was not the right path for me and walked away from the job after four days. I took time off toward the end of summer and drove across the country to figure out what I was going to do with my future. On my return trip, I knew this was something I had to try. I recognized that no one in my area was focused on the HR consulting area and knew there was opportunity. I started the business from scratch and just celebrated my third year of growth.
- What advice would you give to students who are considering a graduate degree in human resources?
My advice to anyone going to grad school is to wait a few years and get industry experience. Having 2-3 years of experience on your resume and then going back to graduate school will put you ahead of other people in the program. Look at the best programs and opportunities for career recruiting; the best programs bring in the best companies.
My last piece of advice about an HR graduate degree is [to] truly know that HR is a field you want to work in. I've seen people go to graduate school and get a master's degree in HR, [and] six months later they realize they do not want to work in HR. That is why experience before school is the best opportunity to make a great decision. Learn how to network and enjoy the experience. Take advantage of law school opportunities and opportunities to take classes in the business school or other schools. These will pay dividends at the end of the day.
How to Choose a Master's in Human Resources Program
It can be difficult to decide which human resources program is the best fit for your academic and professional goals. To guide you in your search, start by considering the five factors detailed below.
- Make sure to select an accredited program. By participating in the accreditation process, schools demonstrate that they have met certain academic standards and adequately prepare their students for careers in their chosen field. If you attend an unaccredited program, future employers may not recognize your degree, and you may also miss out on state and federal financial aid opportunities.
- Coursework and Concentrations
- You should also aim to choose a program that offers coursework aligned with your desired career path. For example, if you hope to develop new employee training programs, you may benefit from classes in instructional design, educational psychology, or behavioral psychology. If you instead plan to serve as a mediator between unions and management, you may want to find a program that offers a concentration in labor relations.
- Delivery Method
- Online programs may be delivered synchronously, asynchronously, or in a self-paced format. Synchronous programs require live participation at set times each week, while asynchronous programs allow students to watch lectures, contribute to class discussions, and complete assignments largely on their own schedule. On self-paced tracks, learners can advance through their coursework as soon as they master core concepts and skills.
- The cost of human resources graduate programs may vary considerably. Generally, programs at state colleges and public universities charge less than those offered at private institutions, especially if you qualify for in-state or regional tuition rates. Some schools may also offer tuition discounts to veterans, current military personnel, and their families.
- Financial Aid Opportunities
- Research the types of institution-specific financial aid opportunities available in a given program. For example, a university may offer a graduate fellowship to students based on academic excellence, demonstrated financial need, or a commitment to entering public service after graduation. Some private organizations may also provide scholarships to human resources students who attend a particular school.
Master's in Human Resources Program Admissions
While admission requirements vary by school and program, the section below outlines some of the most common considerations to help you select a program and prepare for the application process.
- Bachelor's Degree: Nearly all master's programs in human resources require applicants to hold a bachelor's degree, but few require that it be in a particular subject. For admission into more selective programs, however, you may need to maintain a certain GPA -- usually 3.0 or above.
- Entrance Exam: Some programs may require you to submit results from an entrance exam -- typically the GRE. Generally, you must have taken the GRE within the last five years. While few schools set a minimum score for applicants, you may want to consider retaking the exam if you score lower than 150 on either the verbal or quantitative section.
- Professional Experience: Some graduate programs may require or prefer at least two or three years of professional experience in human resources, business administration, or a closely related field. In many cases, you can meet this requirement through an internship or military or volunteer service. If you have no relevant experience, try to find a program that caters to recent graduates.
How to Apply
- One of the first steps in the application process is requesting official copies of transcripts from all undergraduate or graduate programs you have attended. To do so, contact your college or university's registrar. They may charge you a small fee, and it may take several weeks for you to receive copies of your transcripts.
- Personal Statement
- Your personal statement provides the opportunity to explain why you want to continue your education and why you have chosen a particular program. It also allows you to highlight strengths in your application and provide context to any weaknesses, like a low entrance exam score. Personal statements should generally be no longer than 1,000 words.
- Letters of Recommendation
- Most programs require applicants to submit at least one letter of recommendation, often from a former professor, supervisor, or volunteer service leader. Find advocates who can speak to your ability to succeed in a graduate program, but avoid asking family or friends. In addition, give them each at least two months to write and submit a letter on your behalf.
You should begin working on your application at least one year before you hope to enter a program. While exact deadlines vary, students who plan to enroll in classes in the fall generally need to submit all of their application materials by December.
Start by scheduling a date to sit for the GRE, if required by your program. You may want to take at least one month to study for the exam. Next, request official copies of your transcripts and reach out to potential recommenders. You should also update your resume and begin brainstorming ideas for your personal essay.
Aim to submit your application at least two weeks in advance of your program's deadline. This gives you the chance to gather any additional materials that might be required or resolve any technical issues that may arise.
Finally, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as early as possible to ensure that you qualify for as much state and federal aid as you can. You can typically begin working on the FAFSA starting on October 1 of each year.
Resources for Master's in Human Resources Students
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) administers the FAFSA, which determines your eligibility for grants, fellowships, and work-study opportunities. It also provides guidance on finding and applying for private scholarships, budgeting for your education, and repaying your student loans. If you plan to work in human resources for a nonprofit or government agency, you may also qualify for the ED's Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
The Working Knowledge website serves as a repository of research conducted by Harvard Business School faculty and advanced doctoral students. It can be an incredibly helpful tool for human resources students, with information on subjects like relative performance metrics, motivating employees through noncash incentives, and creating psychologically safe working environments.
SHRM represents more than 300,000 human resources professionals working around the globe. In addition to offering multiple professional certification programs, the society provides scholarships and fellowships specifically to students pursuing a graduate degree in the field. Student members can also access a library of resources on topics such as diversity and inclusion, employee development, and risk management.
AHRD works to advance the profession of human resources administration through research and collaboration. The academy maintains a listing of academic programs in human resources development, administers a mentoring program, and organizes networking events and research conferences around the world. It also hosts a jobs board for recent graduates and experienced professionals.
To succeed in either a human resources graduate program or career, you must know how to write well. The Purdue OWL provides guidance on how to properly cite academic sources, develop thesis statements, and draft effective cover letters and resumes. It also offers resources specifically for graduate school applicants, including advice on writing a personal statement and research proposals.