Should You Get Your MBA or HR Certification First?

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If you're an HR professional looking to improve your credentials, both an MBA and HR certification can help you develop valuable skills and advance your career. But which one should you go after first?

MBA or Certification?

If you're a human resources worker with career goals, you've probably given at least a little thought to what steps you're going to take to advance your career and climb the HR ladder.

Perhaps the two most popular options involve acquiring HR certification or earning a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. Whether you want to earn just one or both, you also need to consider what order you want to get them. Does it make more sense to get certified first, or pursue an MBA?

Which Option Do Hiring Managers Prefer?

The most important question (and the first one you should be asking yourself) concerns the 'value' of your two choices. If you're looking for a clear-cut winner, a 2014 analysis by Software Advice found that both certification and MBAs are desirable, but neither option is a guarantee when it comes to finding jobs.

Job posting

The study looked at 300 HR job openings in the US and arrived at some interesting conclusions:

  • 42 percent of jobs preferred or required HR certification;
  • The SPHR and PHR certifications were the most in-demand; 27 percent of openings requested these credentials
  • 28 percent of jobs preferred an MBA or graduate degree, but no jobs listed graduate education as a requirement

If you're an optimist, this means that you can't really go wrong when it comes to choosing. The downside is that this study does not get us any closer to the question posed by the title of this article: which one should you get first?

The Case for Certification

With no real front-runner in the battle between certification and MBA degrees, it comes down to what's best for you as an individual. We'll start by looking at a few benefits of starting with an HR certification.


If you're a young professional who hasn't had time to build up a nest egg or start earning serious money, you need to consider the cost of an MBA versus the cost of HR certification. Even if you're financially sound and can easily afford a graduate degree, it's definitely not a bad idea to double-check the figures!

First, let's take a look at the cost of an MBA. Yearly tuition starts at around $40,000, and this doesn't factor in textbooks, room and board, and lost wages (if you drop out of work to earn your degree). Marvin Dumon with Investopedia did the math and here is his final calculation for the total cost of an MBA degree: ''So summing it up, $80,000 for tuition, $40,000 boarding and books, $20,000 peripheral expenditures brings the total MBA cost to around $140,000, while the lost income brings the tab to a whopping $260,000. That figure amounts to more than four years of salary at an annualized income rate of $60,000. And this is an average school.'' While the long-term benefits of an MBA are undeniable, the initial expense is certainly cause for apprehension.

MBA cost

This apprehension doubles when compared to the cost of HR certification. SHRM exams cost $300 if you're a member and $400 if you are not a member.

HRCI exams range from around $300-$500, which does not include a $100 application fee. Assuming you spend even as much as $1,000 on preparation materials (which is on the high end of the spectrum), you're still looking at an absolute maximum of $1,500. Using materials such as this SPHR certification exam study guide or this PHR certification exam study guide is also another way to keep costs down. These expenses may seem a little steep for an exam, but it is still a fraction of what you'd pay for your MBA.

Assuming you already have debt from your undergraduate program, there's no need to sink further into debt until you've had time to save up and work on your savings account. If you want to improve your HR credentials but don't have the financial resources required to commit to an MBA program, HR certification is definitely the best first choice.

There's also a question of whether or not you really need an MBA. For starters, 85 percent of the job openings in the aforementioned Software Advice analysis listed a bachelor's degree as the minimum education level but did not require a master's degree. And 28 percent 'preferred' that applicants had an MBA or other graduate degree but did not require it.

The Case for an MBA

On the other hand, there are plenty of arguments in favor of pursuing a graduate degree first. You can earn a general MBA that focuses on all aspects of business, or you can pursue a concentration in HR, such as the strategic human resource management specialization from the University of Wisconsin.

In short, the human resources field is far more complicated than it was in the 20th century. HR professionals need to deal with advanced topics such as metrics, collective bargaining, and project management. In the eyes of some HR experts, an HR certification does not provide sufficient preparation. Writing for Workforce Magazine, Susan Hauser argues this point: ''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.''


Enter the MBA. These programs offer a thorough examination of all areas of business. In addition to learning about important HR topics, you'll also be learning other essential skills such as financial accounting, leadership techniques, marketing management, and business strategy.

Given the more complex nature of the contemporary HR field, these are skills that all workers need to have, not just the higher-ups. HR certification is a good way to prove your skills, but MBAs are the better way to build them.


If you know for sure that you want to stay in HR, great! HR certification is most likely a safe bet that will pay dividends now and in the future. But what if you're still on the fence about your future in HR? What about those HR professionals who are just getting started and aren't sure if this is the field they want to stick with for the next five, let alone ten, years?

One of the major benefits of an MBA, even with an HR specialization, is that it offers much greater flexibility in terms of readjusting your career trajectory. As discussed above, an MBA teaches skills that can be used in a number of different fields. A graduate degree in business administration prepares you for work in a number of different sectors, meaning that if the HR world doesn't work out for you, you'll still be able to pivot and land on your feet in a different industry such as marketing or finance. For those who do stick it out, an MBA can help land leadership positions in HR down the road.

By the same token, earning HR certification demonstrates quantifiable professional knowledge and that you are committed to the HR field. MBAs cast a wide net, but certifications show that you know the most important information: that which directly relates to human resources.

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully the above information is applicable to your professional journey and has helped you make progress with your decision.

You might go with an MBA if:

  • you want to build all-around skills relating to HR and beyond
  • you have the financial resources to safely afford the significant expenditure
  • you are considering other business positions and/or hope to land leadership positions

On the other hand, consider going with an HR certification if:

  • you're short on financial resources but are eager to improve your credentials
  • you feel like you already have HR skills but don't have any tangible means of proving it
  • you are dedicated to the HR field for the long haul

Ultimately, it's up to you, so make sure you've done your homework before making a commitment.

By Bill Sands
February 2018
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