Should I Get My MBA or My HR Certification, Such as the PHR or SPHR Certification?

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A dilemma that many business professionals face at some point in their career is whether or not they should enroll in postgraduate studies. In many cases, the most common route undertaken is to obtain an MBA specializing in their chosen field. For those already actively engaged in a career in the Human Resources (HR) field, or for recent college undergraduates who are absolutely certain that they want a lifelong career in the industry, the decision that they make can have a profound impact on the direction of their career.The 2 most common areas of consideration for postgraduate studies for HR professionals are pursuing an MBA and obtaining a PHR or SPHR certification.

Before delving further into which route an HR professional might consider, they may want to spend time thoughtfully analyzing their current career standing and weighing out the options for their long-term career goals. A good question to ask is, “Do I want to achieve career advancement solely within an HR focused type of position, or is my career goal focused on all aspects of business principals?”  The answer to that question is key in choosing the best route for postgraduate education.

MBA Specializing in HR

Deciding to pursue an MBA is always a good, solid career move. Those considering an MBA specializing in HR gain more grounding in all aspects of business. They also develop and fine tune their ability to think strategically . If your undergraduate degree is in Management or HR, an MBA might be the ideal addition to your educational portfolio and could help propel you to C Level status.

An MBA might also be an excellent choice for the undergraduate who does not intend to enter the work force right away. In that case, the ideal candidate very likely is someone who is absolutely confident of their career path and wants to immediately continue with their post graduate studies. This route is also suitable for those for those who want the opportunity to move into the work force in their chosen field immediately after graduation in a management capacity.

PHR/SPHR certification

For the HR professional who is already actively engaged in the HR industry, they might want to seriously consider setting their goal on obtaining PHR or SPHR certification. While obtaining an MBA will certainly provide grounding in all aspects of business, it may not be concentrated on where the professional wants to be, and the prestigious PHR or SPHR certifications might make a lot of sense to pursue.

Ideal PHR candidate

The PHR is designed for people already working in the human resource management profession and is awarded by the Human Resource Certification Institute (HR Certification Institute). The ideal candidate for the PHR certification, as outlined by HR Certification Institute, is someone who:

  • has logistical/tactical orientation.
  • concentrates on program implementation.
  • is accountable to an HR professional in the organization.
  • typically has two to four years of exempt-level professional experience in all HR disciplines, but the experience lacks the depth of a senior-level HR professional.
  • has not had changing and increasingly complicated HR work experience yet.
  • has responsibilities that are centered on the HR department rather than on the entire organization.

The last point is key and should be analyzed further: If the HR professional is actively working in the industry and their current responsibilities are more focused in the HR department and not the whole organization, the PHP will certainly benefit them in the career. But is it the right move?

Although the professional’s career may be more focused on responsibilities within the HR department at the moment, is that where the professional sees themselves in 5 years? Or 10? If the answer is yes, then obtaining the PHP certification might be a great fit.

Ideal SPHR candidate

While the PHR certification is designed for those who are more singularly focused in their current field and ideally tend to remain there, the SPHR is designed for those professionals who have already moved up through the ranks of management, possess six to eight years of experience, are currently employed in a director’s role or above, and are already focused on the big picture.

The additional attributes, as compiled by the HR Certification Institute are:

  • employs judgment that is gained over time with experience
  • plans and designs (as opposed to implementing) HR policy.
  • has accountability in the HR department.
  • has depth of knowledge in all HR disciplines.
  • understands the business and influences the organization overall.

Since both the MBA and SPHR place a heavy emphasis on business, how does the HR professional decide on one or the other? A good starting point is to analyze the exam criteria of the SPHR. The certification exam is comprised of 6 functional areas:

  • Business Management and Strategy.
  • Workforce Planning and Employment.
  • Human Resource Development.
  • Compensation and Benefits.
  • Employee and Labor Relations.
  • Risk Management.

While the ideal SPHR candidate attributes are designed for the experienced HR executive, just 30% of the certification exam focuses on business management and strategy, with the rest of the exam concentrated on areas mainly focused on HR. In contrast, those pursuing an MBA specializing in HR are required to take core courses that are focused on business in addition to their specialty. Someone who has an undergraduate degree that is not in business or HR may require may benefit more from obtaining an MBA.

Gerald E. Ledford, Jr., Ph.D , a nationally recognized authority on the management of the HR Function and a former research professor at the Center for Effective Organizations, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, shares his opinion on whether certifications, such as the PHR and SPHR actually help job seekers.


The decision to obtain postgraduate education in any form provides career advancement opportunities.

Obtaining a specialty certification such as PHR or SPHR enables HR professionals to obtain a measured level or expertise in their field. The SPHR, in addition to demonstrating proficiency in the HR field of study, also focuses on the big picture.

Alternatively, an MBA degree conveys prestige and advanced business knowledge. It’s important to consider is that if the HR professional changes careers voluntarily or involuntarily, an MBA is applicable to any business.

The decision as to which route an HR professional should pursue for their post graduate studies is different for each individual. It requires deep self-analysis to determine what is best for them and the career path they wish to pursue.

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