HR education: should I study for a Masters qualification?

Combining work and study is tough but can pay off.

A popular option both for new graduate and mid-career HR professionals is to study for a Masters degree in human resources management. The options are increasing in volume and flexibility, finds Virginia Matthews.

Alex Sheekey was head of HR at a small, London-based leisure organisation when he began his course at the University of Greenwich. The 25-year-old has recently started a new role as HR partner at glh Hotels, operator of The Grosvenor Hotel and The Royal Horseguards in London amongst others.

He said: “It’s definitely true to say that studying for a Masters in Human Resource Management while holding down a full-time job pushed my caffeine consumption sky high, but as someone who thrives on deadlines, I found working and studying fairly manageable.”

Today, he has little doubt that the knowledge and deeper understanding he acquired via his studies were directly responsible for him landing his current, more senior role: “My biggest worry was that academia and everyday HR practice would have little in common, but two compulsory modules in particular – HR in Context and HR Strategy – put the profession in an up-to-date framework and also gave me some great ammunition when it came to job interviews.”

Dr Nick Clifford, senior fellow in executive education at Alliance Manchester Business School, agrees: “Understanding how and where the people function sits in an organisation and its strategic importance overall are vital to everyone in the HR profession and it’s no accident that they appear on all CIPD-accredited Masters courses.”

Exploring the business case

Dr Rebecca Hewett is senior lecturer and programme leader for the Greenwich MA, which is also accredited by CIPD. Most of her students are in their late 20s and, in terms of work experience, vary from early career to mid-career.

Dr Hewett believes that one of the key advantages of doing a Masters is the opportunity to understand and explore, in great depth, the business case for HR.

“Getting to grips with the realities of the commercial world can make an enormous difference to how our students are viewed by employers and can directly affect how they fare in the job market,” she says.

Getting to grips with the realities of the commercial world can make an enormous difference to how our students are viewed by employers and can directly affect how they fare in the job market.” – Dr Rebecca Hewett, University of Greenwich

Whether a student chooses to take a Masters in order to break into HR, strengthen existing management skills or move from a relatively junior role to something more strategic, the one-year (full-time) or two year (part-time) syllabus “can really put flesh on the bones of their knowledge”, she believes.

Alexandra Carr, centre development manager at the CIPD, agrees, adding that the distinction between a specialist HR Masters and a more general business qualification is an important one: “While an MBA gives a broad insight across a number of business areas, a Masters in HR allows students to develop specialist knowledge from a human resource perspective.

“Several university HR programmes are accredited by the CIPD, providing a route to CIPD professional membership, and this badge of professionalism is highly valued by employers in today’s competitive job market.”

When to study?

As for timing, she believes that there are arguments for both pre-career and mid-career options.

“Many people choose to complete a Masters directly after their undergraduate degree, while others feel that studying for a postgraduate qualification later in their career is advantageous,” says Carr.

“Completing a Masters while working in HR allows students to quickly apply theory in practice by implementing concepts learned via their studies within their organisation.”

But what about the commitment required to balance a heavy workload with intense study? As Carr points out, many providers now offer flexible study modes, including online and supported distance learning, to help part-timers balance their study alongside other commitments.

At Greenwich for example, the course is structured around face-to-face, evening-only teaching – four nights a week for full-timers, two nights if part time.

Flexible options

In contrast, the International Human Resource Management MSc offered by Henley Business School is currently available purely as a full-time, 12-month course, but the school is now keen to capitalise on the flexibility trend.

Completing a Masters while working in HR allows students to quickly apply theory in practice by implementing concepts learned via their studies within their organisation.” – Alexandra Carr, CIPD

Dr Elizabeth Houldsworth, the course director of the CIPD-accredited Henley programme says: “There’s definitely demand internationally for a more flexible model and we are currently exploring the different ways in which we can deliver this.”

Her International HRM students are not obliged to have any previous work experience, but the opposite applies to the school’s MBA programme – the course is popular both with recent graduates and with those who may have up to 15 years working in HR.

“Our students come from Arab countries, Japan, China and the US as well as from all over Europe and some of them already have an MBA, as well as a first degree, before they start,” says Dr Houldsworth.

“We find that although CIPD accreditation isn’t necessarily well-understood in China, say, the parents who tend to foot the bill usually want the reassurance of a professional qualification before they part with any money.”

In terms of overall student experience, Dr Houldsworth believes that the best thing about the Henley course is the “very eclectic mix of students in terms of culture, background, previous corporate experience and prior understanding of HR”.

Step on the ladder

For Fiona McClure, an HR transformation consultant at Deloitte who recently relocated to Melbourne, it was a one-year MSc in International Management at Henley which not only “sparked my interest in understanding how organisations are run”, but earned her a first HR role.

As a humanities undergraduate from the University of Manchester, McClure took the view that a Masters would be “a good introduction to business and the commercial world” and following its completion, she joined the BBC, first as an HR graduate, and later as a junior HR business partner, working across TV commissioning, production and operations.

“The biggest pluses of the MSc were the supportive lecturers, the broad module mix and the diverse international cohort,” she says.

While Henley places an emphasis on understanding both the core disciplines of HRM and the commercial context, it is also keen to offer a practical understanding of the range of challenges facing HR professionals in different environments.

Popular electives at the school include those related to leadership and development, while at Greenwich, the studying of employment regulation tends to be a first-choice option.

If you’re contemplating following the Masters route, talk to those who have already “been there, done that”, advises Hewett. “My biggest tip to would-be Masters students is to get to know a group of fellow students and learn as much as you can from each other,” she concludes.

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