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Education or Experience? How to Start Your HR Career

Education or Experience? How to Start Your HR Career

As one year ends and another begins, it’s natural to start reflecting on where you are and thinking about where you’d like to go. Whether you’ve had HR responsibilities for years without the credentials or you’re interested in starting a whole new career in HR, now’s the time to think about your career goals.

There are many paths to a meaningful and rewarding career in HR. Like many professions, there’s been a lot of debate about which is the best approach to starting your HR career: education or experience. Of course, these approaches are not mutually exclusive. But it’s worth comparing them to help you better plan your HR career. Here’s what you need to consider.


Starting Your HR Career Through Education

So, what are the pros and cons of entering HR primarily through education?

Pros of Starting Your HR Career Through Education:

  • A bachelor’s or master’s degree program in HR offers formal, comprehensive training with accountability.
  • Professors can become mentors and help you make connections in the industry.
  • There are more opportunities for industry internships and support to help you take advantage of those opportunities.

Cons of Starting Your HR Career Through Education

  • The cost of tuition may be out of reach for many, even considering student loans.
  • A formal degree program can be a huge time commitment, which may not be practical for someone with a family looking for a mid-career transition.


Education Programs to Start Your HR Career

If you’re interested in this path, here are some notable undergraduate programs:

  • The University of Richmond offers a Bachelor of Science—or BS—in Professional Studies in Human Resources Management—or HRM. This program is ranked number one by for its high graduation rate, small classes, and emphasis on cutting-edge HR theory and practice. Classes are offered in-person, online, and in a hybrid format.
  • The Ohio State University’s BS in Human Resources program has a similarly high graduation rate and offers courses in HRM in Market Economy, HR Practices and the Law, and Training and Development. As a public university, tuition is relatively more affordable for most students interested in HR.
  • Clemson University recently launched an innovative BS program: Human Capital Education and Development. It’s an interdisciplinary degree program that recognizes the influence of learning sciences and systems improvement science on the HR field. The program aims to use “educational workforce skills to address the issues and challenges of modern organizations.”

If you’ve already finished an undergraduate degree and are looking for graduate school opportunities, here are some notable programs:

  • Purdue University offers a Master of Science—or MS—in HRM, which was ranked best HR graduate program by This full-time, 18-month program offers courses in Human Capital Consulting and Industrial Relations as well as practical, real-world training.
  • Drake University’s MS in Leadership and Talent Development program has online and in-person courses and a high graduation rate. Similar to Clemson’s undergraduate program, Drake’s graduate program emphasizes HR’s role in teaching and training the workforce. There’s also no application fee or entry exam, like the GRE.
  • Texas A&M’s MS in HRM program is an affordable and timely alternative that may appeal to many aspiring HR pros. Students may finish the program in just 16 months and can expect a focus on organizational change, development, and staffing.


Starting Your HR Career Through Experience

But what about entering HR primarily through other work experience? Here are some pros and cons:

Pros of Starting Your HR Career Through Experience:

  • There are many paths to getting experience in roles that touch HR. For example, many HR pros start out in payroll, recruiting, or office administration.
  • You can make connections and build your network in your current job. That could lead to many opportunities in HR that you may not have considered.
  • One reason so many HR pros choose the nontraditional path is the ability to make money while getting experience, a rare opportunity in internships.

Cons of Starting Your HR Career Through Experience:

  • Getting into HR through the side door can be a steep learning curve. Ask the thousands of hardworking HR pros who started out as office managers or admin assistants, taking on more and more responsibilities over time.
  • Outside of formal education, mentors and internships can be harder to come by. You will have to seek them out yourself. But, then again, if you’re not willing to be proactive, HR may not be for you!


5 Ways to Get Experience for Your HR Career

If experience outside formal education seems like the best path for you, here are five ways you can get started in your HR career:

  1. Look for opportunities to help with HR-related tasks at your current job. Every workplace has someone or some team responsible for benefits, payroll, compliance, recruiting, etc.—regardless of whether or not “HR” is in their title.
  2. Attend local or online events through the HR Certification Institute (HRCI) or the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Also, check out BerniePortal’s hybrid annual conference, Weekdays with Bernie.
  3. Seek out a mentor. As I mentioned earlier, every workplace has someone in an HR role, even if it’s not in their title. It’s also likely you have several potential HR mentors in your social or LinkedIn networks.
  4. Register for continuing education courses like BernieU. All BernieU courses are free, online, and approved for HRCI and SHRM recertification credit.
  5. Study for and take an entry-level HR certification exam like the Associate Professional in Human Resources—or aPHR. This is a great way to show a hiring manager you’re committed to making this career change.


Additional Resources

Aspiring HR pros need to be in the know. You can stay informed, educated, and up-to-date with important HR topics by using BerniePortal’s comprehensive resources:

  • BerniePortal Blog—a one-stop-shop for HR industry news
  • HR Glossary—featuring the most common HR terms, acronyms, and compliance
  • HR Guides—essential pillars, covering an extensive list of comprehensive HR topics
  • BernieU—free online HR courses, approved for SHRM and HRCI recertification credit
  • HR Party of One—our popular YouTube series and podcast, covering emerging HR trends and enduring HR topics
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