Do You Need a College Degree to Work in Human Resources?

Degree Requirements Are Increasingly Helpful, but Not Always Needed

Dean presenting graduate students with awards outside college
Barry Austin Photography/ Iconica/ Getty Images

No, you don't have to have a degree to work in the field of Human Resources, but the lack of a degree will often limit you to lower level, less knowledge-based functions in the HR office. When HR Assistants come to work with a Bachelor's degree for $40-45,000, why would a forward thinking office hire an employee without a degree?

This has changed over the years. Twenty years ago, posting a Vice President of HR position brought several applications from people who were then currently working as Vice Presidents of HR.

They had worked their way up the ranks over many years actively working in HR offices and were ready for a change. The company CEO wanted both, however, the experience and the degree, so these applicants were not considered.

This said, yes, it's possible that the company missed out on an excellent person. But, when you have a hundred applicants, you look for ways to narrow the field. (Under most circumstances, for most jobs, a degree is secondary. You want the person who is most prepared and qualified to do the best job for your organization.)

In reality, here are some jobs as HR Administrators or as Payroll Specialists that may not require a degree. You will also not expect to advance very far in your HR career in these roles without a degree. Some companies will not consider you for a promotion (or even look at your resume) if you don't have a degree, regardless of your experience.

This is short-sighted on the part of companies.

Four years of college does not make you more qualified than someone with 20 years of experience. Some companies are fighting the trend toward a college degree for everything.

For example, some companies do blind hiring where candidates are evaluated based on an assigned task rather than their resume.

Other companies are stating flat out that they will not require a degree for professional jobs.

Increasingly, HR Staff Have Degrees

Increasingly, however, HR professionals have both Bachelor's degrees and Master's degrees. Since HR is a highly competitive field, the more education you have, in appropriate subjects, the better your chance for excellent job prospects, promotional opportunities, and a successful career.

Another education trend in the field is HR Directors with a Ph.D. and/or a Juris Doctor (J.D.) law degree. Because many HR responsibilities involve legal compliance, a strong understanding of the law is helpful. Usually, people in these positions started out as labor and employment lawyers and then moved into HR, rather than going straight from law school to HR.

The increasing complexity of employment law, the large amounts of money awarded in lawsuits, and the sue anyone anytime for any amount attitudes that have developed, especially in the US, make law degrees for HR staff sought after and appreciated.

Many longer term HR professionals argue that a degree is unnecessary, that they built a successful career up to and including positions as Vice President, without a degree.

But, this is not the trend for jobs in HR. An HR professional, who wants to participate in the strategic leadership of a business, needs a degree.

The degree is especially important in a strategic area. Why? Because if you want to be taken seriously by the senior management team, you need to speak on their level. This is not to say that you cannot do this without a degree, but you gain credibility by having one. Additionally, you have shared experiences with the management team.

For example, in the example shared above in which the CEO wanted both experience and a degree, the senior team was comprised of the CEO with a Masters in Business, an Executive VP with a PhD, a CFO with a Masters in Finance, a Marketing VP with another MBA, and a CTO with a Masters in Computer Science. Do you get the picture?

On a team such as this, the people advocate and sponsor needs a presence as weighty as theirs. The CEO was determined to make the HR person as effective as possible working with the senior team.

In a less degree oriented culture and team, a degree may be less necessary.

Degrees in Human Resources

The type of degree you have can vary in HR. In one client HR department, the HR staff had degrees in Political Science, Business, Social Work, Elementary Education, IT, and other non-HR degree areas. Several of these people had master's degrees in HR, but their bachelor's degrees were in different subjects.

HR is a much more popular degree (and much more available) than it was 20 years ago, so expect to see fewer people with a variety of degrees and more people with an HR/business/management degree going forward.

Some other degrees that are often found in HR offices are sociology, psychology, industrial-organizational psychology, and all of the social sciences. Increasingly, you'll find degrees in data sciences, IT, and computer technology. This reflects the trend in the field for the collection, management, and interpretation of data electronically

The reason people with varied degrees thrive in HR is that HR functions are so varied. In the above example, the political scientist had a strong background in data analysis. The social worker could handle employee relations issues with ease. Your imagination can run wild on why someone with a degree in elementary education was valued in an HR department. But, training and development departments and functions have increasingly sought educational credentials as the career development field has expanded.

All learned at least some aspects of Human Resource Management on the job, which meant there was a heavy training period, but the value they brought to the organization was worth it.

Another path to HR is to work in another field and then transfer to an HR function supporting people in this field. This is especially valuable in recruiting (they truly understand job requirements) and HR business partner roles. But, people from many other jobs have switched successfully to a career in HR.

HR people who took this path often have a wide variety of degrees as well. They bring a wide variety of knowledge to the HR office that is appreciated.

So, do HR leaders need degrees? The answer is all over the board depending on your circumstances, what you want to do, and what your targeted organization needs, wants, and expects. But, the bottom line is that HR professionals increasingly have Bachelor's degrees and advanced degrees. Why not consider joining the best prepared, degreed professionals?

More About Human Resources Management