Beyond the B-School: Alternatives to the MBA for HR and IR Practitioners

The Master of Business Administration (MBA) is widely perceived as the graduate degree to acquire if you’re in business. But if you’re interested in human resource management or industrial relations (HR/IR), doing an MBA presents a particular set of challenges.

One problem is that MBA programs are expensive. At many universities, the pricing of these programs is based on the assumption that the student’s employer will subsidize the cost – which may not always be true. The cost of an MBA program is an issue for many potential students, but cost may be a particular challenge for HR/IR practitioners – especially those whose education might not be subsidized – because HR jobs tend to pay less than other business-related jobs.

Another problem is that many MBA programs have a broad curriculum, without any subject-based concentrations. Or, if concentrations are offered, they may only consist of a few courses, making it difficult to acquire in-depth expertise in the subject. Many students admitted to MBA programs don’t have an undergraduate degree in business – and that means the MBA curriculum has to cover all the functional areas of business, because students may not have already been introduced to these. And many programs have limited content in their concentrations, or no concentrations at all, because students want to complete their program within a strict timeframe. Most MBA programs are two years or less, and there just isn’t room in the curriculum in that time to cover core subjects and offer specialized studies.

And yet another problem is that, unfortunately, the content of MBA curriculums may reflect the lower status of HR/IR functions in business in general.  The HR function is struggling for relevancy,  and even the introduction of the Certified Human Resource Professional (CHRP) credential has not increased the legitimacy of the HR profession. Anecdotally, I’ve been told that some MBA students don’t even want to take an HR course, because they think having an HR course on their transcript will be perceived as them being unsuitable for executive-level jobs. That’s an extreme opinion, admittedly, but it does point to the reality that HR positions are generally not the source of candidates for executive promotions.



So what does an HR/IR practitioner do if they want to acquire a graduate degree? Realistically, it depends on what they want to achieve with that degree. An MBA will definitely enhance a resume, provide good exposure to every area of business operations, and facilitate networking that could lead to promotions or other opportunities. But if acquiring more advanced skills in HR/IR is a more important goal, then something other than an MBA degree may be a better choice.

Non-MBA programs that have a significant HR/IR focus may take a while to find, because they’re not always associated with business schools. So here are a few examples of graduate degrees that may be more suitable than an MBA for HR/IR practitioners whose main goal is to develop their professional expertise. I admit that this is a highly selective list – it’s programs that I’m familiar with either through having had students take these programs, or through knowing faculty members who teach in these programs. But even this selective list does demonstrate that there are a range of alternatives to the MBA.

If anyone wants to let me know about other programs like the ones I’ve mentioned here, please add a note in the comments section below, or send me an email through this blog’s “contact” page. Happy studying!


  1. I found your post quite interesting. After my BA I wanted to study Labour Relations further. I did an LL. B. on the advice of many (Economics Professor, labour lawyers etc). I am not sure if I would have been better off in a Master’s program but my math skills were not equal to graduate work. Certainly the legal studies provided a strong background in pure labour management relations, and I had the opportunity to study under both national and international labour law scholars. Of course tuition was $1,000 per year back then. Seven years ago I completed an LL.M. in Labour and Employment Law from Leicester University by distance education. You do not need a law degree to attend but if you lack one you receive an MA. I used my dissertation to explore negotiation strategies and tactics (applied to the public sector and the law prior to Charter protection of collective bargaining) and I still apply the knowledge to the collective bargaining I do and also to my teaching.

    I teach both HR Legislation and Collective Bargaining in the Continuing Education Certificate Program at the University of Manitoba. This is an inexpensive route. However, CHRP has determined that one needs a degree before one can become a member.

    Lancaster House lists several programs for Labour Relations in Canada. One alternative is a MA in various programs and then taking a course or two from various Departments and writing a dissertation on the subject of choice.

  2. Years ago I was registered and ready to start an MBA program. However during an educational event/seminar I had the opportunity to speak with Professor Monica Belcourt, the key champion behind the creation of what has become the School of Human Resources Management at York University. She asked why I had enrolled in an MBA. I explained that it was to further my career in human resources management. She then introduced me to the newly created at the time Masters in Human Resources Management (MHRM), which I believe was the first of its kind in eastern Canada.

    Her primary question (and I paraphrase) was “why complete a program with a few HR related courses when you can complete a program dedicated to HR?” Furthermore at the time completion of the MHRM required the completion of a ‘major research paper’ (equivalent to a thesis) thereby allowing graduates of the program the opportunity to move on to a doctoral program.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, the faculty was/is outstanding and the knowledge gained has been put (I believe) to good use during my subsequent career.

    As an aside, Fiona, I recently completed reading your text Industrial Relations in Canada, as I am in the process of revising an online course in Industrial Relations. Please allow me to congratulate you on the quality of your work and the fact that you have addressed a number of social issues and stakeholders that are too often overlooked in the study of Industrial Relations.

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