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

College Degree Are Increasingly Helpful, but Not Always Needed

A group of young people in a business meeting
Hinterhaus Productions / Getty Images

Though you don't necessarily need a degree to work in Human Resources, not having a degree may limit you to lower level, less knowledge-based functions in your department. When HR Generalists will come to work for your organization with a Bachelor's degree for $54,680 per year, why would a forward thinking-office hire an employee without one?

Overall, under most circumstances and for most jobs, a degree is secondary. Companies want to hire the person who is most prepared and qualified to do the best job for them. Some HR jobs, such as HR Administrators or Payroll Specialists, may not require a degree.

These are generally early-career jobs. You should, though, recognize that you may experience a limit on how far you will be able to advance within your department without a college 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. As a result, some companies are fighting the trend that requires a college degree for all positions.

For example, some companies do blind hiring where candidates are evaluated based on an assigned task rather than their resume. Some companies block out identifying data on resumes that might tell the hiring manager a candidate's age, education, or ethnicity. Other companies are stating flat out that they will not require a degree for professional jobs. Even in government work, not every position needs a degree .

For Applicants With Degrees

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

Some HR Directors have already obtained 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.

What Drives the Desire for Candidates With Degrees?

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 long-term HR professionals argue that a degree is unnecessary, that they built a successful career up to and including positions as Vice President, without one. 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 arena or when the position is a member of a senior leadership team. Why? Because if you want to be taken seriously by the senior management team, you need to speak on their level. And, you will find that increasingly, members of senior leadership teams have MBAs and other advanced degrees.

This is not to say that you cannot do this work without a degree, but you gain credibility by having one. Additionally, you have shared experiences with the management 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 for a job in HR can vary. There are HR employees with degrees in Political Science, Business, Social Work, Elementary Education, IT, and other non-HR degree areas. Many employees have a Master's Degree in HR, with Bachelor's degrees that were in different subjects.

HR is a much more popular degree, and much more available than it was 20 years ago. Moving into the future, more people with a focused degree in HR or business management will be present in the field.

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

Why People With Alternative Degrees Thrive in HR

The reason people with varied degrees thrive in HR is that HR functions are so varied. In the above examples, 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.

Alternative Paths to a Career in HR

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.

The Bottom Line

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?