Online Degrees in Human Resources

Businesses are always competing for top talent, and human resources professionals play a critical role in managing the workforce. Trained HR specialists and managers recruit and retain workers by creating competitive benefit and professional development programs for employees. Online degrees in human resources help business and HR professionals hone their skills in personnel management in programs that can be completed at home -- allowing them to maintain their work and personal commitments.

Human resources covers all aspects related to managing a workforce, from administrative details to strategic planning. Key responsibilities include the following:

  • Recruiting and interviewing job candidates
  • Hiring and orientation
  • Training and development
  • Compensation and benefits
  • Employee and labor relations
  • Health, safety and security
  • Dispute resolution

Human resources degrees offer training in business fundamentals as well as applied HR skills. Basic business courses include accounting, finance, management, international business, marketing and computer information systems. Specific human resources courses cover topics like employment law, organizational behavior, collective bargaining and labor economics, as well as training in recruitment, coordinating development programs, compensation, benefits and more.

Choosing the Right Online Human Resources Degree

Human resources degrees are available at all levels, from associate to doctorate. Most HR professionals begin their careers with a bachelor's degree in business or human resources. Graduate degrees such as the master's and MBA support advancement into management roles.

  • Associate: The two-year Associate of Science degree, available at community colleges, vocational institutes and some universities, offers focused career training combined with some general education courses.
  • Bachelor's: The four-year Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Business Administration focuses on building a foundation in core business skills, including critical thinking, analytical skills, oral and written communication, and applied management skills. Human resources majors take electives in the latter years of the program.
  • Master's: Two-year MBA and Master of Science programs offer two distinct takes on graduate human resources education. The MBA focuses on a broad business management curriculum, with HR electives and a capstone project. The M.S. in human resources offers a more in-depth, theoretical engagement with the human resources discipline, culminating in an independent research thesis.
  • Doctorate: The Ph.D. in human resources is the terminal degree in the field. It is an academic program emphasizing original scholarly research in the field. The Ph.D. generally leads to college teaching or corporate strategy roles.

Human resources students benefit from hands-on training in an organization. Online human resources degrees often incorporate a local internship in order to give students the chance to apply their knowledge. Working professionals may be able to complete course projects in the context of their current job.

Mid-career professionals with college degrees in another field may also look into certificate programs in human resources, which offer targeted training in HR skills for individuals looking to make a career change.

Careers in Human Resources

Graduates with human resources degrees go on to jobs as HR generalists or specialists. Some HR specialist careers include employment and placement managers, recruitment specialists, employment interviewers, compensation and benefits specialists, occupational analysts, training and development specialists, labor relations managers, and equal employment opportunity managers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), HR specialist roles pay in the $55,000-$60,000 range, and HR manager jobs pay around $100,000. In 2016, the BLS reported a mean annual salary of $108,600 for human resources managers.

Human resources professionals can look forward to favorable job prospects throughout the 2008-2018 period, according to BLS forecasts. Employment is projected to grow by 22 percent during this decade, buoyed by changing legislation in occupational safety and health, health care, equal employment opportunity, and other areas. Businesses looking to boost productivity also place a premium on trained HR strategists, managers and compensation specialists.

Average Salary
Projected Job Growth
(2016 - 26)
Training and Development Specialists291,380$65,12011.5%
Training and Development Managers35,690$121,73010.3%
Human Resources Managers143,580$126,7008.9%
Compensation, Benefits, and Job Analysis Specialists83,550$67,9108.5%
Human Resources Specialists593,790$66,7907.1%
Compensation and Benefits Managers15,660$132,8605%
Source: 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2016-26 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

Human resources at a glance:

  • Salary: Human resource managers earned a mean annual salary of $108,600 in 2010 (BLS).
  • Specialties: High-growth HR specialties include international human resources management and human resources information systems.
  • Education: A bachelor's degree is the preferred credential for human resources professionals, and a master's degree may be necessary for advancement into managerial roles.

Human resources professionals work with the administration of businesses and organizations to help make sure everything runs smoothly. From screening job applicants to understanding the details of benefit plans to participating in corporate strategic planning, human resources experts may find themselves handling a wide variety of tasks.

Online associate degree programs in human resources can help prepare students for work in industries and organizations that have an HR or personnel department. Generally, the Associate of Science in Human Resources offers students a foundation from which to grow, while the Associate of Applied Science may help prepare students to jump into the workplace upon graduation. Some colleges and universities might offer an Associate of Arts instead, or a business management degree with an emphasis on human resources.

What Does an Associate Degree Program in Human Resources Entail?

An associate degree in human resources generally takes two years of full-time study to complete. It may be possible to earn an online associate degree in less time, depending upon the program and the student's aptitude. The following are a sampling of courses commonly found in human resources programs at the associate degree level:

  • Human Resources Management: The human resources field often calls for excellent management skills. Typically, courses in human resources management teach students strategies for hiring, organizing, directing and motivating employees from a managerial standpoint. Topics might cover job recruitment and evaluation, disciplinary measures, labor relations and employee retainment. Coursework may help prepare students to step into the role of recruiting, hiring, training and supervising employees for small or large organizations.
  • Employment Law: There are many laws in place that govern the actions and expectations of conducting business in the workplace. Human resources experts understand these laws and help make sure companies and their employees recognize and respect them. This course covers key legal issues surrounding employee and employer rights, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, worker compensation, union agreements and more. Classes may also delve into specific federal laws, such as the National Labor Relations Act.
  • Training and Development: Workplace training programs help advance employees' skills and keep business productivity at a high level. This course introduces various training procedures, including employee orientation and corporate training, and helps students learn how to evaluate which training programs are most effective.
  • Employee Benefits: Understanding employee benefits is often a key responsibility of human resources professionals. In this course, students learn about employee benefits guaranteed under federal law. They may also explore the intricacies of various health, life, disability, pension and retirement plans. This course can help provide a foundation of knowledge from which students can evaluate, design and choose the appropriate packages for employees.

In addition to core courses, human resources programs may also require students to take several electives. These electives could include topics that apply to human resources, such as economics, psychology or government. General education courses are also common in associate degree programs in human resources. English or math courses, for example, may help students build communication and number-crunching skills that are vital in business.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Associate Degree Programs in Human Resources

With an online human resources associate degree, graduates may qualify for a variety of positions in organizations or businesses, including human resources assistant. Human resources assistants help more experienced HR professionals with tasks such as maintaining employee records or posting new job openings online. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects job opportunities for human resources assistants to grow by 11 percent nationally from 2010 through 2020 (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

Seeking to broaden their opportunities, those with an associate degree in human resources might choose to earn a bachelor's degree in a related field, which could open the door to human resources specialist positions. This might be an appealing choice for some, as employment for human resources specialists is expected to grow by 22 percent nationally from 2010 to 2020 (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

As resumes pile up and employers look for ways to attract and retain the best available talent, human resources (HR) professionals can make valuable contributions to a company's team. Online bachelor's degree programs in human resources typically help prepare students for HR positions by teaching them how to refine a company's overall recruiting efforts, interpret benefit plans, initiate new hires, and help current employees continue to grow through training programs.

Some schools offer bachelor's degree programs in human resources management, while others have business degrees with an emphasis in human resources management. Regardless of the program, the curriculum tends to combine business and management classes with courses in human resources, which explore topics like employment law, benefits, and compensation.

What Does a Bachelor's Degree Program in Human Resources Entail?

A bachelor's degree typically takes four years of full-time work to complete, but the flexible scheduling of online programs may allow some students to finish the degree in less time. Online bachelor's degrees in human resources typically consist of general education courses, core courses that include the foundations of good business practices, and courses that target human resources. Examples of human resources classes include:

  • Employment Law: Human resources experts must have a firm grasp of the legal issues that affect employers and those in their employ, including rules on overtime pay, employment agreements, equal opportunity and other regulatory issues. These courses can provide a familiarity with the regulations and laws that govern employment.
  • Organizational Development and Behavior: Understanding how individuals and groups interact with one another can help tailor management responses. This course explores ways to evaluate and improve productivity, communication and efficiency among members of the team.
  • Employee Training and Development: One of the top duties of a human resources department is providing professional development opportunities for employees. Courses may present the best practices for training, including how to design a training program, tailor the program to suit various employee needs, implement the plan, and evaluate the results.
  • Benefits and Compensation: Human resources departments handle many issues regarding compensation, wages, benefit packages and retirement plans. These courses cover a wide range of information on pay scales and performance, employee incentives, comparisons of benefit plans, and the fundamentals of wage and salary programs.

In addition to these, core courses in human resources programs may include accounting, management principles and practices, finance, public relations, information technology, and marketing. Typically, bachelor's degree programs also require students to take elective courses. These can be outside the scope of business or human resources, but many students choose subjects that provide support for their professional goals. For instance, taking a communications course as an elective could be advantageous to those who plan to work with the hiring or training of employees.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Bachelor's Degree Programs in Human Resources

With a bachelor's degree in human resources, graduates can pursue a range of career opportunities, including human resources specialist. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these professionals recruit, interview and hire workers for a company. Though most jobs are office-based, some professionals, such as recruitment specialists, may travel to job fairs or college campuses in the search of potential candidates. Technological skills can be beneficial, as companies continue to adopt online recruiting and application processes (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

Some employers require certification for HR candidates, particularly for the broad duties of generalist positions. Other companies look for relevant experience in addition to a bachelor's degree. For those who seek professional experience while attending school, positions such as customer service representative or human resources assistant could be helpful.

Positions in human resources management may also be an option, but they typically require relevant work experience in addition to a bachelor's degree. HR managers oversee the hiring process, training programs, labor relations, and other administrative procedures. Related careers include compensation and benefits manager or training and development manager, however, high-level HR management positions often require a master's degree in a related field (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

The BLS projects that employment for human resources specialists will expand by 21 percent nationwide from 2010 to 2020. Opportunities may be available not only in corporate human resources departments, but also in staffing agencies and employment placement organizations. An emphasis on finding and retaining good workers, plus the increasing complexity of employment regulations and health care insurance, should drive demand for human resource specialists. HR managers, meanwhile, can expect national job growth of 13 percent during the same time frame (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

Whether creating innovative recruiting strategies, resolving labor disputes, or helping develop effective corporate training programs, the leadership and expertise of HR professionals can be vital in creating a productive and happy workplace. For those who want to advance in the field, a master's degree in human resources may help put them on the right track. Students can choose to enter into a human resources management program, or they might pursue a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with an emphasis in human resources.

Often, online master's degree programs in human resources also offer specializations, allowing students to focus on a specific aspect of HR, such as labor relations, psychology or employment law. One such specialized degree is a master's in industrial-organizational psychology, which focuses on human behavior in the workplace.

What Does a Master's Degree Program in Human Resources Entail?

In most cases, a master's degree takes two years to complete. However, those who pursue online master's degrees in human resources might be able to complete the work in less time, depending on the program. Students may be able to pursue an online master's program with a flexible format, which could allow them to continue working while attending courses at a time that is most suitable or convenient for them.

Online master's degree programs in human resources usually do not require general education courses or electives. Rather, these programs are strongly focused to provide students with the intensive training they need to build upon the skills and knowledge they earned during pursuit of their bachelor's degree. Example courses include:

  • Employment and Labor Law: This course explores state and federal laws that govern employee and employer relations, emphasizing both theory and practical application in the workplace. Topics can include affirmative action, equal employment, disability laws, workplace privacy, compensation and wage regulations, dealing with unions, and more.
  • Recruiting and Staffing Strategies: Learning how to recruit, place and retain the best talent is a key component of this course, as well as how these efforts fit into a company's short- and long-term goals. The course may explore topics such as the major challenges of staffing and recruiting, along with the federal laws that must be adhered to while enticing talent to join the ranks.
  • Safety and Security in the Workplace: This course focuses on both the physical and informational security of the workplace, helping train students to spot potential threats, take steps to enhance security and keep important information within the boundaries of the company. Additionally, classes typically look at corporate threats, vulnerabilities, workplace violence, premises liability and other issues that pertain to keeping a business and its employees safe and secure.
  • Managerial Leadership: What makes a good leader, and what works best to motivate people? These and other issues of leadership are discussed, as well as keys to unlocking potential management skills. This courses might also include case studies of great business leaders who inspired their employees to bigger accomplishments.

MBA programs with an emphasis in human resources often address similar topics, but may also include courses in advanced marketing, financial issues, managerial accounting and the like. Most online human resources master's programs require students to complete a capstone seminar or master thesis before graduating, which demonstrates their cumulative education in the field.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Master's Degree Programs in Human Resources

While HR positions can often be entered with a bachelor's degree, employers may look for those with the more advanced skills and knowledge offered by a master's, especially for upper-level management positions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Earning work experience while engaging in a human resources master's degree program may also provide employers with a favorable impression of hard work and motivation, and previous management and/or HR experience is beneficial for those looking to advance to supervisory roles. The BLS expects employment of human resources managers to increase by 13 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020 (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

Other potential positions include compensation and benefits manager as well as training and development manager. Earning an MBA may also put human resources experts on track to become top management executives.

A doctoral degree in human resources is the terminal degree in the field, one that could help open doors to university appointments, political aspirations and higher levels of executive leadership within a company. There are numerous concentrations under the HR umbrella that can become the focus of a Ph.D. program, including human resources management, development or organizational management.

The Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) with an emphasis in human resources is another option for those interested in pursuing a doctorate. The DBA program offers a strong focus on various aspects of business related to human resources, including finance, marketing, investments and organizational research.

What Does a Doctoral Degree Program in Human Resources Entail?

Students considering a doctoral degree program should generally already have a rich background of experience and education, which could include a master's degree in human resources, or a master's of business administration with a concentration in human resources. Some Ph.D. programs offer students the option of earning their master's degree as they work toward their doctorate, thus delivering both in one comprehensive program.

A Ph.D. typically takes three to seven years to complete, but this can vary substantially based on the program and whether the student is studying full-time. Some online doctoral degrees in human resources allow students to take advantage of flexible scheduling, which can potentially lessen the time required to earn the degree. In addition to the core courses required for the program, students must also complete a research project and dissertation, then mount a defense of the dissertation before a committee.

Courses required for the doctoral program in human resources include clearly focused and targeted subjects, such as classes in economics, psychology, social sciences, negotiations, labor markets, history and legal foundations. The multidisciplinary courses blend theory and practice, requiring in-depth research and collaboration with fellow students. Independent studies are encouraged, and students are expected to combine work experience with their education in order to present a well-rounded view of human resources upon completion of their Ph.D. program.

Graduates of a human resources Ph.D. program may walk away with a host of new skills and knowledge, including experience with teaching, networking, grant writing, academic presentations, comment review and response, and making organizational contacts, among many others.

While those pursuing a DBA can choose to focus on human resources as a specialty, they also typically take courses in organizational behavior, financial and managerial accounting, corporate and international finance, strategic planning, marketing, and communications. Some programs require a published study or paper to be completed before graduation. This is separate from the required dissertation and defense.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Doctoral Degree Programs in Human Resources

With a doctoral degree in human resources, graduates may find many new employment opportunities open to them, including moving into executive positions in their company or teaching at colleges and universities.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov/ooh, 2012), demand for top executives is expected to increase by only 5 percent nationally from 2010 to 2020. This slower-than-average growth can be attributed to mergers, which may cut the executive workforce, and because top positions don't become available as often as other openings at most companies.

Nationwide employment of postsecondary teachers is expected to grow by 17 percent between 2010 and 2020. This increase is contributed to the booming number of students enrolling in college each year. Growth is expected to be especially robust among for-profit institutions, which are not reliant on state or federal budgets in order to determine the number of teachers they hire (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

Both tenure-track positions in colleges and universities as well as top executive positions in major companies will be highly competitive according to the BLS, so applicants with an impressive work history and a Ph.D. or DBA might have an edge at hiring time. Students who intend to pursue top-tier positions can begin their pursuit early by completing several research projects and publishable papers during their term of study.

"Bachelor's Degree in Human Resources," HR People, Accessed May 2013, http://hrpeople.monster.com/education/articles/1381
"Human Resources Managers," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 29, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/human-resources-managers.htm
"Human Resources Specialists," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 29, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Business-and-Financial/Human-resources-specialists.htm
"Information Clerks," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 29, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Office-and-Administrative-Support/Information-clerks.htm
"Master of Human Resource Management," HR People, Accessed May 2013, http://hrpeople.monster.com/education/articles/1386-master-of-human-resource-management
"Postsecondary Teachers," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-2013 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 10, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htm
"Top Executives," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 29, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/top-executives.htm

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