Executive Master’s Degree Program in HRM – Who Is It Right For?

It’s not unusual to find yourself halfway up the career ladder in a field you didn’t originally set out to get into. In fact, there are thousands and thousands of undergraduate business majors right now who will become a vital part of HR teams, though they may not even know it yet.

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Since you’ve come here to learn about grad degree options in the field, it’s safe to say you’re the ambitious type, looking to go further than where a bachelor’s degree can take you.

But where can you find the time when you’re already busting your hump in the 9 to 5 grind?

Enter the executive master’s degree program. These degrees have nearly identical coursework and classes to traditional master’s degrees in HRM. In fact, in most cases they are run side by side with traditional programs with the same curriculum at the same universities.

The major difference is that executive programs are specifically designed to accommodate the scheduling needs and time constraints of early- and mid-career professionals already working in the field.

Where an Executive Master’s in HRM Can Take Your Career

With a master’s degree in HRM, you’ll find the education you need to get into high-level leadership roles in the HR hierarchy in any industry. With the right kind of experience under your belt, going for your executive master’s will put you in a position to compete for jobs that open up for:

  • Vice President of Human Resources
  • Chief Human Resources Officer
  • Human Resources Director
  • Chief Learning Officer
  • Labor Relations Consultant

These job titles all pay top dollar, but exactly what your salary is going to look like is heavily dependent on the industry you work in and the head count of the business you work for. The HR demands are considerably different between an automotive manufacturer and a software company. Similarly, a 200 person business will have a different HR environment than a 20,000 person enterprise.

According to the 2016 Willis Towers Watson CSR General Industry Human Resources Compensation Survey Report, the salary ranges for HR executives by industry and company size are as follows:

  • Manufacturing– $226,300 to $314,200
  • Financial Services– $252,600 to $332,500
  • High Tech– $247,300 to $355,000
  • Energy – $234,300 to $270,700
  • Retail and Wholesale Trade– $294,300 to $349,500
  • Health Care – $306,400 to $362,900
  • Insurance– $258,900 to $340,200


Full-time Equivalent EmployeesSalary Range
Under 1,000$214,800 – $290,300
1,000 – 4,999$245,400 – $318,800
5,000 – 19,999$259,800 – $370,000
20,000 or more$261,000 – $396,600


The guide also indicates some differences in pay ranges based on region. This can have a lot to do with labor laws and regional economic strengths.

  • Northeast– $274,400 to $360,400
  • Southeast – $265,800 to $365,000
  • North Central– $216,800 to $291,800
  • South Central– $247,600 to $338,500
  • West Coast– $190,900 to $268,000
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What to Look for in an Executive Master’s Degree Program in HRM

You’ll find a more limited selection of executive master’s programs in HRM than traditional HR master’s degrees, but with more and more top quality programs going online, you still have plenty of choices. Many top-grade universities offer executive master’s programs, and they can be quite selective. Some executive master’s programs require several years of previous experience in the field before applying.

Not all executive master’s programs are explicitly called that. You might also find them labeled as:

  • Accelerated master’s programs
  • Executive format programs
  • Adult Graduate programs
  • Evening programs

There are several important factors to consider as you evaluate your options.

SHRM-Approved Curriculum

At the top of the list should be ensuring that you are only considering programs that follow the curriculum guidance offered by the  Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). As the industry association that is most familiar with the current practices and demands of HR positions, their competency model is the most up-to-date reflection of the actual requirements you’ll be expected to meet after graduating.

Online Course Delivery

Online courses might have been made for executive master’s programs. Since the primary purpose of those types of programs are to make them accessible to busy professionals who don’t otherwise have the time to attend a traditional master’s course, they line up perfectly with the strengths of online options.

An online degree program makes the most of flexible course offerings, allowing you to view materials and perform course work at a time and place of your choosing.

Even better, when you’re choosing among online programs, you are choosing from the best possible options across the country. Regular executive master’s programs aren’t common, and you might have few viable choices in your area. But you can apply to and attend an online program without relocating or being constrained by the local options.

Core Curriculum and Electives Found in an Executive Master’s in HRM

Because you’re going to want to pick a program that conforms to the SHRM curriculum guidelines, there will be a high degree of similarity from school to school. The full list of required courses can be found in the SHRM Curriculum Guidebook, but they will be in categories that include:

Employee Compensation and Benefits

These courses will help you determine market rates for job categories and factors going into raises and bonuses. You’ll learn how to design and administer benefits programs, working with managers inside your organization and outside providers to strike the right balance.

Employment Law and Labor Relations

The legal aspects of employment and hiring will be covered in these courses, with particular attention to the highly regulated aspects of unionization and labor force relations. Much of the HR business today is about limiting the exposure of the company to legal claims, but maintaining a healthy working relationship with workers is also important. Striking that delicate balance will be covered in these courses.

Organizational Development

HR professionals increasingly are realizing that the overall structure of the business and workflow can have a massive impact on individual jobs and job satisfaction. OD is traditionally an executive-level strategic function, but it’s one that HR professionals now have to understand and develop expertise within. Classes in these topics will help you understand the impacts of OD and how human resources can advance organizational development efforts for strategic business advantages.

Workforce Planning and Staffing Considerations

Related to organizational development and business strategy, courses in workforce and staffing planning help you understand the business needs for highly trained and motivated workers as a part of the overall strategic plan. You’ll learn to assess the labor market in your sector and region and design staffing plans based on availability and costs.

Training and Development

Training and workforce development often go hand in hand with staffing plans. You can’t always hire exactly the right candidate for every position, and even when you can, conditions often change, necessitating training programs to keep employees up to speed. You’ll learn how to put together and administer training programs that can engage and help retain workers while giving them the knowledge they need for their own personal success while fulfilling the needs of the company.

Optional/Elective Content Areas

SHRM also has four secondary content areas that schools might or might not choose to offer courses in:

  • Downsizing/Rightsizing
  • Mergers and Acquisitions
  • Sustainability/Corporate Responsibility
  • Outsourcing

Each of these represent specialized challenges that are only just emerging in the HR field and can be a way for you to get a jump on where the industry is headed.

Capstone Project

It is becoming common for colleges to require a final capstone course in HRM programs as a method of tying together all the various subject matter covered previously as well as demonstrating capabilities in real-world HR projects. The capstone may or may not involve cooperation with an outside business, but it will usually involve some sort of real-world situation that working HR professionals might commonly face. The projects require a cooperative approach using all the skills developed through the course of the degree program.

Accreditation Standards for HRM Executive Master’s Programs

In the United States, universities are predominantly accredited by one of six regional agencies, plus a few national agencies specific to schools that offer most of their programs online. These bodies set formal standards for important academic features such as:

  • Faculty qualifications and recruitment
  • Curriculum development
  • Grading and graduation requirements
  • Administrative support and admissions

College and university accreditation is standard, and you’d be hard pressed to find a school that hasn’t met the basic requirements for accreditation.

No serious HRM executive master’s program will be housed in a school that hasn’t passed the accreditation process, but it’s still worth a quick check to be sure the schools you’re considering have made the grade.

Because HR management is a business program, you should also consider the accreditation status of the business school within the larger university, and the programs offered there. There are three specialized business accreditation agencies an HR executive master’s might be accredited by:

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This is a more elite type of accreditation status than standard university-level accreditation. These agencies look specifically at the quality and consistency of business-oriented training, providing a layer of assurance on top of the general intuitional accreditation.