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How to Earn More In Your HR Career

Topics: Growth
The HR profession prizes degrees and certifications. But how do you decide whether to get an advanced degree or a new certification? Our data show that HR certificates offer the most bang for your buck.

A career in human resources is a pathway to diverse work, career advancement and transferable skills, but planning your next move can be difficult. The HR profession prizes concrete qualifications such as certifications and degrees, so getting your next big raise or promotion might require some classroom time.

How can you decide which HR career move is right for you? Degrees and certifications offer a leg up, but none of these options are cheap. Unfortunately, reliable data on the factors that affect pay in HR careers was scarce–until now.

Certifications and advanced degrees both command higher pay, but the data show that these pay bumps are typically rather modest. The most significant pay increases come with promotions, so the most valuable aspect of better credentials is that they increase your chances of landing your next job.

Advancing Your HR Career with Data

HR-career-optionsPhoto Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

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In our recent HR Certifications research report, we used data from the PayScale Salary Survey to estimate the value of a group of popular HR certifications. We analyzed over 100,000 salary profiles from seven HR job titles at different levels of seniority (ranging from HR assistant to CHRO) collected between 2003 and 2018.

The report focuses on how certifications improve one’s pay and promotability, but our analysis also revealed how pay is affected by experience, education, industry and many other factors. These estimates can provide guidance on how to advance your career and grow your salary.

New Qualifications are Certifiably Valuable

The single most important determinant of pay among HR professionals was job title. After accounting for all other compensable factors, CHROs earned nearly twice as much as HR managers, while HR assistants earned 30 percent less. No surprises here – pay increases as you enter more senior positions.

Change in Pay for HR Pros

Waiting for a promotion isn’t going to increase your salary, however. For a concrete step, consider taking on people management responsibilities. This could increase your pay by 7.5 percent. Proactively taking on managerial tasks also sets you up well for a promotion (with even larger pay bumps).

If managing people isn’t an option at your org or doesn’t sound right for you, additional formal education is a reliable way to increase pay. We found that workers with bachelor’s degrees earned 10.1 percent more than comparable workers without bachelor’s degrees, while graduate degrees increase pay by an additional 6.3 percent.

Continuing education is another good bet, as we found that many certifications had significant positive impacts on pay. Most notably, SHRM-CP certification increased pay by 3.9 percent, and HRCI’s PHR certification increased pay by 2.9 percent. For reference, a 3.9 percent increase on a salary of $50,000 is just under $2,000. For the full list of HR certs and associated pay boosts, check out our HR certifications report.

Short-Term and Long-Term Benefits

What do these facts and figures actually mean for an aspiring HR professional?

First, more education increases pay, but degrees may not pay for themselves very quickly. The 6.3 percent increase associated with moving from a bachelor’s degree to a graduate degree would only be an extra $3,150 on a $50,000 starting salary. Absent a promotion, it could take years to see a return on an investment in postgraduate education. Of course, a master’s degree may be a required step for getting a promotion, and promotions are associated with much larger windfalls.

Certifications seem to be a shorter-term path to higher pay. Even if a newly certified SHRM-CP doesn’t receive the entirety of their expected 3.9 percent increase all at once, the $400 fee can quickly be made up with only a modest increase in pay. Therefore, pursuing a certification may have a higher ROI for HR pros seeking to advance.

Most importantly, the pay boosts associated with education and certifications pale in comparison to those associated with promotions. Getting a promotion isn’t as simple as paying $400, but those same certifications and degrees are important for career advancement.

In our research report, we detail how much certifications increase the likelihood of climbing the corporate ladder. We found that 43 percent of CHROs had an SPHR certification, and 62 percent had a graduate degree. Furthermore, at every level of seniority, having a certification increased an HR worker’s probability of having been promoted into that role in the past five years by at least 10 percent. In other words, certifications were a significant factor in whether HR workers received promotions.

So while certifications and education might yield only modest financial returns in the short term, they are critical for opening doors to long-term advancement, and you should consider both in your career planning.

Planning Your HR Career

In this analysis, we found that many of the numerous career advancement tools available to HR professionals come with modest financial benefits. Certifications and higher education increase pay, but those increases don’t compare to those that come from moving up the ladder. For that reason, the greatest benefits of additional qualifications are the career opportunities they open up.

For more information on the value of the most common HR certifications, check out the research report.


  • We controlled for the following variables in our regression: year, company size, industry, metropolitan area, education level, management status, years of experience (linear and squared terms), job title, independent certifications, and common pairs of certifications. The specifics of the regression are discussed in detail in the report.
  • Our analysis holds job title constant, so it doesn’t account for the increased likelihood of getting a promotion with certain degrees or certifications. In other words, we calculate the pay boost numbers by comparing HR Directors with Bachelor’s Degrees to HR Directors with Master’s Degrees, ignoring the fact that a master’s degree likely makes it more likely that you will be promoted to VP of HR or CHRO (the next steps up in our HR title hierarchy).
  • All regression estimates discussed in this blog post were significant assuming an alpha level of 0.05.

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