B-School Selection
Comments 17

How to choose between a HR program and a regular MBA

I think I have said this in another post — India is probably the only country where people will be willing to shell out more than 20 lakhs for a product and at the same time be willing to accept whatever the seller decides to give them. What am I referring to?

When I ask students who have both BM and HR calls from XLRI, what their preference is, or what they would prefer between XL-HR/TISS and IIM-K/MDI, most are very clear the specialization does not matter all that matters is the brand, others start bringing ROI into the picture.

I feel people put in more thought when choosing between a diesel and a petrol car! We are so crazy after elite institutions that we fail to even consider whether we will succeed/fail in or like/dislike a particular field.

The objective of this post will be to give you enough information to choose the right program when faced with a choice between a premier HR program and other programs.

It is not as simplistic as people skills versus communication skills

People tend to think of the choice between HR and Marketing as a choice between liking to interact with people and possessing great communication skills.

Any MBA worth his/her salt needs to have great people skills and communication skills. Aren’t these two skills the core pillars that separate managers and leaders (please note that I am not talking about visionary founders, they don’t need to follow any rules since they end up making them) from pure techies.

I feel that a suitability to build a successful career in any area is (assuming a particular level of intelligence) is more a function of our innate traits and temperament than our skills.

Let us take two people with great people skills and communication skills starting off their careers in Sales & Marketing — will both be equally successful in sales as well as marketing? Will both do equally well in roles of National Sales Manager and Chief Marketing Officer?

Nope. A lot depends on the temperament of each individual.

For example, I had a student who, post his MBA, took up a pre-sales role in an IT firm purely because he felt that he just cannot do a desk job, he needs to be on the move, he cannot just sit and think.

So how do you decide whether you are made for HR or for any general MBA? There are three things you need to consider.

Are you ready to settle for the best supporting actor?

The big difference between HR and other functions is that Marketing, Finance and Operations are line functions — functions that directly impact the top-line, revenues, or bottom-line, profits of a company. HR is a support function, which requires specialised knowledge, that indirectly contributes to the revenues and profits by providing the people and creating the environment required to run the other functions successfully.

What does this mean in terms of career progression?

HR professionals very rarely rise to become CEOs; every other specialization has a direct path to the CEO chair; firms choose CEOs from among the top management — be it CMO, CFO or COO. The only case in which HR professionals become CEOs is if they are part of the founding team and started with taking up the HR responsibility and later moved on to other roles.

It goes without saying that you will not be taking the strategic business calls over the course of your career.

What does this mean in terms of temperament?

Those who are very ambitious, competitive and want to be close to the action — revenue generation and profit-maximization — will find themselves misfits in HR. While Indian firms have started to give the importance due to HR as a function, by large the Indian firms still look at HR to not be of core importance.

So if you are an ambitious alpha male/female, you might not fit in at all.

Please keep in mind that this is not a value judgement on people in HR or the people who are not alpha personalities. Just like supporting actors are indispensable to a movie, the same is true of HR as well. It is up to you to decide the role you will excel in.

HR on average will pay lower, are you okay with it?

Salaries of most people in line functions have a high variable component that is based on the numbers that they are measured against year on year. People working in line-functions carry measurable targets that also carry a high incentive. The higher the revenues, the higher the incentives that people get to earn.

HR professionals also carry measurable targets but the incentives are not as high as those in other functions. Finance professionals working in i-banking end up getting a small percentage of the size of the deal, traders have a direct upside related to the profits they make for the firm, so essentially there is no ceiling on the amount they can earn, making Finance a very sought-after as well the field with a lot of scams as well — higher rewards induce people to take higher risks.

Be that as it may, those graduating from the top HR schools earn enough to have great roti, great kapda, and great makaan. If at a comparable firm and level, a marketing professional is at around 75L CTC, an HR professional will be in the 50-60 range. The gap narrows down or rather would cease to matter once you reach the position of head HR.

The most extreme CEO package of all? Obviously, has to belong to the CEO with the most outrageously ambitious CEO of all, Elon Musk — the all or nothing package.

Are less stress and work-life balance major priorities for you?

Given the fact that the monthly revenues and profits are not driven by HR, roles in HR carry lower stress levels. Lower stress levels do not mean lower workload. My friend in HR travels as much is not more than my friend in Marketing and puts in as many manhours but also has significantly lower stress levels.

The end of the month is always a high-intensity time for other functions. Managers keep pushing their subordinates through encouragement or outright swear words to make them push sales as much as possible.

HR professionals face such levels of stress during the mergers and acquisitions when people are let go due to workforce rationalization, or during downsizing during a recession.

So if you are someone who by nature seeks less stress then HR is might be the right choice.

In non-HR roles, you have to consciously use stress-management tools to ensure that you are able to maintain the balance. You might reach home but if your mind is still carrying the stress from work then the balance will suffer.

If the answer to all of these questions is strong YES, then HR is the obvious choice for you.

If you are not able to make up your mind on these questions then give them a rating from 1 to 10, 1 being a strong NO to 10 being a strong YES. If your cumulative rating on all three questions is higher than 22 then you are probably a better fit for HR.

So to sum it up, choosing primarily on the basis of the brand might be too simplistic when it comes to specialised programs since we are not comparing apples to apples.

The better you know yourself, your traits, your temperaments and your skills the better you will be at building the right career for yourself.

By now it will be clear that you cannot have your cake and eat it too, there is always a trade-off to be made.











    • Hi,

      There broad different functions within HR are — recruitment, compensation management, training & development and organization design.

      Firms do not go to campus and recruit for a specific role/function but for the department as a whole. Usually, you start with recruitment for lower levels and as you gather more experience you start taking up other functions.

      For example, even at a senior level, you might still be doing recruitment but only for the topmost roles.

      The things you are doing now will suffice for profile building, you can look at doing a few courses on Coursera.

      Hope this clarifies.

      All the best!


  1. Jasonbourne says

    Hi Tony, great insight into how to look at an MBA in terms of personal fit. Can you give your viewpoint on choosing a college within hr and what should be given more importance in such a scenario for making a prudent decision? Lets say XL HR vs TISS.


    • Hi,

      Glad you found the post insightful. Between XL and TISS definitely XL on two counts – it’s a much bigger brand and hence attracts a large range of firms and the quality of the peer group as well since a much larger pool of students takes the XAT.

      So if fees as a consideration is put aside then definitely XL-HR without a doubt.

      So it’s a trade-off between fee and a bigger brand name that attracts quality firms as well as applicants.

      Also please note that this does mean that TISS is a not a good option, the points above are purely in comparison to XL.

      All the best!

      All the best.


  2. catonskooma says

    Hi Tony,
    First of all, a big thank you for the excellent VA CAT strat posts, those really helped me up my game and I ended up getting 99.71%ile in VA on the D-day.
    Anyway, I’m writing today because I’ve converted MDI HR. I know it doesn’t have the same ‘pedigree’ as an XLHR because of it being started in 2004, but I would really like to know your 2 cents on the reputation of the course and the placements.


    • Hi,

      Really happy to know that the VA strategy posts helped you crack a good percentile in the section, which is an achievement given the inexact nature of the questions.

      Congratulations on converting MDI-HR. While not in the same league as XL, MDI as a brand is big since it is an old and well-established institution. So it’s no wonder that the placement stats for the HR program are comparable, if not better, than the other schools offering HR programs such as TISS and SCMHRD.

      I would say go ahead and join, you will not be making a mistake.

      All the best!


  3. Supratim Basu says


    I have been a student of IMS e Test series for the past year. I took the different competitive tests for MBA and after going through WAT GD PI rounds , i have converted calls from XLRI BM, SPJIMR IM, MDI Gurgaon, SJMSOM, etc. I would like to thank you for your guidance through your blog THe Cat Writer which has helped me through a lot of times when i was confused.

    I have another dillemma that i am stuck with and it would be very helpful to hear your take on this.

    The avg placement of XLRI is around 19.21 lakhs while their fees is 24 lakhs.
    The avg placement for SPJIMR is 22.24 lakhs while their fees is 19 lakhs.

    What would be an ideal place for me to do an MBA given that
    i am an engineer from WBUT & i have work experience of 30 months in Accenture ?



    • Hi Supratim,

      Glad the blog was helpful in your prep. Congrats on the converts!

      Since the fees is the same in both places. We can look at the CTC, you would know the averages do not indicate that at SP you will get a job that pays 3L more than at XL. You will end up with job above 16 at either place is the safest inference that you draw.

      I would suggest XL over SP since the brand is much bigger and the campus life at XL, given its history with IIM-C and infra will be way way superior to life at SP.

      So my advice, hands down XL, you won’t regret it. The only case in which I would have recommend SP were if you got SP Jain Ops and were looking at an Ops profile.

      Hope this clarifies.

      All the best!


      • Supratim Basu says

        Really appreciate your feedback.



  4. Hello Tony,
    Your posts are a treat to read. I’m confused between SJSOM MBA and XL-HR. I would also want to do a PHD in US post the same.
    Which would build my profile better?

    Age-24 years, working in Deloitte consulting (Deloitte Digital) since 2 years. Acads are 9,9,7. I would love to create something of a niche value to this world.


    • Hi Shiv,

      Glad you like the posts on the blog.

      Congrats on the admits.

      Dunno what to suggest since I devoted an entire post to the same question. The specific schools do matter, it is choice between HR and MBA and they are two separate fields. As far as the Ph.D. goes you will have to later drill down to specifics — you need to first decide the stream Marketing, Finance or Ops and then choose a niche within a stream. If you choose HR now half the choice is done.

      It is commendable that you want to create something with niche value but that can be done through a Ph.D. in any field.

      So finally it is a very personal call as to which stream interests you.

      If you are absolutely indifferent towards all fields then choose XL since it is the bigger brand.

      Hope this provides some direction.

      All the best!


  5. Hi Tony, How good is XIMB HR as compared to an FORE PGDM? What I mean is, in case someone is ambitious and is not okay with the points you wrote above, will the better college brand (XIMB HR viz a viz FORE)Mmake up for the missed points in the long run?


    • Hi,
      I thought the post made things fairly clear, despite the bigger brand will not make up for missed points in terms of job roles. The better brand in HR can result in a higher salary, may be, but you cannot move from a support function to the line function in the long run.

      With the XIM-B brand, you can reach senior positions in HR in good firms

      Hope this clarifies.


  6. Arihant says

    Hi Tony,

    Where do you put XIMB HRM for a guy neutral towards any specialisation- in which bracket of colleges would you put it? Would it be comparable to an IMI/GIM PGDM?


  7. Akarsha says

    Hi Sir,
    When you mention stress levels for meeting sales targets (or other targets), would the same apply to digital marketing jobs, e-commerce consulting roles or social media management roles?
    Work-life balance is the most important factor for me but I’m also very inclined to roles like digital marketing and social media management. I do like a few HR related roles as well.



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