B-School Selection
Comments 10

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 here? 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 award 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 specialized 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 as, if not more, than my friend in Marketing and puts in as many manhours but, on average, has 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 specialized programs since we are not comparing apples to apples.

The better you know yourself, your traits, your temperament, 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.


  1. Mayank Anand says

    Hello Sir,
    SIMCAT1 is near. Please write an article about how should one approach, how much score one should target, what else one should target apart from scores, how one should not carried away in case got low score (both first timers and vulnerable repeaters) etc etc…..


    • Hi Mayank,

      I’ll do a couple of posts, one before and one after, the one after will deal with the things you have mentioned.

      All the best!


  2. akshit says

    Hello sir
    Love reading your posts and loved this one too. Now i know i definitely know that i don’t want to do HR.
    Would appreciate a lot if you can make a similar post on how to choose the specialization between marketing and finance, brief about job roles offered (just graduated and have no info about it) etc.

    Mostly on the internet they say if you’re an extrovert and have good communication skills then go for marketing (i was an introvert in school and think have improved a lot in college and have more contacts than most of my friends,but that doesn’t say much and yes i can speak well)

    And if you love numbers, are an introvert etc go for finance ( I’m terrible at quants so i don’t think i’m good at it also not very fond of maths but this is probably something else)

    This is clearly a case of not knowing oneself well, i agree, and would need some help from you.
    would be waiting for your reply.


    • Glad you liked the post, Akshit. Will do a few on the same when I find some time, there is a lot to cover in them and might end up taking a lot of time.

      All the best!


  3. Devamrutha S says

    Hello Sir,
    I have a doubt regarding TISSNET preparation strategy. It goes without saying that the quant difficulty level in TISSNET is much lower compared to CAT/XAT. Should I give more focus to BRMs or the Concept Builder questions in the website?
    Very often I find only 5-10 easy level questions in the Brms from the TISSNET perspective pertaining to a particular chapter.
    Also, it would be grateful if you could suggest any other materials (if necessary) for quant preparation for TISSNET.


    • Hi Devamrutha,

      It depends on your level vis-a-vis the test. If you are comfortable with CAT/XAT level QA then you should not bother with practising for TISSNET QA, you can just do the Mocks. If your level is low and concepts are weak then watch the videos in the LEARN Module and solve the questions in the C-Module.

      Hope this clarifies,

      All the best!


  4. Hello Sir,
    Thank you much for such insightful posts.
    After reading this I figured out that I am a better fit for HR, which I was sceptical about earlier.
    Can you please tell how much priority should I give to Cat as compared to Tissnet or Xat (which are for HR). I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket and then come out with nothing?


  5. Hello Sir,
    Thank you much for such insightful posts.
    After reading this I figured out that I am a better fit for HR, which I was sceptical about earlier.
    Can you please tell how much priority should I give to Cat as compared to Tissnet or Xat (which are for HR). I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket and then come out with nothing?


    • Hi Prerna,

      I suggest starting preparation for XAT and TISSNET once the CAT is done in November. A solid one-month of prep should be enough to help you crack the XAT and TISSNET focussing only on the difference in sections.

      To be safe you can start prep earlier, IMS will be launching a XAT only program in October.

      Also, definitely look at SCMHRD and SIBM through SNAP they are very good for HR and get you great outcomes (my best friend is from SIBM-HR).

      Through the CAT, you should apply to MDI-HRM.

      Hope this helps,

      All the best!


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