B-School Selection
Comments 19

How to choose between an 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 variant 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 our ability 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 — the revenues — or the bottom-line — the 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. Also, the curriculum of an HR program is a very specialised one and not a generalised business strategy one geared to build future leaders. 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.

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 to be 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 ambitious and like to call the shots, you might not fit in at all.

Please keep in mind that this is not a value judgement on people in HR. 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 working 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. In Finance, on the other hand, 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 a 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. Please keep in mind that what I have written does not apply to each and every HR professional in each and every firm. Anyone at Amazon will have a really high salary and make tons of money through ESOPs.

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 stress-levels 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 while downsizing during a recession (you should watch the movie Up in the Air if you haven’t already)

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 with 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. Hey Tony,
    Thanks for this article. It was really very insightful.
    Could you please share some insights on MBA in operations field?
    It would be really helpful.

    Thanks in Advance


  2. Hello Tony,

    I am kind of confused between MBA in HR at SCMHRD and MBA in operations at IIT Kharagpur. As both the colleges are at same level, the choice that I have to make is between the specialisation. I was a bit biased towards HR because of work-life balance advantage but now I have doubts as HR field do not present much growth opportunities. Also, the various profiles that I searched for IIT Kharagpur Operations, most of the people belonged to coding background and I as a Mechanical Engineer do not have much grip on coding. So, should I opt for operations at IIT Kharagpur or HRM at SCMHRD. Please guide me over the same.

    Thanks in advance.


    • Hi Saskham,

      As I wrote in this post, HRM and Marketing are two very different fields and so is Operations.

      It will be tough for me to help you choose between the two since it is like asking which one is better batting or bowling?

      You have to determine which domain is more suited to your temperament and profile.

      I suggest that you go through these two videos they deal with all specializations in detail —

      Hope this helps,

      All the best!


    • Hi Saksham,

      You have to make the choice based on where you see your skills working the best. If you are primarily a techie and want to work on Ops and other core functions, choose IIT-KGP Ops. Do not choose HR solely for work-life balance since you need to have the skills and temperament to reach C-Levels, which by the way is as tough as becoming CMO or CFO!

      Hope this helps,

      All the best!


  3. Kimi says

    Again found just the article I was looking for. Spot on Tony! Whenever there’s a doubt in my mind, The CAT Writer has the tangible answer more often than not.
    That said, I think most of the people out there are not sure as of what they can expect out of an MBA. And I guess I am riding the same boat. In such cases, the call/convert for a particular specialisation comes as a blessing in disguise. After getting a call from SPJIMR in Marketing domain, I shaped my mind to believe that Marketing is a way forward for me. Read a lot about marketing- theory and practical cases. Nailed every interview by backing up with stories and instances where I showcased my marketing instincts and skills. Although I got a rejection from SPJIMR despite good GIs, it made my mind clear about Marketing. I was mostly going to NMIMS and as I said, had a mind fixed on Marketing (Despite knowing that it is one hectic job; and almost everyone has to do a sales stint before stepping into core marketing roles, it did bother me a bit). But now an MDI HRM convert made me dive deep into what I really want out of an MBA. I found a three month old conversation with one of the seniors where he asked me about specialisation I was interested in and I had replied him “HR”.

    So all in all, getting a marketing call from SPJ had created a cognitive bias, I guess, towards marketing just so that I get into SPJ while all I wanted out of an MBA was a decent pay check and a comfortable life. Yes, that’s my brutally honest answer for “WHY MBA” and I’m sure at least 50% of the aspirants would resonate with me. I’d mostly go with MDI HRM after this long introspection.

    Hope I make sense.


    • Hi Kimi,

      Glad to be of timely help. Well, given that during one of my roles with IMS I have interacted with students almost every evening on 1-1 for 4 years, I usually end up knowing how far the apple will fall from the tree 🙂

      What you have said make sense. Most of the time we are experts at self-deception and this is not just in our professional lives but personal ones as well.

      We end up convincing ourselves to take up things purely on the basis of how the external world views things and a big brand college is just one of the many things — the rest are waiting in line as you move along 🙂

      As long as you are honest with yourself and are not choosing things that you do not have the skill-set for you will do fine!

      All the very best!


    • Hi Alankrit,

      I have devoted an entire post to how you should arrive at the decision!

      If you want HRM choose XLRI, else IIFT-D

      All the best!


  4. Shantanu Bankar says

    I asked myself the three question and the score was just 13. But I feel that a good work life balance is a need for me, as I want to do several other things apart from my jobs(side hustles).

    I still cannot figure out what should I choose between marketing and HR.

    Can you please help me in taking my decision?

    Thanks in advance sir.


    • Hi Shantanu,

      From the score of 13, it is clear that you will not be a right fit for HR.

      I do not know in what context you are using the word side hustles.

      By side-hustle if you mean pursuing your hobbies and thus choosing a job that gives you time for the same then go ahead the choose HR knowing that you might not feel super-fulfilled by your job alone.

      Bu side-hustle if you mean other businesses/start-up then go ahead and choose HR knowing that if the side-hustle does not succeed then you might not feel fulfilled at all.

      I wish I could give you a suggestion but honestly, it is not a normal situation at all, so I cannot do anything but I leave it to you to figure things out.

      Just to make things clear, HR will not have sales pressure but it will still have more or less the same quantum of work and travel.

      All the best!


      • Shantanu Bankar says

        Thankyou for your advice sir

        By side hustles, I mean that want to build sources of income.

        The only thing in HR that is luring me is good work life balance. I love almost everything about marketing, the dynamic roles, handling different teams,etc. But I don’t want all of the success at the cost of my family. I would love to give considerable time to my family as well.

        I don’t want to be in the office for endless hours.

        Sir I have a very specific question which might solve all of this.

        “How is the work life balance for marketing managers?
        Do they manage to spend time with their loved ones, or they end up spending hours at work neglecting their personal lives? “


      • Hi Shantanu,

        There are contradictions in what you say because maybe you do not know life enough yet.

        Time is money and money is time, so if you want to make more money on the side, the so-called passive income, you need to realise that it will also mean a certain amount of time invested — nothing happens without demanding our regular attention — and this is the time that you will spend away from family despite being at home.

        Please understand that HR jobs are not government jobs that will start and end at a fixed time and give you enough leisure to generate passive income and spend time with loved ones.

        Let me repeat this — both jobs will require you to spend an equal amount of work time and travel time — my best friends work in HR and Marketing respectively and both travel and work the same number of hours.

        As I said, the issue is not as much about time as much about a certain kind of pressure that piles up when you have revenue targets to meet. Some people thrive under this sort of pressure and might dislike the kind of patience that HR needs — the HR department is essentially responsible for the whole organization, so every single person’s problem will be your problem. Others might not like sales pressure and possess unlimited patience to listen to others’ problems and being there for them. So, it depends so much on an individual’s temperament and skills.

        There are no jobs in the current day and age that offer work-life balance — it is up to you to create that balance provided the work-culture at the specific organization and your reporting head are conducive to it — some organizations are and bosses are, some organizations are and bosses are not, in some cases both are not.

        So, it will be impossible for me to make a blanket prediction about work-life balance that covers all sectors, firms, and bosses.

        One more thing, the time of solving problems through specific MCQ questions is over, life has now really begun — all questions are hard, have no clear answers, you should be prepared to bite the bullet and bear the consequences.

        All the best!


  5. dreyar says

    I mainly wanted to pursue a career in consulting, though the only general MBA program I have converted is from IIM kashipur, with my average acads and the companies that visit the campus I don’t think there’s a point in pursuing that, I don’t have a favourable view of the institution either,
    apart from that I have converted IIM Trichy HR and IMT Ghaziabad Marketing, I have slightly more interest in HR than in marketing, would it be wise to leave IMT over IIM Trichy HR, it is a new course and the batch strength is 30, I like the course structure and the one on one mentor program it provides.


    • Hi,
      You should choose the stream you feel your skills are more aligned to since you will have to work in that field for more than 25 years.

      So, yeah, you can choose IIM-Trichy.

      All the best!


  6. Akash T says

    Hello Sir,
    I know it is a wrong post to ask this query, but I don’t know how else to contact you. I have converted SCMHRD Pune and will be soon converting Udaipur as well. SCMHRD has a bigger alumni network and a bigger history for itself along with better placements compared to Udaipur. How much of a difference would the tag matter from Udaipur? I have 3 years of workex as a civil engineer and I read your article thoroughly and I am satisfied with taking the HR specialization instead of Gen Man roles that I might get in Udaipur. But please do help me with how one college can be better than the other as I don’t see much difference other than the tag in favor of Udaipur. Please take a moment to help me out, sir.


    • Hi Akash,

      If you read the post correctly, the entire thrust is that the two are HR and regular MBA are two completely different fields that cannot be compared. So, if you feel that you are more suited to HR then SCMHRD will give great options.

      IIM-U and other schools will not give you HR placements since it is a specialised field with a specialised curriculum; HR recruiters, hire only from HR programs.

      One always chooses the right stream to work in and not the college.

      Hope this helps,

      All the best!


  7. Hey sir! Glad to read this post because this was exactly what I needed. I was always fantasizing about Consulting, ever since I heard about the lucrative benefits it has to offer like high package, high amount of travel (very passionate about travel), luxurious and glamorous life, high respect and high importance in decisions for the firm. In spite of knowing how hard consulting is and there is no work life balance, the lucrative and monetary benefits seemed to outweigh it. I went ahead and joined a consulting firm to get experience before pursuing MBA. However, 3 months into the work, I was hit by the stressful working environment. Long working hours and no work life balance at all. It went to the extend that it started affecting my mental health (combined with second wave news all over and event happening) and I quit. All of my priorities shifted instantly. Now, I am more inclined towards a role that I enjoy doing, offers good work life balance and gives me peace rather than just money. I am grateful that I had this experience as a reality check before diving completely into the field and taking up consulting after MBA, which could have been disastrous.
    I just want to ask you if these thoughts are justified and should I go ahead and try HR role to see if it fits my requirements? Or is it that there is stress, pressure and no work life balance everywhere and I will have to change my mindset and bear with this?


    • Hi Anish,

      It’s always great to have first-hand experience before you take decisions and you are lucky to have had that this early!

      As I wrote in the post it is or that HR is easy it is just that Consulting can be more stressful and might involve a lifestyle you do not like.

      But the road away from Consulting does not necessity lead to HR since there are other options as well.

      I would suggest you take a look at the specialisation webinars I have taken to get an idea as to what each domain entails and then take a call.

      Hope this helps,

      All the best!


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