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Switching into a Human Resources Career: What You Need to Know

Interested in a career in HR? Here’s how business school can help

By Nathaniel Luce

For many aspiring business school candidates, a career in Human Resources offers attractive perks: chief among them the freedom to work across the globe, exposure to different sides of a business, and the opportunity to work closely with others. If you don’t already work in the space, an MBA can be a great way to pivot into the HR job function.

Sandy Kinnett

Sandy Kinnett, Senior Associate Director and Coach at Vanderbilt Business’ Career Management Center, talked with us about what potential business school students should know about switching into human resources:

All backgrounds are welcome.

The field does attract a number of students from educational backgrounds — “we get a lot of teachers, maybe more so than other functions,” Kinnett says — but salespeople, marketers, veterans, and finance professionals also make the switch to HR. “It’s a pretty varied bunch,” she adds.

It’s about more than “liking people.”

“I think there’s a misconception that (Human Resources) is only about liking people,” Kinnett says. “It’s about linking people with processes for the organization.”

While the field of human resources deals explicitly with humans, and a passion for working with and helping them is a precursor for success, the function exists to improve organizations through effective structuring of the people that work in them. If you want to solve business problems through human capital, HR is the function for you.

HR has a seat at the table, which raises expectations.

 Perceptions of the Human Resources department can vary from company to company, but firms that recruit and invest in MBA-level talent for the HR function value the department’s contributions. “The companies coming for HR talent at Owen are going to be different than what you see in a lot of HR departments in a lot of companies,” says Kinnett.

With this in mind, it’s important for job candidates at any company to have a holistic understanding of the business and knowledge of tools (like data analysis) that inform strong decision-making and add value to an organization.

There are multiple career paths available.

Human Capital Consulting offers HR-minded MBAs an opportunity to live the consulting lifestyle while solving human capital problems for clients across the world. For those seeking HR positions within an organization, two broadly classified roles exist: generalists and specialists.

Generalists, commonly known as HR business partners, are the “quarterbacks for a particular client group, like, for example, a finance team,” explains Kinnett. Within that particular group, they are the go-to person for all areas of human resources, including talent acquisition, leadership development, and workforce planning. Specialists are enterprise-wide experts in a particular HR area and usually handle this work across multiple teams.

Companies recruiting MBAs offer internships and full-time opportunities as HR business partners as well as rotational Leadership Development Programs, where participants rotate through a series of generalist and specialist roles until landing in one that fits the employee’s and company’s needs.

Recruiting happens quickly.

HR recruiting at business school begins early in the academic cycle. Students are networking, attending info sessions, and interviewing within the first two months of school. “It’s really important for students interested in HR to engage quickly,” Kinnett says. At programs like the Vanderbilt MBA, a large majority of students get internships and full-time positions through on-campus recruiting, which can ease the quick transition into the job search.

Standing out requires leadership and observation.

Katherine Calvert (MBA’18) at Vanderbilt’s HOPA Symposium for HR candidates

You don’t need to have a background in HR to move into an MBA-level job in the field, but an ability to demonstrate leadership is critical in the HR profession. “The ability to have tough conversations, go into situations that may not be popular or easy — you have to be able to influence and lead change,” Kinnett explains. “Any time there’s a change in strategy or within a department, HR is involved in helping people through it.”

For career switchers, touching on particular experiences where they’ve noticed shortcomings in human capital — where resources weren’t allocated effectively, teams didn’t work well together, employee morale was down, etc. ­— will help them stand out in interviews.

Curriculum is important.

Strong faculty, relevant coursework, and robust career services are important factors in any business school concentration, but HR/organizational studies isn’t a universal aspect of all MBA curriculums. If you’re interested in a career in HR, carefully review the school’s recruiters, courses, and professors to make sure they will offer you the opportunities you need to be successful. “The recruiting cycle is too fast for an in-school internship, which makes on-campus recruiting extremely important,” says Kinnett.

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