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Toward the SPHR designation – and other professional certifications

July 21, 2009

In January I decided to move closer to finishing the process of earning my SPHR (Senior Professional in Human Resources), a professional designation. The motivation emanated from the fact that I had seen an increasing number of job postings at business schools requiring more letters than “PhD” after my name. I am not certain the schools requesting the PHR or SPHR designation of faculty feel it is more necessary than a terminal degree, but I do perceive the requirement to be the result of following a trend in business settings. More letters? So be it.

On top of 15 semester hours of PhD coursework, teaching and research responsibilities, I labored over the details of how I would prepare myself for the exam. Under consideration were my work bandwidth, past experience in the field and my ability to fill in the blanks by adequately learning the material. I signed up for a distance education course from a college in New Jersey and purchased the SHRM learning system through that program. My rationale was that the course would keep me engaged in the material and feed my ability to round out my knowledge. The rationale was flawed due to the fact that my coursework at the time included all of my most difficult classes (concurrently) and one more, undergraduate-level university course was all that was needed to put me over the edge, so to speak. The exam prep course required interaction on discussion boards, which is a practice that normally fosters sharing of information and exchange of ideas. However, I found many of my peers were testing for the lower-level designation of PHR and didn’t have a lot of experience in the field leaving our conversations somewhat incongruent from a compatibility standpoint. After two weeks, I mentally “opted out” of the exam prep course and began timing my preparation on an individual calendar working backward from when I wanted to take the exam.

I should have registered for the exam as soon as I received my test prep materials (as SHRM advises) however I procrastinated and waited until about 40 days out from the deadline, which I would not suggest as a practice. The silver lining in this case was that Prometric (proctor) has an electronic registration system that allowed me to exercise my OCD tendencies minute by minute if I wished, checking for newly opened slots for the exam to buy a little more time. Ultimately the electronic roulette paid off and I landed a prime exam slot one day before time ran out.

Three weeks before the exam I spent nearly all of my time listening to webinars (some of which turned out to be soporific, at best), reading modules, taking practice quizzes and studying flash cards. I quickly learned that the Body of Knowledge (BoK) was developed around the theory of what the discipline believes should be the correct course of action rather than what occurs in real-life practice. Once I realized how the BoK interacted with the exam itself, I was able to focus on exam-taking techniques learned from earlier experiences with the GRE and MAT. Consistently the only questions I missed on the practice quizzes were those in which I thought more like a practitioner than one who was applying the theoretical BoK.

Exam day was typical at a testing center. No test anxiety as one either knows the material or they don’t. The exam allowed for marking of questions the test taker was unsure of and with 4 hours and 30 minutes, I was quite confident 225 multiple choice questions would be no big deal. I went through the questions, marked about 70 (more than I needed, of course) and then revisited them one by one to secure an answer I felt good about by using the process of elimination. The only surprise was at the end when I had to take a survey about exam prep before receiving my score. I found the survey to be unnecessary at that juncture but had to take it regardless of my irritation and impatience. I was then informed that I had passed.

In retrospect, the exam prep materials were a mile wide and an inch deep, without citations as to where statistics or references came from. If I had been able to unplug my academic tendencies to see past these intentional omissions I wouldn’t have been frustrated by them. However, cross-referencing would have expanded my exam prep time and provided me much more information that necessary. Perhaps SHRM saved me from myself in this way! Regardless, the focus of the exam prep with regard to strategic management practices dovetailed nicely into my PhD studies and I appreciated the more simplified view of concepts I had been studying in a far more abstract sense.

When reflecting upon the value of the certification I am cognizant of the fact that they only matter in certain environments and to certain people. What the certification does for me is to provide a balance between my scholarly activities and my experience as a practitioner in the field. I have intentionally tried to create a hybrid existence in this way and feel it will position me quite nicely for my target(s) when the time comes. Hence, it can’t hurt.

Generally, if one is considering a professional certification the same sorts of elements mentioned above should be brought into scope. Questions such as “who cares?” and “what will it do for me?” are the only questions that matter. Clearly a professional certification is no guarantee or gateway to a position and one should consider their personal employment branding strategy in line with where they would like to ultimately end up. Deciding to spend the cash associated with exam preparation (and of course the expenses associated with the exam itself) one should decide whether the ROI justifies the exercise, especially within context of the current economy. The bottom line for in the instant case was marketability in a number of domains. And let’s face it, if a job candidate gains a little more confidence by having a particular professional certification then it may be indeed worth the time and money. Afterall, Is fear rith maith ná drochsheasamh (“A good run is better than a bad stand”, Celtic).

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 23, 2009 3:56 pm

    Well… Congrats on your performance! 😀

  2. corizuppo permalink*
    July 23, 2009 4:02 pm

    Thanks Ben! GPHR is next.

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