Comparing the PHR and SPHR Exams

By Sandra M. Reed

Taking the right exam, either the PHR or the SPHR, has an effect on more than simply making the preparation process less stressful. Choosing the appropriate test also can impact your future job and earnings potential.

Think about applying for an upper level HR job that requires exposure, experience, and problem-solving in business management and strategy that may be validated by the SPHR credential. Suppose that you squeak by the SPHR exam and are successfully certified. If you get the job based on an SPHR credential but don’t have the depth and breadth of practical experience that goes along with it, more than likely you’ll struggle in the role.

Taking the right exam also allows you to engage in the proper recertification activities.

The professional certification process is an investment in your career, not a one-time shot at a credential. Starting with the PHR is perfectly reasonable. You can get the baseline under your belt and then chase after the SPHR in the following year or two over another period of 12 to 14 weeks of studying. The knowledge gained by studying has served many HR professionals well time and time again, opening doors that would have never opened without the credentials.

Each exam has its own eligibility requirements. Take a look at the table to make sure you meet the minimum requirements for your exam of choice.

Figuring Out Which Exam Is Right
PHR SPHR
A minimum of one year of experience in a professional-level HR
position with a master’s degree or higher.
or
A minimum of two years of experience in a professional-level HR
position with a bachelor’s degree.
or
A minimum of four years of experience in a professional-level HR
position with less than a bachelor’s degree.
A minimum of four years of experience in a professional-level
HR position with a master’s degree or higher.
or
A minimum of five years of experience in a professional-level HR
position with a bachelor’s degree
or
A minimum of seven years of experience in a professional-level HR
position with less than a bachelor’s degree.
Check out
HRCI’s Guide to Professional Level Experience
to further assess
your exam readiness.

Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. For example, just because you have 20 years of experience as a recruiter doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re ready to take the SPHR exam.

A general rule: Use the HRCI’s years of experience qualifier and apply it to the top three areas of exam content, which looks something like this:

  • PHR: For the PHR, 63 percent of the exam content for the PHR is in the areas of Workforce Planning and Employment (24 percent), Employee Labor Relations (20 percent), and Compensation and Benefits (19 percent). Aim for the minimum years of experience requirements in each of these top three areas. For example, if you have a master’s degree, you should be fine if you have one year of experience in workforce planning and employment, labor relations, and compensation and benefits.

  • SPHR: For the SPHR, 66 percent of the exam content is in the areas of Business Management and Strategy (30 percent), HR Development (19 percent), and Workforce Planning and Employment (17 percent). This information translates for someone without a bachelor’s degree as seven years of experience in each of these top functional areas. Yes, it’s 21 years, and yes, the exam content will demand it of you.

If this information seems to be excessive, at minimum, aim for the number one area of content in the minimum experience requirements.

Don’t quickly dismiss these percentages as overkill. Take a moment and look at the exam pass rates or read the online forums of failed exam takers condemning HRCI for exam level difficulty. Consider just for a moment that diluting the exam value by making it easier is less effective than individuals simply choosing the right exam the first time. It’s also worth noting that professional exams for attorneys and accountants share similar levels of difficulty. Do you take your profession seriously?