Defining Your HR Career Path (And How To Get To The Top)

Are you a recent college grad thinking about going into HR? Or are you just starting out in your HR career path? If you fit into either category, you’re in a great position. Years ago, there was a perception that HR was mostly administrative. Today, there is a realization that HR plays an essential and increasingly visible role in a company’s overall growth strategy.

We’re now at a point where there is unprecedented job growth for many industries; as such, the demand for HR professionals is swiftly rising. Because we’re now in a such tight talent market, every organization has to work smarter and harder to retain and attract talent. That means the need for talented HR professionals has never been greater.

The data reflects this increasing demand for HR professionals. Here at PayScale, we found that wages for human resource jobs have grown an impressive 15.3 percent since 2006, steadily outpacing wage growth of the general market, which has increased just 12.9 percent.

As an HR professional today, you have more opportunities than ever before to work as a strategic partner in your organization — if you know how to seize those opportunities. Now, the tricky question is: which opportunities do you want to seize? Should you be a generalist or a Jack/Jill of all trades, or is it a better move to focus on a particular domain?

Below, we’ll talk about the different paths available within the HR, and provide some tips on how you can choose the path that’s best for you.


After graduating from college and starting your career in HR, you can expect to start off as a HR coordinator or similar entry-level position before working your way up. Below are many common job titles in HR for lower, mid, and senior level employees. This progression depends on the organization you work for, your experience, skills, and credientels. 

Lower Level or Entry-Level HR Jobs:

HR Coordinator

HR Assistant

HR Associate

HR Representative

HR Administrator

Mid-Level HR Jobs:

HR Generalist

HR Specialist

HR Supervisor

Senior-Level HR Jobs:

HR Manager

HR Director

Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO)

VP of HR

HR Generalist vs. Specialist

At the broadest level, you can think about whether you want to be an HR Generalist vs. a Specialist.

Early on in your career, you might start off as an HR Coordinator. Eventually, as you gain work experience, you could work your way up to becoming a Generalist. With specific training, in any given discipline, you could also become a Specialist if you so choose.

As a Human Resources Generalist, you have the ability to explore multiple disciplines and work with a variety of people within your organization. Typically, HR Generalists help managers make decisions relating to human resources, such as maintaining good relationships with employees, supporting new hire onboarding activities and training. Some HR Generalists will administer payroll and benefits. Depending on the size of the organization, they may also help with recruiting and hiring.

Human Resources Specialists, on the other hand, focus more narrowly on just one or two areas of HR but have deeper expertise in these areas. Here are just a few of the areas HR Specialists focus on:


First impressions matter. Recruiters are often the first point of contact with a company, setting the expectations and brand experience candidates will have. HR Recruiters oversee an organization’s recruiting process, and handle the hiring process from beginning to end. They’re responsible for advertising, posting job requisitions, qualifying and interviewing applicants, and filling out all employment paperwork. HR Recruiters set up interviews and facilitate the interview process. A career path in HR recruiting could eventually lead to a position as Human Resources Manager or Human Resources Director.

Compensation Analysis

Compensation Analysts play a pivotal role in retention strategy. Working with operations and HR teams to perform a series of functions that ensure the company offers competitive compensation levels to attract and retain talent. Compensation Analysts administer the company’s business unit-specific variable pay programs. Responsibilities also include reviewing and updating existing pay programs and developing new pay programs. A career path in HR could ultimately lead to a position as Manager of Compensation or a Director of Compensation.

Training and Development

Training and Development Specialists are responsible for providing support to employees through various types of training. This may include holding workshops to introduce techniques to the entire staff, or working one-on-one with employees to tend to their individual professional needs. Many who follow this career path end up becoming a Training Director or Organizational Development Director.

Benefits Administration

HR Benefits Administrators provide human resources-related advice and information to the employees in their organization. They provide information about benefit programs and process applications. Benefits administrators should be comfortable discussing and explaining things like life insurance, health benefits, and 401(k) benefits to employees. The career path for this track could lead to a position as a Benefits Manager or Benefits Director.

Employee Relations

Typically, the primary role of Employee Relations Specialist is to establish goals and objectives for improving employee relations. They monitor and audit company policies and procedures to determine their impact on the company’s employees. Employee Relations Specialists are also responsible for coaching managers and supervising managerial practices to ensure that disciplinary and performance reviews are being done properly. Many in this track eventually become a Director of Employee Relations.

HR Career Path to the Top

Keeping your career path in mind, this begs the question, if your ultimate goal is to work your way up the ranks to VP of HR / Head of People or even CHRO, is it better to stay the course of the Generalist? Or is it better to focus on a particular discipline and become a Specialist?

The answer is not completely clear cut. There are many factors and variables that come into play.

When the economy is strong, like it is now, we often forget what it’s like during a slowdown. However, it’s important to remember that during those downturns, many organizations choose to shift their approach from having multiple Specialists to reliance on Generalists as a cost savings. Certainly being a Generalist would be a great benefit, and provide job security in those situations.

Generalists also have the benefit of trying on many hats, and learning from multiple disciplines within their industry. A Jack/Jill of all trades has that opportunity.

On the other hand, Specialists really have an opportunity to move the needle and make a huge direct impact in their role. For example, if an organization is struggling with recruiting talent, and improving retention, a Specialist more likely has the autonomy and ability to directly affect and shape the strategies and action plans for their specific department.

Whichever career path you choose, one thing to keep in mind is how much technology and innovation are constantly affecting the industry. Many suggest that automation could be a potential threat to specialization in certain areas. In the case of compensation and benefits, there is indeed software that automates these processes. However, far from being a replacement for compensation professionals, compensation software can indeed be a good complement to a comp pro’s duties. Comp software can simply help them do their jobs more efficiently.

So, how do you get to the top? Brian Webber, Senior People Partner at PayScale, offers a sound piece of advice. “If you want to be head of HR, you need to specialize in a number of areas. [Having] two or more could really set you apart.”

For example, if you only have a background in talent acquisition, you’ll have gaps in other areas. But having experience in both talent acquisition and compensation would help you become a utility player. That being said, employee relations is typically the area with most risk for a company. Harassment, discrimination, labor law and compliance are just a few of the important issues to manage.

Thus, a majority of companies are looking for someone with a background in employee relations. Ideally, a head of HR would have a background as a Generalist, with additional training and experience in employee relations, plus one or two other disciplines.

Of course, it all depends on the culture of your company and the makeup of a team. As an organization grows, HR leaders can simply fill in the gaps by hiring Specialists to round out their team’s skills.

Regardless of whichever career path in HR you choose, be sure to arm yourself with knowledge and research. Here are some additional tips for keeping yourself informed about potential HR career paths:

  • Don’t be afraid to seek out mentors and advice.
  • Be flexible and open to change.
  • Join a professional industry organization, like SHRM.
  • Look into HR certifications that could help round out your skill set.

Christen Galletta, Senior HR Generalist at PayScale leaves us with some inspirational closing thoughts. “In HR, you have so much opportunity to be a change agent. Be cognizant of how you can enhance people’s experience. Our role is to help people do the best work they can within a supportive working environment.”