PHR vs SPHR-Which is right for you?

One of the major questions that faces HR pros considering certification: Should you take the PHR or SPHR exam? For some people, it’s fairly clear cut if you only qualify for the PHR, but if you have the experience to attempt the SPHR, which should you pursue?

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Here’s some guidance from HRCI on their “candidate profiles.”

PHR Candidate:

The Professional in Human Resources (PHR) certification is designed for HR professionals whose primary responsibilities focus on HR program implementation, are tactical and operational in nature, and function primarily within the HR department. A PHR candidate is one who:

  • Focuses on program implementation.
  • Has tactical/logistical orientation.
  • Has accountability to another HR professional within the organization.
  • Has two to four years of exempt-level generalist HR work experience, but lacks the breadth and depth of a more senior-level generalist.
  • Has not had progressive HR work experience.
  • Holds a job that focuses on HR department responsibilities rather than on the whole organization.
  • Commands respect through gaining knowledge and using policies and guidelines to make decisions.

SPHR Candidate:

The Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certification is designed for the HR professional who designs and plans rather than implements HR policies. An SPHR candidate is also one who:

  • Designs and plans rather than implements.
  • Focuses on the “big picture.”
  • Has ultimate accountability in the HR department.
  • Typically has six to eight years of progressive and increasingly complicated HR experience.
  • Has extensive HR generalist knowledge.
  • Uses judgment obtained with time and application of knowledge.
  • Has generalist role within organization.
  • Uses judgment obtained with time and application of knowledge..
  • Understands the business beyond the HR function and has influence within overall organization.
  • Commands credibility within organization, community and field by experience.

From the people I’ve talked to, it is hard to know if there’s a large difference in the difficulty level of the exams. It seems that SPHR focuses much more on strategy and the “big picture” when it comes to the actual question content.

Have you taken either (or both) exams? What did you think? Be sure to check out the study courses we offer while you’re here!

12 thoughts on “PHR vs SPHR-Which is right for you?

  1. Gilbert P.

    I am an IT graduate so I am not so familiar with this. But judging from the details above, I think it’s better to take SPHR. Don’t you think?

    Thank you so much for this post!

    -Gilbert P.

  2. Jenny

    Hi Ben,
    You have it right. I took the PHR early in my career and it is very technical and focuses on the details. The SPHR is big picture and the questions on more on the concepts and how they are applied. I have taught many certification prep study groups with both levels. The successful SPHR candidates have the ability and experience to apply HR concepts in all situations. The PHR candidates know the details of the HR concepts.

  3. warrencwhite


    I have taken both–I got my PHR in 2002 and SPHR 6 years later as my career evolved. This is not really an either-or proposition–the PHR is the first level of certification, and SPHR is the second level. If you aspire to a more senior/strategic position or are in one, it probably makes sense to consider taking the SPHR. The test questions are more strategically focused, more of “what would you do in this scenario” than on the PHR. Hope that info is helpful…

  4. Confused & Undecided

    I am struggling with which certification to take. I qualify for both and I am not wanting to have to do this twice. I have a friend who took her PHR and still has the testing material. It is an investment that is worth every penny but if I could save the $600.00 then why not? My thought is that if I am going to take the test I would rather have the certification that is of a higher prestige and allows me to learn more in the process. Decisions, Decisions. I have a B.A. in Human Resource Management and I am probably going to be looking for a Management position in the next year or so. Currently, I am working as an HR specialist mostly focusing on Operations and Recruiting. I am not sure if having only the PHR will keep me from being eligible to apply for a Managerial position, in the HR field. My gut tells me that if I am going to do it….do it right and go for the SPHR. I actually did better on the SPHR practice test than I did on the PHR exam.
    Any thoughts or advice?

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