Beyond the Bachelor's Degree: Should You Go to Graduate School?

graduate school

As you work toward becoming a CPA, there are some other letters you can earn behind your name. Two of the most popular are MAcc (Master of Accountancy) and MBA (Master of Business Administration). Which ones you get, if any, is a matter of preference—so how do you know which one is right for you?

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What do these letters mean?

What’s the difference between the two degrees? Essentially, the MAcc is more technical, focusing on hard accounting skills. At the same time, accounting is the language of business, so there’s business knowledge built in.

The general MBA is more focused on business skills, such as management, strategic thinking, finance, marketing, and human resources. It includes an overview of accounting principles—nothing close to what you get with a MAcc, though. Some MBA programs do allow you to concentrate on accounting or taxation, exposing you to the technical accounting skills you will need to be a CPA.

While the general MBA covers more business territory than a MAcc does, it lacks the in-depth financial skills that you’ll need as a CPA. So while it’s hard to say that one degree is better than the other, if you’re an undergraduate accounting major, there’s a clear first step.

Boost your accounting knowledge first

If you plan on launching your career in accounting, your focus should be on getting as much accounting-oriented education as you can. In many states, getting your CPA license requires you to have 150 hours of education, so it might make sense to jump right into a master’s level program. If that’s the case, try one that deals with the nitty-gritty of accounting, like a MAcc program or an MBA concentrated in accounting or taxation. Either will teach you more about the profession and prepare you to take the CPA exam when you graduate.

Consider saving the general MBA for later

Most CPAs agree the general MBA is designed for people who already have some work experience under their belts.

“If you’re pursuing a [general] MBA right out of undergrad, to me that doesn’t give you the benefits of what a real [general] MBA is about,” says University of Tennessee professor Bruce Behn, Ph.D., CPA. “The MBA is more powerful when you have a network of people that have experiences that they bring together—you just don’t have that when you’re 21 years old.”

In public accounting in particular, you’ll put an MBA to use once you’re at a higher level in the firm. “As you get more senior in an accounting career, more of what you do in many cases… is dealing with clients and business issues — it’s not doing accounting, per se,” says Denny Reigle, consultant to the AICPA. “So an MBA will add value, but it’s an investment that pays off later and in the longer term.”

Meanwhile, the CPA license offers benefits you can capitalize on immediately after school, says Professor Behn.

“If you get a CPA, that’s something you can use in whatever area you want. You can eventually get into marketing or other areas like that. It opens up a lot more doors to you.”

In the end, do what’s right for you

You may find that the only letters you want and need in your career are C-P-A.

“It’s not necessary for our CPA-eligible students to go get an MBA,” says Amanda Brown, National Recruiting Manager for MBA and Law at KPMG. “They don’t need that to make partner. They just need to be a licensed CPA in order to make partner, and obviously they have to perform well and move up within the firm.”

So take the path that feels right for you and your career. Just keep in mind that if you decide not to get a master’s degree, you might need additional college credits after getting your bachelor’s in order to become a licensed CPA. Check with your state to see how many credits you need.