Do You Need More Accounting Education for Your CPA Career?

By Robert Half March 14, 2018 at 9:15am

If you’re pursuing a CPA career, you probably know you need a bachelor’s degree, typically in accounting, finance or business. But your accounting education doesn’t have to stop there. Many CPAs put even more letters behind their names by earning graduate degrees.

Two of the most popular advanced degrees are the Master of Business Administration (MBA) and the Master of Accountancy — also called the master’s in accounting (abbreviated as MAc, MAcc, or MAcy), Master of Professional Accountancy, Master of Accounting Science, Master of Science in Accountancy, Master of Accountancy in Financial Accounting, Master of Accountancy in Governmental Accounting, Master of Accountancy in Taxation, Master of Professional Accountancy, and so on.

Do all those letters offer anything more than a feather in your cap? Yes, if accounting is your career choice, graduate-level work can open the door to opportunities and higher salary expectations.

Let’s start with some of the common questions and answers with regard to accounting education.

A focus on business skills

Some business schools promote their MBA programs to accountants who wish to widen their understanding of business and specific industries. The focus is typically on management, strategic thinking, finance, marketing, and human resources; however, some programs have concentrations on accounting or taxation, exposing students to the skills in accounting technology needed to be a CPA.

Earning your MBA can positively affect your hiring chances and your career advancement. The networking with your fellow classmates, instructors and alumni can open up new career paths for you, too.

  • Where do you get an MBA? Master of Business Administration programs are available through many centers of higher education that offer advanced academic degrees, as well as online programs. Accreditation bodies ensure consistency and quality of education.
  • What’s the cost? Varies widely by program, with range of $7,000 to $120,000, which can be offset by scholarships, grants and fellowships. Although graduate programs require a big investment, some larger companies offer financial support for obtaining this graduate-level degree.
  • Program requirements? Many programs base their admission decisions on a combination of undergraduate grade point average, academic transcripts, entrance exam scores, work experience, essays, letters of recommendation and personal interviews. Some MBA programs culminate in a comprehensive exit examination.
  • Time to graduation? Full-time MBA programs typically take place over two academic years, or 18 months; there are also accelerated and part-time MBA programs.
  • Who should get it: The MBA is most often desired for senior-level corporate accounting and finance jobs. The core courses in an MBA program cover accounting, finance, marketing, human resources, business operations, management analysis and strategy.

A focus on the accounting field

The U.S. has a plethora of graduate programs in accountancy to meet the needs of a diverse group of aspiring professionals. Many are designed to satisfy the 150 credit hours needed to sit for the CPA exam. They have curricula that prepare students to work in the accounting field in various roles, from auditors at large accounting firms to management positions in corporate accounting, or as CPAs for individuals or businesses.

Compared to the MBA, graduate programs in accounting cover in-depth financial skills and technical training in accounting while serving as a bridge to the public accounting career path. Some programs give students the opportunity to specialize in assurance services, financial reporting or taxation.

  • Where do you get your accounting master's? Like the MBA, colleges and universities all over the country have graduate accounting programs, with options for accredited online programs.
  • What’s the cost? Anywhere from $10,000 to more than $60,000 per year
  • Program requirements? Admission decisions are similar to MBA programs.
  • Time to graduation? One to two years, or longer, if you go part time.
  • Who should get it? The accounting master’s is ideal for those who wish to sit for the CPA exam and work in the public sector. Course topics vary depending on the school and may include tax and auditing courses, business electives, and financial analysis courses

The value of accounting education

With the accounting profession projected to experience 10.7 percent job growth between now and 2024, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), new jobs will be added every year, and demand will grow. Add to that compliance with increased financial regulation, and the demand for skilled accounting professionals will grow even more.

If you’re an undergraduate with a plan to launch a career in accounting, your first step may be to boost your accounting knowledge. Exploring the accounting certifications employers want to see is a good start.

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, you may want 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.

Read All You Need to Know About CPA Jobs to learn about the CPA exam, specializations, salaries and job outlooks.

The value of work experience

You also may want to wait until you have some on-the-job experience before you take the next step in your accounting education.

“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.”

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 American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). “So an MBA will add value, but it’s an investment that pays off later and in the longer term.”

Master’s degrees undoubtedly set candidates apart and may increase your career options if you decide to move from public accounting to an industry, nonprofit or government career. They also give you more letters behind your name, which can spell success.

If you’re ready to look at the jobs out there, send us your resume.

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Editor's note: This post was updated recently to reflect current information.

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