Do You Need a Graduate Degree for Your Career as a CPA?

By Robert Half July 21, 2015 at 2:00pm

As you work toward becoming a CPA, there are some other letters you can earn behind your name by earning a graduate degree. But do you really need more education?

Two of the most popular advanced degrees are the MAcc (Master of Accountancy) and MBA (Master of Business Administration). Let's start with some of the most common questions, and answers.

What do these letters mean?

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 but nothing close to what you get with a MAcc. 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 for public accounting jobs.

What's the first step for undergrads?

If you’re an undergraduate with a plan to launch a career in accounting, you should boost your accounting knowledge. 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.

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

Could you get the MBA later?

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

“If you’re pursuing an 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 who 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 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.”

When should you take the CPA exam?

College is the ideal time to prepare for and take the CPA exam. Not only can you take advantage of school resources, but if you're not working while you're in school, you have more time to study for it. And passing the exam makes you more attractive to hiring managers than if you had just a bachelor's in accounting or finance.

“If you get a CPA, that’s something you can use in whatever area you want," says Professor Behn. "It opens up a lot more doors to you.”

What letters are 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.

Meanwhile, keep learning and collecting advice for your career in accounting and finance!

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