Earning finance and accounting certifications is a big step toward improving your marketability and career advancement as a financial professional.
Of the numerous certifications, each has its own requirements for education, work experience and examination. Each, too, has specific skills to be gained by attaining it and ways in which it would benefit your career and positioning as an expert in the field of accounting and finance.
Continuing education is an investment in time and money, of course, and once you've entered the workplace, your employer may help make the case for credentials. Robert Half research shows that a majority (72 percent) of CFOs interviewed say their company will cover all or some of the cost of obtaining a professional certification, and 76 percent said their organizations help in maintaining such certifications once they're earned.
Read more about our survey of CFOs and their views on accounting certifications in our infographic, below.
Your choice of financial certifications will depend on your career goals, resources and eligibility. At the very least, you should know something about the acronyms that are bantered about in this industry, from CGMA to CISA to the newest, CEIV. (Keep reading to find out what those acronyms stand for!)
Here's a look at seven degrees or certifications that may be in your future.
1. Certified Public Accountant
The Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license has a long reputation as the top credential for employees in the accounting and finance industry. With this accounting certification, you validate your expertise in forensic accounting, tax, compliance, risk management and other skills.
Granted by: American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)
Estimated cost: $2,000 to $3,000
Prerequisites: Five years of higher education, a minimum number of continuing education credits in business and accounting (typically about 150), and verified relevant experience
Exam requirements: Four levels; can be taken in any order
Time to certification: Passing the CPA exam usually takes a year; exam and license requirements vary state by state, but most state boards require one year of accounting experience before you get the license
Ongoing requirements: Yes; continuing professional education (CPE) credits required vary by state
Who should get it: The CPA designation is a very versatile one; CPAs work in public accounting, management accounting, governmental accounting, taxation, financial advisory, compliance and other consultant roles. It’s highly valued throughout the accounting industry, and some companies even require it for managerial jobs. If you know you want to make your career in accounting and have the time and money to invest, the CPA is a good financial certification to pursue.
Jump ahead to our all-encompassing post, All You Need to Know About the CPA — and Then Some.
2. Master’s degree in business administration
Attaching MBA to your name can affect your hiring chances and your career advancement. Although these college programs require a big investment, some larger companies offer financial support for obtaining this graduate-level degree.
Granted by: 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.
Estimated cost: Varies widely by program, with range of $7,000 to $120,000, which can be offset by scholarships, grants and fellowships
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, such as the Major Field Test for MBAs.
Time to certification: Full-time MBA programs typically take place over two academic years, or 18 months; there are also accelerated and part-time MBA programs
Ongoing requirements: None
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.
3. Chartered Financial Analyst
Chartered Finance Analyst (CFA) certification demonstrates your knowledge and competence regarding principles of portfolio management, investment analysis, economics, and professional and ethical standards.
Granted by: CFA Institute, a non-profit based in the U.S.
Estimated cost: $2,500
Prerequisites: A bachelor’s degree and four years of relevant experience
Exam requirements: Three levels, with a total exam time of 18 hours; you must pass one level before you move to the next
Time to certification: Can be completed in 18 months, but most people take more than two years
Ongoing requirements: A recommended 20 hours of CPE credits, with at least two hours of standards, regulatory and ethics education
Who should get it: This has become a must-have for security analysts and asset managers in the investment community. Finance professionals who are (or aim to become) equity analysts, fund managers or hedge fund managers will also find the CFA useful, as will anyone who hopes to reach the CFO or senior finance manager levels. If you are pursuing a career in audit, however, it won’t be particularly useful to you.
4. Certified Management Accountant
The Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification is sponsored by the IMA (Institute of Management Accountants), and is recognized globally. Professionals who hold this accounting certification demonstrate proficiency in financial analysis, budgeting, strategic assessment and other skills.
Granted by: IMA
Estimated cost: $1,000 to $2,000
Prerequisites: A bachelor’s degree and two consecutive years in financial management or management accounting
Exam requirements: Two levels, with a total exam time of eight hours
Time to certification: Typically one to two years
Ongoing requirements: 30 hours of CPE credits
Who should get it: Many accountants choose to get both the CPA and the CMA, as there is considerable overlap in the exam topics. The CMA is often considered a more practical application of the theoretical concepts tested in the CPA exams and is recommended for accountants in the corporate sector, particularly in large, multinational companies.
5. Chartered Global Management Accountant
The Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) financial certification is a global designation for CPAs working in business and government.
Granted by: Both AICPA and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), two of the world’s leading accounting organizations
Estimated cost: $325 plus membership fee for AICPA; for CIMA, cost of designation is included in membership
Prerequisites: Any AICPA member is eligible, with an experience requirement of three years of relevant, work-based, practical management accounting experience. CIMA members are already qualified.
Exam requirements: One computerized case study taken on site, which asks for long-form, written answers that reflect management accounting competencies
Time to certification: Exams offered four times a year; results released within four weeks
Ongoing requirements: Membership in good standing
Who should get it: Finance and accounting professionals who want their experience and skills recognized throughout the world, in addition to research, tools and a global network
6. Certified Information Systems Auditor
Accountants holding a Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) certification can show they have a proficiency in information systems control, security and auditing.
Granted by: ISACA (previously known as the Information Systems Audit and Control Association)
Estimated cost: $450 for members; $650 for nonmembers
Prerequisites: No experience is required to take the exam
Exam requirements: 150 questions; four hours, on site at locations worldwide
Time to certification: A minimum of five years of professional information systems auditing, control or security work experience is required for certification, with some substitutions possible
Ongoing requirements: Maintenance fees and CPE hours
Who should get it: Information systems audit, control and security professionals who desire global recognition
7. Certified Internal Auditor
The Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) is the only internationally accepted designation for internal auditors, and people who hold this financial certification demonstrate competence in areas such as risk and control and information technology.
Granted by: Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA)
Estimated cost: $1,500
Prerequisites: A bachelor’s degree and two years of internal audit experience (but a master’s degree can substitute for one year of experience)
Exam requirements: Three levels, with a total exam time of 6.5 hours
Time to certification: Typically a year to 18 months
Ongoing requirements: CPE credits are required; the number depends on your work status
Who should get it: The CIA is really only useful to internal auditors, with particular importance for those who would like to become managers or chief audit executives.
The value of accounting certifications
These and other accounting and financial certifications are valuable not only for moving your career as a full-time professional forward but also for expanding your skills and expertise to become a more well-rounded employee.
They can also help you become a more desirable job candidate or employee, one who can command a higher salary. According to the latest Salary Guide from Robert Half, starting salaries for professionals holding graduate degrees or accounting certifications can be 5 to 15 percent more than the market average.
What certificate in particular can make you a more attractive candidate and bring you a higher salary? Here’s an alphabetical list of the most highly sought accounting jobs from the Salary Guide, along with the professional development that can boost your resume to the top of the pile:
- Accounts receivable/accounts payable — Most accounts receivable/accounts payable professionals hone their skills with on-the-job experience. But an accounts receivable or accounts payable certification can make you a more desirable applicant or move you up the job ranks. AR professionals might look into Accredited Receivables Manager (ARM) or Accredited Receivables Specialists (ARS) certifications. AP professionals will find the Accredited Payables Manager (APM) and Accredited Payables Specialist (APS) to be gold standards. You may also consider an associate degree in accounting.
- Auditors — To reach higher-level auditing positions, you’ll want to consider an MBA, as well as a CPA or CIA. Information technology (IT) auditors should look into the CISA, rather than the CIA.
- Business and business systems analysts — Business analysts and business systems analysts can increase their marketability by acquiring an MBA. If you want to go a step further, you can sit for the Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP) or Certification of Competency in Business Analysis (CCBA).
- Compliance professionals — The options for compliance certifications vary, depending on your industry and specialization, and they are almost as numerous as regulatory mandates. Options include the Certified Compliance and Ethics Professional (CCEP), Certified Compliance and Regulatory Professional (CCRP), Certified Regulatory and Compliance Professional (CRCP) and Investment Adviser Compliance Certification Program (IACCP).
- Controllers — If you’re a controller on the job market, an MBA will distinguish you from other candidates, especially if it’s accompanied by a CPA or CMA credential. It’s important to note that most employers prefer the CPA, making it one of the most in-demand certifications.
- Cost accountants, staff accountants, senior accountants — You can propel yourself upward in these accounting jobs by obtaining a CPA or CMA. Employers prefer the CPA, and if you’re looking to hit senior or management levels, an MBA can help you get there.
- Financial analysts — To make the preferred candidate list as a financial analyst, you’ll need a CPA or an MBA. Having both is even better.
- Payroll professionals — Looking to land your dream payroll job? Then consider getting a Certified Payroll Professional (CPP) designation, because this designation can help you make it to supervisory roles.
Oh, and that acronym we mentioned earlier? That's AICPA's recently introduced Certified in Entity and Intangible Valuations™ (CEIV™) credential for CPAs and finance professionals to demonstrate a commitment to enhancing audit quality, consistency and transparency in fair value measurements for public company financial reporting purposes in the U.S.
Do you have the certifications needed to set yourself apart from other candidates and command a higher salary? If not, there’s no time like the present to show employers you mean business and increase your career opportunities by investing in professional development.
Learn more about how to make the most of your accounting and finance career.
Editor's note: This post was originally posted in 2014 but was updated recently to reflect current information.