For college students interested in careers related to numbers or money management, there’s a choice to be made before a degree is declared: Should you pursue a business, finance or accounting major? While these academic degrees share a common core of classes, they differ in their focus and objective.

The accounting and finance profession also has its differences, of course. Accountants are trained to track an organization’s financial transactions. These professionals deal with verifiable numbers, such as AP/AR (accounts payable/accounts receivable), profit margin, current revenue and taxes paid. By contrast, financial analysts use real data to come up with projected numbers, such as target earnings, future stock prices and projected returns on investment.

Comparative overview of the three specialties

Classes in all three disciplines, whether you pursue a business, finance or accounting major at a four-year university or in an online college program, include computational math, quantitative analytics, financial management and business administration. Accounting programs typically include sections in business law, marketing, accounting ethics, statistics, accounting theory and specializations such as fraud, taxation or cost management.

Finance programs are usually heavy on coursework in international and domestic finance and trade, risk management, corporate finance, financial engineering, and portfolio management; specialty topics relate to data analytics, such as developing new credit risk models.

Related but different, a business degree equips a professional with a broad set of analytical and management-related skills in preparation for a career as an operational and strategic decision maker. In general, finance and accounting degrees require a higher level of math coursework than business degrees, which tend to be broader in scope.

Read Why Now is a Good Time to Be an Accounting Graduate.

Careers in accounting

The field of accounting includes public, management and government specialties. The duties of public accountants include recording and managing clients’ financial documents. A large number of these professionals focus exclusively on tax law and preparation. The Robert Half Salary Guide for Finance & Accounting shows that starting salaries for staff public accountants range from $54,250 to $115,000, depending on specialization and experience.

Management accountants, sometimes called corporate accountants, are employed by private firms and are responsible for internal financial documentation, including budgets and cost projections. Their essential job duties can be similar to those of a financial analyst, in that the former might advise C-level executives on investment opportunities and asset management. According to our salary guide, staff-level corporate accountants can expect to earn between $55,250 to $121,000 this year, again, depending on specialization and experience.

Government accountants oversee the financial operations of agencies or of organizations subject to government oversight. They are typically employed by a city, state, the federal government or a quasi-public organization like the U.S. Postal Service or Fannie Mae. Salaries for government accountants are determined by statute or regulation, and tend to be a little lower than in the private sector.

An accounting degree also prepares auditors, whose primary function is to examine the financial documents of either their own employer (internal auditor) or of another firm (external auditor). In the latter case, they are independent of the organization they’re auditing and are hired by an interested party, such as shareholders. Forensic accountants also analyze financial records, but they differ from auditors in that their primary goal is to uncover fraud, whereas auditors seek to verify whether accounts are accurate, complete and compliant.

Careers in business and finance

A degree in business administration or management prepares you to run, or help run, a department or corporation. Many business majors end up combining their career with personal interests because the skills they possess — finance, statistics, business law, organizational leadership, marketing and psychology — are highly transferable. Early in their careers, business graduates are often employed as assistant directors, account supervisors or junior execs.

Financial analysts spend most of their time doing research, such as studying equities or ratings reports, and then projecting ROI on various investments. They then advise clients or senior management, who use analysts’ findings to make investment or business decisions. The 2017 Salary Guide shows that an entry-level financial analyst working for a midsize firm can expect to earn $50,750–$61,000 per year, a 4.2 percent increase from last year.

Do I need to have an accounting degree to be a CPA?

An accounting degree is not a prerequisite for an aspiring Certified Public Accountant. The requirements vary slightly by state, but in general a candidate for the exam must have 150 college credit hours and at least two years of accounting experience. Keep in mind a typical undergraduate program is 120 credit hours. Although the vast majority of CPAs have a B.S. in accounting, some have undergraduate degrees in business management, business administration, finance or economics. They must also pass the CPA exam.

Want to know more about getting your CPA? Read All You Need to Know About the CPA — and Then Some.

What’s the CPA exam like?

The exam itself has four parts — Audit and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) and Regulation (REG). Because each one requires so much study, would-be CPAs normally take one part per quarter. Even then, more than half of test takers fail. According to the latest data from the AICPA (American Institute of CPAs), BEC is the easiest — with a 50 percent pass rate — while AUD and FAR prove to be the most challenging.

Why would I need more than an undergraduate degree?

You don’t. There are many jobs out there for which a B.A. or B.S. in accounting or a related field is enough. For entry-level or even mid-career roles, employers look for a combination of education, hard and soft skills, and years of experience, including internships for recent graduates.

But to land senior accounting roles, employers want to see candidates who either have a CPA or are actively working toward one. Similarly, an MBA (Master of Business Administration) is a required or preferred qualification for positions that oversee a department or company. Those who’ve earned their CPA or MBA enjoy top employment prospects and salaries — up to 15 percent more than their peers without it, according to our salary guide.

Should you choose a finance or accounting major or declare a business degree at your school? Go for a CPA or MBA? Narrow in on the world of public or private accounting? There’s no wrong answer, and there’s lots of information if you search for it. You could also mix and match, such as getting a B.S. in accounting and then, after a few years of full-time work, an MBA. Your options are limited only by your personal preferences and professional goals.

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