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Is a Master's Degree in Accounting Worth It?

Accounting professional advising clients on their finances

Now more than ever, it’s a great time to get a master's in accounting and enter this surprisingly diverse profession.

Today’s accountants do much more than count money and balance the books. They help solve white collar crime. They are key players in U.S. healthcare reform. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) employs them by the thousands. Accountants are Chief Financial Officers of Fortune 500 companies, comptrollers, and international merger and acquisition experts. They are small (or any size, for that matter) business owners who need the sharp and well-rounded book-keeping skills taught by seasoned faculty. They teach at nearly every college and university.

At their core, accountants are problem solvers, critical thinkers, excellent communicators; objective, methodical, and resourceful. One thing they all have in common is the knowledge that a master’s in accounting provides a substantial extra edge in this not-so-conventional career.

The Difference a Master’s Makes

Master's degrees in accounting are designed for those looking to get ahead as a public accountant, corporate accountant, auditor, fraud examiner, financial analyst and so much more. It can be the boost you need to a higher-level position in banking, taxation, insurance or any company with a financial division. With an advanced accounting degree, you’ll gain superior analytical skills, deepen your knowledge of accounting principles and learn the latest technology.

Importantly, a master's in accounting is an important step toward certification as a public accountant (CPA). The CPA exam is the most well-known designation in the accounting profession. While intense, it’s worth it. After passing the exam, accountants are able to file reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission, making them appreciably more marketable to potential employers.

There is simply no downside to getting your master’s degree in accounting. One of the key reasons master's graduates are such attractive new hires is that they enter a job ready roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Master's in Accounting Job Options

Committing to a career direction is often a milestone decision in a person's life. You want to be sure your investment in an advanced degree is worth the time, money and energy. Gut instinct is one of your most reliable advisors, but you can assess your own ambition to lead, salary and title goals and a job's flexibility to help you determine if a profession like accounting suits your personality and life's plan. Read on for the many directions an accounting career can take, who's choosing accounting and why, and what it looks like on a day-to-day basis.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a few possible positions available once you have an accounting degree include:

  • Management Accountant
  • Government Accountant
  • Internal Auditor
  • External Auditor
  • IT Auditor

Next Stop: Middle and Senior Management

An online master's in accounting can help you succeed in higher level accounting and financial management positions, and to prepare you to interact effectively with executive management. This comprehensive program that will deepen your understanding and skills in a range of essential areas, including:

  • Accounting principles and practices
  • Professional auditing methods
  • Cost analysis for informed decision-making
  • Using information technology to evaluate financial information
  • Applications of financial regulations in business
  • Quantitative analysis
  • Individual and corporate tax preparation

Online master's in accounting programs can be ideal for recent undergraduates interested in learning along with professions in the field looking to advance their careers, as well as career-changers ready to begin in a new field.

Shanna Mosby worked in the accounting field for over 25 years and obtained a good deal of success with an undergraduate degree in business administration – accounting, as well as an MBA in project management. However, she still wanted more from her career. “The only way to achieve that would be to go back to school and get the credits needed to sit for the CPA exam,” said Mosby.

Her success in her degree program is something she credits to her supportive family and academic advisor. “My advisor has been one of my biggest cheerleaders and has aided in every way possible," Mosby said. She will complete her master of accounting degree with the goal of enhancing her career opportunities, but she is also driven by showing her children the importance of finishing what you start and to strive for success in everything they do.

CMA Exam Requirements

A master's in accounting will prepare you for various certification exams. Taking the exams necessary for certain specializations gives students seeking employment a distinct advantage and brings a lot of credibility to a job candidate.

Many public accounting firms will pay for a review courses for employees they believe in. The Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam is the industry standard for those who wish to pursue a career in public accounting. In order to sit for this exam, most states require a total of 150 hours of coursework, which equates to five years of school. Having a master’s in accounting can reduce the supervised work requirement by up to two years, enabling you to become certified faster.

Managerial accounting makes up another large segment of the accounting discipline. Managerial accountants collect and analyze information to support strategic planning, goal setting, and directing a company’s resources. To take the Certified Management Accountant exam offered by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) you have to satisfy several requirements, including a bachelor's degree from an accredited program as well as two years of professional experience. The exam covers a number of topics, including financial reporting, planning, performance and financial decision making, according to the IMA website.

Other certifications – which also require a certain number of credit hours – include:

  • Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)
  • Certified Financial Services Auditor (CFSA)
  • Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)
  • Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)

A master of accounting degree not only helps students meet the credit requirements for these exams, it familiarizes them with the material on these rigorous tests. None of these exams, of course, are mandatory, but they legitimize your level of dedication to the trade and offer benefits many can’t attain with just a bachelor's degree.

CPA vs. Accountant

Certified Public Accountants are accountants but have passed the official CPA exam, which requires them to have minimum education and work experience, according to the American Institute of CPAs (AIC).

You can work as an accountant without becoming a CPA but it is the industry standard designation of quality and trust, according to the group.

Difference Between Masters in Accounting and MBA in Accounting

The difference between a master's in accounting and an MBA in Accounting is all about depth of knowledge versus breadth of knowledge.

By enrolling in an MBA program, you will receive a broad-based education about business and business principles, but not a detailed view of accounting or any one area of business, according to Dr. Bruce Stetar, Southern New Hampshire University's executive director of online graduate business programs. It's an ideal degree option for you if you're interested in working as a manager or business leader that oversees many areas of an organization.

"It's a degree that gives people a better idea of business and business administration as a general field of study and profession," he said.

A master's in accounting, meanwhile, is the opposite. You won't learn a wide range of business concepts, but will study accounting in depth. The master's is a more apt program if you're committed to working as an accountant and interested in studying a professional certification, such as the CPA or CMA, Stetar said.

"There's no pro or con. It's a matter of deciding what is it you want to pursue in your career," he said.

In addition to financial success, an advanced degree in accounting can also help you realize a dream. That's what motivated Hassan Aden to enroll in a master's in accounting program. Aden was born in Somalia and came to the U.S. in May 2001 as a refugee. “I’m now an American citizen, living in Brockton, Mass.,” he said. Aden and his wife have three young boys under the age of 6.

His goal is to become Certified Public Accountant and one day, go back to Somalia to educate Somali people or hold public office to promote good governance and enhance financial institutions of Somalia. He is currently self-employed with nine employees. The online master’s in accounting program enabled this busy dad and business owner to follow his heart.

Why Wait?

If you're interested in focusing your accounting aspirations, you can choose a concentration within your master's program. Like the master's in accounting, each of these concentration programs help students meet the 150-credit-hour requirement needed to sit for the Certified Public Accountant exam in most states, as well as the Certified Management Accountant and Certified Fraud Examiner certification exams.

Christie Conticchio was unsure where her master's in accounting would take her. "There were so many various options," she said. "Do I go into taxes? Do I do the books for a company?" She surprised even herself when her accounting education combined with various work experience landed her in a governmental auditing position. Conticchio's degree is being put to use everyday, as she is responsible for providing a clear understanding of the financial statements she reviews. Next, she plans to pursue her CPA.

A concentration in management accounting is a good option if you're interested in working in and leading the accounting division of a business, nonprofit or government agency rather than as a CPA. Instead of preparing tax documents, management accountants more often work as controllers to manage an organization's books, including accounts payable and receivable, payroll and more. The concentration courses will help you prepare to manage an organization's accounting department and prepare financial statements for senior management. This can also help you prepare to sit for the CMA exam.

Specialize with a Concentration in Auditing

Auditors examine financial records and statements to determine the accuracy and validity of information. They check for wrong-doing and fraud and ensure compliance with tax laws. They work with individuals, companies and government agencies.

You can capitalize on this growing need by earning an online master's in auditing. This specialized degree can increase your chances of landing the auditing job you want by learning about the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 – the federal law that set new or expanded requirements for all U.S. public company boards, management and public accounting firms – and what steps companies must take to comply with these requirements. You’ll also use the latest technologies to solve common auditing challenges.

With a master’s in auditing online, you’ll strengthen your ability to succeed in middle and senior management positions and improve your advancement potential by helping corporations meet the demand for greater transparency in financial reporting. You’ll also be able to develop growth strategies based on the company's goals.

Fight Fraud with a Concentration in Forensic Accounting

Yet another direction to take with your accounting career is to investigate fraud. A master's in forensic accounting teaches you how forensic accounting principles can be applied in complex financial transactions, such as mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcies and contract disputes. You’ll also discover how forensic accounting findings are used in court cases to prosecute white-collar criminals.

Graduates from these programs can move into jobs in which they evaluate, review and describe financial and business matters in a variety of settings, including accounting firms, insurance companies, law offices and governmental agencies.

Make Taxes Your Niche with a Concentration in Taxation

You an also enhance your master's in accounting with an concentration in taxation. This program introduces you to key concepts, rules and practices in income taxation for individuals, corporations and partnerships, as well as excise tax on estates and goods.

A master's in accounting taxation can prepare you for a career as a highly skilled accountant. You'll gain the analytical and technical skills public and private companies and municipal agencies require of new hires. Whether you want to work for a public corporation, private firm or governmental agency, you'll gain the business acumen to make a notable impact to succeed in middle and senior management positions.

A master’s in taxation not only helps you meet CPA exam requirements, you’ll be prepared for the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) and Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) professional certification exams.

Eligibility to sit for exams was one of the reasons Lin Zheng chose to enroll in an accounting master's program. The CPA exam, Zheng said, would help her find a job quickly upon graduating. Zheng had no prior background in accounting, but holds four academic degrees between her studies in the United States and her native China. Her ambition and energy recently landed her an internship at a well-known national nonprofit organization. Here she will learn how accounting can be used in an altruistic setting.

Take the Next Step

Accounting is far more than credits and debits. It’s also one of the most secure professions you can choose. Not only will there always be a need for accountants, new jobs requiring accounting skills are on the rise.

Susan Bogle is a marketing and student recruitment specialist in higher education. Follow her on Twitter @Suze1776  or connect on LinkedIn.

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