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Is a Master’s Degree in Accounting Worth It?

A master's degree in accounting can be the boost you need to achieve a higher-level position in banking, taxation, insurance or any company with a financial division. It can also be an important step toward certification as a public accountant.
Three accountants with their masters degrees working on a project

Understanding the Numbers
When reviewing job growth and salary information, it’s important to remember that actual numbers can vary due to many different factors — like years of experience in the role, industry of employment, geographic location, worker skill and economic conditions. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.

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. 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

A Master of Science in Accounting is one of the many types of accounting programs from which you can choose.

Ann McLaughlin with the text Ann McLaughlinMaster'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.

Within an advanced accounting degree program, you can gain superior analytical skills, deepen your knowledge of accounting principles and learn the latest technology.

"It’s worth investing the time and resources to obtain a graduate degree in accounting," said Ann McLaughlin, associate dean of business degree programs at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). "(A) master’s degree in accounting provides further studies in accounting concepts."

It can also be an important step toward certification as a public accountant. The Certified Public Accountant (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.

One of the key reasons graduates are such attractive new hires is that they enter a job ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Learn how to get your master's degree.

What Can You Do With a Master's in Accounting?

Committing to a career direction is often a milestone decision in a person's life. If you are interested in becoming an accountant, there are many factors to consider, such as pursuing an advanced degree.

You want to be sure your investment in an advanced degree is worth the time, money and energy. Salary, title goals and a job's flexibility help you determine if a profession like accounting suits your personality and life's plan. 

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

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

You can also do many jobs with an accounting degree besides accounting.

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 prepare you to interact effectively with executive management. This comprehensive program can deepen your understanding and skills in a range of essential areas, including:

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

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

Which is Better: CPA Certification or a Master's in Accounting?

A master's in accounting can prepare you for various certification exams, such as the Certified Public Accountant exam.

The CPA exam is the industry standard for those who wish to pursue a career in public accounting, and many public accounting firms may pay for a review course for employees they believe in.

Passing the official CPA exam to become a certified public accountant requires you to complete a specific set of education and work experience standards determined by each state, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).

To sit for this exam, most states require a total of 150 hours of coursework, which equates to five years of school. A standard bachelors is 120 hours said McLaughlin, leaving 30 hours of required education. 

"A master’s degree or certificate is a great way to pick up those remaining 30 hours, while also allowing you to gain more advanced knowledge," McLaughlin said.

Having a master’s in accounting can reduce the supervised work requirement by up to two years, allowing you to become certified faster.

You can work as an accountant without becoming a CPA, but they are the industry standard designation of quality and trust, according to the AICPA. Earning a CPA designation can boost your salary by 10-15% — potentially increasing your lifetime earnings by $1 million, according to the organization.

Other Accounting Certifications to Consider

Managerial accounting makes up another large segment of the accounting discipline with an associated certification. Managerial accountants collect and analyze information to support strategic planning, goal setting and directing a company’s resources.

To take the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) 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 Financial Services Auditor (CFSA)
  • Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)
  • Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)
  • Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)

A Master of Science in Accounting may not only help you meet the credit requirements for these exams but also familiarizes you with the material on the 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 while increasing your marketability.

Is a Master's in Accounting the Same as an MBA?

Mona Stephens with the text Mona StephensThe difference between a master's in accounting and an MBA in Accounting is all about depth of knowledge versus breadth of knowledge.

The Master of Business Administration (MBA) program gives students a broader business experience with an introduction to accounting, according to Mona Stephens, an accounting faculty lead at SNHU.

"This is a good choice for students with an undergraduate degree in accounting who want to move into higher levels of management that require more overall business skills — human resources, business management and strategy, marketing — and fewer accounting skills," she said.

Learn more about what an MBA degree is.

The master’s in accounting program is a deep dive into the field. Courses dig into more complex accounting topics and encourage critical thinking in accounting theory and practice.

"This is a good choice for accountants who want to expand their accounting knowledge, perhaps specialize in a certain type of accounting, like management accounting or taxation, or need additional knowledge for the CPA or CMA exams," Stephens said. It's also a good program for anyone who wants to teach accounting.

Why Wait? Choose a Specialization

If you're interested in focusing your accounting aspirations, you can choose a graduate certificate to add on to your master's program, such as:

  • Business Analysis and Reporting
  • Forensic Accounting & Fraud Examination
  • Information Systems & Controls
  • Management Accounting
  • Tax Compliance & Planning

You can also choose to earn a graduate certificate in accounting, ideal for individuals who are switching career fields, or who those who do not have an undergraduate degree in accounting and are seeking formal education and practical accounting skills.

"A graduate certificate within the master’s in accounting guides students in a specialized field of study, such as forensic accounting or management accounting," McLaughlin said. "This will lead to promotional opportunities or new career path(s)."

Christie Conticchio with the text Christie ConticchioLike the master's in accounting, graduate certificates can 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 '14G 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 experiences, landed her in a governmental auditing position. Conticchio puts her degree to use every day, as she is responsible for providing a clear understanding of the financial statements she reviews.

Specialize with a Certificate in Business Analytics for Accounting

A business analysis graduate certificate can provide in-depth knowledge of the field. The certificate program combines business and data analytics to prepare you for the skills needed as an accountant. It also relates data analytics to financial risk, planning projections and emphasizes data-driven decisions.

This program can prepare you for roles such as financial/investment analyst, financial manager and budget analyst.

Learn more about business analytics.

Fight Fraud with a Certificate in Forensic Accounting

Yet another direction to take with your accounting career is to investigate fraud by becoming a forensic accountant. You can learn how to apply forensic accounting principles to complex financial transactions, such as mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcies and contract disputes, by pursuing a graduate certificate in forensic accounting. 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.

Invest in an Information Systems Graduate Certificate

A graduate certificate in information systems is an excellent fit if you aim to become a financial or systems auditor. The certificate program explores topics within accounting, such as information system controls, information technology infrastructure and emerging attestation. It can also help you gain skills and experience in more specific areas, including auditing, project management and more.

Learn to Lead with a Certificate in Management Accounting

A management accounting degree 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 certificate 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.

Learn more about what management accounting is.

Make Taxes Your Niche with a Certificate in Tax Compliance

You can also enhance your master's in accounting with a certificate in tax compliance. This program introduces you to key concepts, taxation specialties, the ins and outs of corporate federal income tax and personal finance/advisory services.

A graduate certificate in accounting tax compliance  can prepare you for a career as a highly skilled accountant. You can gain the analytical and technical skills that 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 can gain the business acumen to make a notable impact to succeed in middle and senior management positions.

A tax compliance certificate may not only help you prepare for the CPA exam, but it may also help you satisfy the educational requirements to sit for Certified Management Accountant (CMA) and Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) professional certification exams.

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, but new jobs requiring accounting skills are also on the rise. By 2031, BLS projects the addition of 81,800 more accountant and auditor positions.

Discover more about SNHU's online master's in accounting: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you may learn and how to request information about the program.

Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 ’22G is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

Two students walking in front of Monadnock Hall

SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.