“I am now a CPA. Should I go for a CFA® or MBA?”
Well, it depends on your choice of career path.
As a professional accountant, you have several different tracks to consider. Additional credentials require a substantial investment in time and money. Plus, those credentials may or may not bring you higher job satisfaction and income. I hope this article helps narrow the field for you.
First, let’s review the differences between CPA, CFA, MBA, and CMA credentials. Before making any major career decisions, it’s important to understand the different requirements to become a CPA, CFA, CMA, or MBA.
A CPA is a Certified Public Accountant. It is the most advanced accounting certification.
CPA candidates must possess a significant amount of education and experience and pass a difficult 4-part exam before applying for a CPA license. Unlike an MBA (or a Master’s degree in Business Administration), the CPA certification cannot be obtained from education alone, giving it a high level of prestige.
The CFA, or Chartered Financial Analyst, is a globally respected certification in the finance and investment fields. If you plan to work in finance, this could be the best credential to pursue.
The requirements to get your CFA license is quite different than the CPA license. If you have a bachelor’s degree in any field, you can sit for the CFA Exam. If you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, then you need at least 4 years of experience—in any field—to take the exam.
However, don’t let these seemingly easy requirements fool you. The 3-part CFA Exam is notoriously difficult. In fact, most candidates spend about 300 hours per section studying; that adds up to 900 study hours!
After you pass the CFA Exam, you need to gain at least 4 years of relevant experience before you can apply for your charter. Your experience must involve investment decision-making. It must also include the evaluation or application of economic, financial, or statistical data to make decisions in investments.
The CMA, or Certified Management Accountant, certification is for professionals who specialize in management accounting. It’s a “gold standard” certification that is becoming increasingly beneficial across the globe. Like the CPA, CMA candidates must meet certain education and experience requirements and pass a 2-part CMA Exam that tests their critical accounting and financial management skills. (If you think that the CMA might be right for you, please check out my sister site.)
Unlike the other credentials we are discussing today, the MBA is a graduate degree instead of a post-graduate credential that can be obtained via work experience or passing exams. The MBA, or Master of Business Administration, is a graduate-level business degree that prepares students for a variety of positions in the business world by building leadership and management skills. Most MBA programs include courses in accounting, economics, finance, leadership development, and marketing. I have more information about the MBA in this article.
The MAcc, or Master of Accountancy, is another master’s degree to consider if the MBA might not be right for you. In most MAcc programs, the classes you take will likely overlap with the core course requirements for your CPA license. Plus, if you take the CPA Exam right after finishing your MAcc, it’s likely that you have to study fewer hours and have a higher chance of passing the exam since you just covered much of the material in your university courses. The MAcc + CPA combo could be a winning combination for your career.
CPAs work in a variety of accounting environments in the public and private sectors. If you want to work for one of the “Big Four” accounting firms, a CPA is a must. If you are already working in or are considering working in the accounting field, I encourage you to go after your CPA license if you are not already on that journey.
Accountants with CFA credentials often work in finance and investment. If you plan to devote your professional career to investing and advising others on investment decisions, a CFA could give you the background you need to succeed. CFAs often work in hedge funds, pension funds, portfolio management, and private banking.
CMAs often work in corporate accounting environments. Many Fortune 500 companies have placed CMAs in key management roles, especially those in the manufacturing sector. In addition, CMAs can work as budget analysts, cost accountants, controllers, internal auditors, senior accounts, and treasurers. Chief Executive Officers and Chief Financial Officers often hold CMA credentials.
MBA graduates work in a wide variety of settings since the degree is focused on overall business leadership development. Once you get your MBA, you could land a job in management, finance, accounting, marketing, or sales. Plus, many MBAs have at least mid-level positions and many climb the ladder to senior and executive positions.
Let’s talk about salaries for a moment. Career satisfaction isn’t always about money, but if you’re going to put all the time, effort, and expense into gaining a high-level accounting certification, you want to know that your investment is worth it.
According to payscale.com, here are the current average base salaries for US employees with the following qualifications:
Keep in mind, though, that these salaries are just averages. With bonuses and profit-sharing, your final compensation could be much higher.
Plus, if you have several credentials, your salary could be higher in jobs that require more advanced skills. For example, the CPA and CFA combination salary could be higher than if you only have a CPA license.
If you plan to join a public accounting firm and work yourself up to partnership, there is no need for a CFA, CMA, CIA, MBA, or any other qualification. The CPA is best for public accountants and those accountants who plan to work for the “Big 4” accounting firms.
Instead, focus on your core competency, whether it’s assurance, advisory, or tax skills. Plus, work on your people skills and sales skills—they are critical for senior professionals in a client-oriented business.
You can click this link and read about the requirements of public accounting firms and what you can expect in terms of workload and lifestyle.
If you currently work or plan to work for a company with some manufacturing capacity, then the CMA qualification will give you an edge. The CMA certification requires you to have a deep understanding of cost accounting and managerial accounting, which are especially useful in that sector. Better yet, few professionals have both the CPA and the CMA together, which could definitely give you an edge.
Many finance professionals want to break into the exciting world of investment banking at some point in their careers.
If this is your ultimate goal, please allow me to lend you some advice.
First, for core investment banking jobs (for example, corporate finance and mergers and acquisitions), CPA or CFA credentials are not necessarily required. However, you may benefit from an MBA, especially if you graduate from the top 20-ish MBA programs.
Second, if you are interested in working in fund management or the research department within an investment bank (for example, as a research analyst or a security analyst), a CFA qualification is highly recommended. In fact, most analysts are CFAs. A CPA license is not that useful, but the CPA CFA combo is highly regarded. An MBA is also a good option if you graduate from the top schools.
In addition to your CPA license, the CFA credential and an MBA degree could be helpful if you are looking for a career change in the future.
The CPA and CFA combination is best suited if you plan to work in the research department within investment banks, hedge funds, and mutual funds or plan to hold another job in the investment or finance community.
Regardless of your academic degree (with or without an MBA), many readers ask me about the benefits of the CPA and CFA, especially the CPA CFA salary. With both of these credentials, you may be able to obtain a higher salary than just one of the credentials alone.
Multinational corporations, big businesses with management trainee programs love MBA graduates. Again, try your best to get into the top schools. This combination could be a strength if your aim is to serve as a Chief Financial Officer or other financial director or as a financial analyst or business consultant at a high level.
Candidates who plan to work in public accounting offices or want to work for the “Big Four” accounting firms should seek a CPA. Professionals with the CPA and CMA together could also stand out in job searches for senior financial analysts, financial controllers, or other corporate accounting environments.
If you have your MBA and also get the CPA and CFA credentials, you could be an asset as a high-level financial planner, financial analysis manager, principal financial analyst, or even as a CFO. However, keep in mind that this combination will require a big investment in time and money, so carefully consider this route first.
Once you’ve decided that accounting is the right career for you, you should also look into some of the additional credentials, like CPA, that will advance your career.
If you need additional advice, please contact me—I love hearing from my readers.
Also, please consider signing up for my free mini e-course, which will help you navigate the steps to becoming a CPA.
CFA® and Chartered Financial Analyst are trademarks owned by CFA Institute.
I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley), and I also passed all 4 sections of the CPA Exam on my first try. Additionally, I have led webinars, such as for the Institute of Management Accountants, authored featured articles on websites like Going Concern and AccountingWeb, and I'm also the CFO for the charity New Sight. Finally, I have created other accounting certification websites to help mentor non-CPA candidates. I have already mentored thousands of CPA, CMA, CIA, EA, and CFA candidates, and I can help you too!