Master’s Degree vs CPA: Which Is Better for My Career?

masters degree vs cpaReaders often ask me the benefits of getting a master’s degree vs CPA. The answer is actually quite complex.

Master’s Degree vs CPA

By master’s degree, I refer to the advanced degree for accountants, such as master’s in accounting (MAcc) or taxation, and to a lesser extent, a master’s degree in finance or business administration (MBA).

What’s Great about Getting a Master’s Degree

1. A More Well-Rounded Education

It typically takes two years to complete a master’s degree in accounting and taxation. What you learn in these two years is wider and deeper than what’s tested on the CPA Exam.

The obvious benefit to earning a master’s is gaining knowledge that’s relevant to the rest of your career. From a practical standpoint, some employers acknowledge this difference and are willing to give you a higher salary from the start.

2. More Networking Opportunities

Networking opportunities are more applicable if you take classes on campus or access live classes or school events online. The fact that fellow students in the same field surround you can be very valuable. They can be future colleagues, business partners, and industry experts in your field.

Those who further build relationships with the professors can lead to many exciting and “insider” opportunities. This is especially the case for niche areas where firms specifically ask for recommendations from professors when they select potential employees.

If you are earning your MBA, the impact of networking is even more significant.

3. No Maintenance Fee after Getting the Degree

Unlike the CPA, where you keep the license active with fees and 40 hours of CPE courses every year, there isn’t a mandatory cost to maintain your master’s degree. People join alumni clubs and attend social activities after graduation, but it is free and likely an enjoyable thing to do.

Why Becoming a CPA Could be Better

1. It is Fast and can be completed while working full-time

Most candidates manage to take and pass the CPA Exam with a demanding full-time job. Also, if you are committed, it is possible to complete the whole process within 6-12 months.

Although the CPA exam is notorious for its wide coverage, it only touches upon the “surface” of each topic. In other words, the exam content is very wide but not deep. The time you need to spend studying is a lot less than what it takes in a master’s program.

2. It is More Cost-Effective

Taking the CPA Exam is never cheap, but the cost (around $3,000) is substantially less than any master’s program — a much better ROI for many accounting professionals.

3. Getting a CPA License is a Must in Certain Industries

For most industries, getting a master’s degree is not a must. You’ve got to get licensed for the CPA if you move up beyond the manager level in any reputable CPA firm. A CPA license also becomes almost a necessity once you move to senior finance positions in big companies.

Should I Do Both?

If you can afford the time and money, yes!

As state boards move towards the 150 credit hour rule under the Uniform Accountancy Act, getting a master’s degree in accounting is a prerequisite for many candidates.

In the meantime, however, most state boards still give you the flexibility — you can have a bachelor’s degree and fulfill the remaining 30 credit hours by ad hoc, non-degree courses.

In light of this, the second question is, should I get random courses solely to fulfill the 150 credit hours requirement, or go full force to take a 1- or 2-year master’s degree?

It depends on how you’d like to plan your long-term career.

sumit profile cpa vs master's degreeSumit (Our CPA guest blogger) Decided to Do Both.

Our blogger Sumit has a master’s degree (MBA), and he also pursued earning the CPA certification. Sumit’s story is detailed below.

MBA vs. CPA is one of the trickiest decisions to make – which is the best option for career advancement?

Various factors should be kept in mind when deciding about the course, such as investment of time and money, the value of the qualification, future perspective, market demand, etc. It all depends on the career path an individual wants to choose.

The Prerequisite

There are requirements for obtaining the CPA that entail a certain number of hours in accounting simply to be eligible to sit. On the other hand, getting an MBA requires acceptance into an MBA program.

Career Choice

Suppose you are considering a future in management or consulting with a financial services firm or working as a security analyst, investment banker, or venture capitalist. In that case, an MBA might be your best choice.

If your dreams for the future include working as a controller, CFO, financial analyst, or auditor, a CPA certification is practically a must. Director, VP, and C-level accounting & finance roles are also where having both the CPA and an MBA can be beneficial.

In the current scenario, the CPA is the most popular qualification and is in demand worldwide. Most accountants have a CPA, and there’s a large number of people pursuing the same to sustain themselves in the competitive market.

Is a Master’s Degree Better for Your Long-Term Career?

For example, if you never want to work in public accounting, getting a CPA license is a less attractive option. Also, if you work in a niche industry where CPA designation is not common among the experts in the field, it is better to work towards a master’s degree that fits your niche perfectly.

On the flip side, if getting a master’s degree doesn’t have value-add in your long-term career, I suggest you go for the CPA Exam and take enough non-degree courses to get the 150 credit hours required for the exam.

I Prefer the CPA vs. a master’s, but I Don’t Have 150 Credit Hours. What Should I Do?

Here are my suggestions. If you…

  • Have 4-year bachelor’s degree but lack accounting credits, take non-degree seeking courses online or at nearby or online colleges
  • Live outside of the US and lack a particular course (e.g., US GAAS) required by the state board, take the course offered by the University of North Alabama (UNA) as it is designed for CPA Exam candidates in mind.
  • Have 3-year bachelor only: sorry, it won’t work. In this case, you do need to take a master’s degree in accounting, commerce, or tax.

You can get ideas to earn extra credit hours to meet the 150-hour rule.

The decision of getting a master’s degree vs CPA is never easy.

For Your Further Reading

About the Author Stephanie Ng

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!

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