Masters degree vs. CPA license: Do you know which is better for your career? The answer is actually quite complex. Therefore, this article is all about accounting master’s degree options in relation to the CPA. I’ll also discuss whether you need a CPA or master’s in accounting based on your overall career goals. Plus, I’ll share the latest updates about CPA and masters in accounting salary averages. You can decide which is better, a CPA or a master’s in accounting, with this info.
Before we get started, I wanted to clarify what terms I’m using when discussing a masters vs. CPA. By master’s degree, I am referring to an advanced degree for accountants, such as a master’s in accounting (MAcc) or taxation, and to a lesser extent, a master’s degree in finance or business administration (MBA).
First of all, let’s go over the basic differences between a master’s in accounting vs. CPA. In the end, you might decide that you need both. But before starting down this path, it’s important to delineate the CPA vs. masters in accounting.
Simply put, a master’s of accounting is an advanced degree in the principles of accounting theory and standard practices. Usually, you’re only eligible to enter a master’s program if you have a bachelor’s degree (or the equivalent). Universities award slightly different degrees depending on the overall focus of the classes. Don’t worry too much about the exact letters on your diploma, whether you decide to go for a Master of Science in Accounting vs. a Master of Accountancy or a Masters of Professional Accounting. We can split hairs between the differences; just carefully consider a school’s curriculum to ensure you’ll gain the skills for your career path.
Common accounting master degree options include:
MS accounting, MAcc, and MPAcc programs prepare students to succeed as accountants in a range of professional positions. In addition to technical accounting knowledge, students also gain skills in critical thinking and communication. Masters in Taxation programs obviously focus on tax policies. And an MBA is a general business master’s program, but you can take extra accounting classes.
Some accountants get a master’s to be able to teach accounting or just to improve their overall skill level. Others, though, get a master’s in accounting to be eligible for the CPA license. According to the CPA education requirements, you need 150 credit hours in higher education. In the U.S., though, a bachelor’s degree is worth 120 hours. Therefore, CPA candidates often choose to start with a bachelor’s degree and follow up with a master’s degree, which is usually worth 30-36 hours:
Universities have developed flexible programs designed to help you earn your master’s degree, depending on your unique situation. These programs generally fall into the following categories:
To earn a master’s in accounting, students must first have a bachelor’s degree. As an example, you could go to university first to get a bachelor’s in accounting (or something similar); that’s usually a 4-year journey. And then, you can follow up with a master’s degree, which will take 9 months to 2 years, depending on the school. Plus, you have the option of getting your bachelor’s and master’s degrees at different schools, if you prefer.
For example, you might find that some universities offer what they advertise as a “bridge” program. That is, it’s for anyone who already has a bachelor’s degree (again, worth 120 hours) and wants to gain the extra 30 education hours needed to take the CPA Exam. In fact, many programs focus on CPA licensure and even have integrated CPA Exam reviews.
Therefore, here’s the traditional path to earning a masters in accounting:
Since your bachelor’s is worth 120 hours and your master’s is worth at least 30 hours, you’ll have 150 hours and will be eligible for the CPA Exam.
However, some schools now offer integrated programs that allow students to seamlessly get a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the same school in 5 years. Here’s how it works, in a nutshell:
After 5 years, then, you’ll have a bachelor’s (120 hours) and a master’s (30 hours) and will have the 150 hours needed for the CPA license.
Before picking a master’s program, think about your overall career plans. That end goal will narrow down your choices between a master’s in tax over a master’s in accounting and finance, for instance. Furthermore, many programs offer specialization in compliance, financial analysis, and even forensic accounting.
The total time it takes to earn a master’s in accounting depends on your pace and previous degrees. For instance, if you don’t have an undergrad accounting degree, you might have to take some extra coursework to get caught up. Most programs are 30-36 credits. If you go to class full-time, you can probably earn a master’s degree in accounting in 1 to 2 years. You can also find a master of accounting online program, as well as ones that allow you to take classes part-time on your own schedule.
The MAcc (or master of accountancy) is one of the most common masters accounting degrees. In a MAcc program, students build general business knowledge while developing strong technical accounting skills.
An MBA, however, is more focused on business skills in areas like finance, marketing, management, and strategies for long-term growth. Although most MBA programs introduce accounting principles, they don’t go as in-depth as a MAcc degree. And that’s something to consider when comparing an MBA to a Master’s degree in accounting. What’s more, unless you specialize in accounting or taxation, an MBA may or may not give you the accounting skills you need to pass the CPA Exam.
So then, what’s the difference between a master’s degree like a MAcc vs. a CPA certificate?
First, the CPA (Certified Public Accountant) credential is a license that is awarded by the 55 Boards of Accountancy in the U.S. after you meet specific requirements. So to be clear, a master’s degree in accounting is conferred by a college or university. In contrast, your state or territory issues the CPA license and permits you to practice as a CPA in that jurisdiction.
Basically, to earn the CPA, you must:
But really, a CPA and a master’s degree in accounting go hand-in-hand. Frequently, candidates get their master’s degree and then sit for the CPA Exam to gain their license.
In the past, different Boards of Accountancy across the U.S. had varying education requirements to get a CPA license. Now, though, they all follow the “150-hour” rule. In a nutshell, this means that you need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree (usually worth 120 hours) plus some additional coursework to bring you up to 150 hours. Since most masters in accounting programs are 30-36 hours, CPA candidates with a master’s usually have the needed 150 education hours.
Consequently, one of the significant benefits of a master’s in accounting degree is that you can meet the education requirements to get your CPA certificate.
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.
Networking opportunities are more bountiful 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.
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 these are free and likely enjoyable things to do.
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.
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.
For most industries, getting a master’s degree is not a must. However, you need a CPA license to move beyond the manager level in any reputable CPA firm. A CPA license also becomes almost necessary once you move to senior finance positions in big companies.
Considering the extra effort it takes to get a CPA license after a master’s in accounting degree, does the salary difference make the effort worth it? After all, in addition to your degree expenses, you’ll also have to pay the CPA Exam fees. As a result, it’s essential to consider a CPA vs. a master’s in accounting salary.
Here’s some updated CPA salary info gathered from Payscale (in US dollars):
Average CPA Salary: $69,980
With your CPA in hand, you can also land jobs that are unavailable to non-credentialed accountants. For example, CPAs can advance to positions with much larger average salaries:
Of course, it’s a little hard to compare CPA vs. masters in accounting salary averages because one is a degree and one is a certificate. And technically, you can have a master’s and not be a CPA. Likewise, you can become a CPA without a master’s.
According to Payscale, accountants with master’s of accounting (regardless of whether or not they are CPAs) make an average of $73K a year. Accountants with an MS in accounting earn about the same.
However, MBAs tend to make a little more than someone with an accounting master’s degree. In fact, according to Payscale, MBAs have an average annual salary of $91K in the US. Here’s how MBA salaries compare to other accounting master’s degrees:
As you can see, there are some significant salary differences when comparing an MS in taxation vs. accounting, for example.
If you can afford the time and money, yes!
As state boards move toward the 150 credit hour rule under the Uniform Accountancy Act, getting a master’s degree in accounting is a prerequisite for many candidates.
However, most state boards still give you flexibility. For instance, you can have a bachelor’s degree and fulfill the remaining 30 credit hours by ad hoc, non-degree courses, in most cases.
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.
Our blogger Sumit has a master’s degree (MBA), and he also earned 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 your career advancement?
You should consider various factors when deciding about your path, such as the 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
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.
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 a 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 many people pursue the same to sustain themselves in the competitive market.
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 the 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 add value to 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.
Here are my suggestions. If you:
You can get ideas to earn extra credit hours to meet the 150-hour rule.
The decision to get a master’s degree vs. CPA is never easy.
No. Universities do not confer any specific CPA master’s degree. In most states, candidates can have several different accounting-related degrees as long as they have taken certain courses that cover topics like accounting, audits, finance, tax, and more. However, you can check on the CPA requirements in your state before deciding what accounting degree with work for you.
Yes! Some universities offer CPA postgraduate and CPA postbac courses to their recent graduates. For instance, some schools have summer programs that help their grads study for the CPA Exam. If your school doesn’t offer this type of program, you can still opt to self-study with an online CPA Exam review course.
Is a CPA a master’s degree? No. The CPA is a license or certificate granted by one of the 55 Boards of Accountancy in the US.
No, you don’t necessarily need an accounting master’s degree to earn the CPA license. Candidates need at least 150 hours of higher education to earn a CPA license in all jurisdictions. For example, a bachelor’s degree is usually worth 120 hours, and a master’s degree provides students with 30 or 36 credit hours. Therefore, many accountants pursuing a CPA license choose to get a master’s degree to meet the CPA education requirement.
It takes a lot of work to get your accounting master’s. However, if you want higher salaries and better job opportunities, it might be worth the effort. Besides, masters in accounting jobs extend beyond the office. With a master’s, you can also teach at many colleges. And while you’re earning your master’s in accounting, you will likely build a network of peers who will help you throughout your career.
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!