Going to graduate school is a big commitment that requires a great deal of time, money and hard work. However, the benefits of earning a master’s degree in accounting, rather than having just a bachelor’s degree in accounting, make the graduate school investment well worth it for many accountants. With a master’s degree, you can better prepare for professional certifications like the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license, expand your skills to move into specialized or management roles and increase your salary and job prospects.
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Attain Professional Certification
The most effective way for accountants to advance their careers is by attaining a professional certification. The CPA license is typically the most in-demand professional accounting credential. In career paths outside of general public accounting, you might instead pursue the Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) or Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) designation. Candidates don’t necessarily need to have a graduate degree for any of these credentials, but getting your master’s degree can be valuable in a number of ways.
For one thing, CPAs in most of the U.S. must complete a minimum of 150 semester hours of study, or an additional year of full-time college education beyond what is required for a bachelor’s degree. You could choose to earn those additional credits at the undergraduate level by double majoring or taking courses as a non-degree-seeking student. However, many students choose to meet this requirement by going to graduate school for accounting, simultaneously completing their credit requirements and improving their career prospects in other ways.
The CPA exam is known for its difficulty. However, many master’s in accounting programs emphasize exam preparation in their curricula. If you are anxious about passing the four-part test, earning a master’s degree can actually help you learn the subject matter that the exam evaluates.
Having a master’s degree can also help you attain other certifications. If you’re pursuing the CIA credential, having a master’s degree allows you to attain certification with less work experience than you would need otherwise.
Gain Specialized and Management Skills
In a bachelor’s degree program in accounting, much of your studies will revolve around learning the foundations of general business subjects and introductory coursework in different types of accounting. While some accounting schools offer the opportunity to customize your education somewhat by pursuing an academic concentration, generally students take basic coursework in subjects such as cost accounting, managerial accounting, financial accounting, tax accounting and auditing. At the undergraduate level, you may take some intermediate courses and perhaps an advanced accounting class. However, you generally won’t have the opportunity to explore a specialized niche in-depth or advance to the most complex accounting concepts or practices.
When you go to graduate school, all that changes. You have already learned the basics as an undergraduate student, so you now have the opportunity to delve deeper into a specialization that interests you or cultivate the leadership skills you will need to move into a management position. A forensic accounting graduate program, for example, might include classes such as investigation of financial fraud, case studies in forensic accounting, cyber forensics, analytics for forensic accountants and a forensic accounting practicum experience. Master’s degree programs in management accounting might focus instead on topics like corporate financial management, advanced auditing and controllership. Students in a master’s degree program in taxation might take classes focusing on taxation for corporations, partnerships and individuals as well as more general courses on tax practice and procedures.
Some accountants choose to earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in accounting or another concentration rather than a specialized master’s degree in accounting. Any of these options can be valuable way to enhance your career.
Improve Earning and Employment Prospects
On its own and in conjunction with other career maneuvers, earning a master’s degree can increase your salary and job opportunities. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that there’s a “wage premium” associated with having a master’s degree for accountants and auditors. Of course, if you use your graduate education to help you attain certification or develop specialized skills, there are pay increases for those advancements, as well. The biggest pay raise is that which accompanies a CPA license. At every stage of their career, CPAs earn 10 to 15 percent more than their peers without certification, according to the Association of International Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Over a lifetime, that can add up to a million dollars more with a CPA license than without it, the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants reported.
The BLS reports that the median salary for accountants and auditors is $69,350, but even without a CPA license or a master’s degree, experienced senior accountants can earn salaries up to the six-figure range.