Accounting Career and Degree Guide
Master's Degrees in Accounting: Everything You Need to Know
If you're a wizard in math with an interest in business, finance, and tax law, a career in accounting might be the perfect fit. While it's not necessary to earn an advanced degree to work in the field, a master's in accounting can prepare you for high-level roles like a corporate accountant, financial analyst, or CPA.
Pursuing accounting can provide a great amount of job security as nearly every industry in the country has needs for professionals in the field. Furthermore, accountants might find that earning a master's degree is the most practical option, as it leads to the most opportunities for careers and certification. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council, the demand for accountants with master's is incredibly strong, with 42% of companies saying they planned to hire recent graduates.
If you want to use your skills to help individuals and businesses achieve their financial goals, read on to learn what you can expect when pursuing a master's in accounting.
What Is a Master of Accounting Degree?
A Master of Accounting, or MAcc, is designed to prepare you to work within the finance departments of industries such as insurance, banking, manufacturing, technology, construction, government, and much more. With this degree, you could possibly go into private practice or move up the ranks of an organization to become a CFO.
What's more, depending on your state, having a master's degree may also be a requirement for pursuing the highly respected credential of Certified Public Accountant (CPA). CPAs have more job opportunities than non-certified accountants and take on larger responsibilities. For instance, accountants might manage bookkeeping, payroll, or simple tax-related issues, while CPAs might prepare audited financial statements or take on complex tax matters for publicly traded companies.
To become a CPA, you need to complete 150 credit hours of education.
Since bachelor's degree are typically made up of 120 credits, it's very common for aspiring CPAs to pursue the MAcc to meet these requirements.
While the MAcc is one of the most common degrees you'll see, there are some others you'll come across as you explore your options.
The MSA, or Master of Science in Accounting, is more or less the same as a MAcc, however, this depends on the school. Both should prepare you to graduate with the same knowledge of principles related to accounting, auditing, taxation, business, economics, problem-solving, and professional standards. They should also both prepare you to take the CPA exam created by the American Institute for Certified Public Accountants.
The MBA, or Master of Business Administration, focuses more on the overarching concepts of finance and business management, though there will certainly be some overlap with the curriculum for MAccs and MSAs. However, if you plan to pursue your CPA certification with an MBA degree, you'll want to compare your state's requirements with what your program offers. Not all MBA degrees will prepare you to take the CPA exam.
What Can You Do with an Accounting Degree?
With a master's degree in accounting, you'll have a wide range of potential career paths. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that job growth for accountants and auditors will increase by 6% through 2028, and those with specialized certifications like the CPA are likely to have better prospects. With a master's, you could find roles such as:
- Budget analyst
- Corporate accountant
- Financial analyst
- Forensic accountant
- Personal finance planner
- Taxation specialist
Master's degree in accounting salary
Holding a master's degree and certification can also increase your earning potential. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median annual salary for accountants to be $70,500, those in the top 10% earned more than $122,000 in 2018.
Salary & Job Growth
Annual Median Salary
Meet an Advanced Degree Holder: Michelle Ferris, MPA
"My husband was basically a single father for the year I was earning my degree," says Michelle, a thirty-something mom who returned to school for her master's in professional accountancy (MPA) in 2011.
Throughout her studies, she held down a full-time job as a bookkeeper in a construction office while juggling schoolwork and a busy household. With two daughters (ages 10 and 16) at home, her education was truly a family affair. "I was studying constantly on the weekends," says Michelle, "and we passed up a lot of things—trips to see my parents, other trips to go to Christmas."
At her lowest point, Michelle found herself on the edge of tears, saying to her husband, Kinney, "Oh my gosh, this is going to take five years." To which he responded, "But if you don't do it, where will you be in five years?" With Kinney as her cheerleader, Michelle stayed the course, convinced that the long-term payoffs would be worth the sacrifice.
"The first job I got with my master's degree doubled my income"
Michelle actually completed her master's degree in just 1 year. She chose a full-time MPA program through a satellite campus of Central Washington University. With just 10 students in her cohort, she enjoyed an intimate, intense atmosphere of focused learners.
The school's accounting course work offered a broad grounding in the field, with a strong emphasis on theory. Classes ran the gamut from marketing and business law to taxation, auditing, and finance. Case studies factored heavily in the workload, as did writing assignments. "All I did was write term papers," remembers Michelle.
Although the program was set in a traditional, on-campus format, the classes had a strong virtual flavor. Michelle's instructors, who taught at 2 other satellite locations, sometimes delivered their lectures remotely, speaking to the assembled students from a screen set up in the classroom.
In the end, Michelle and her family didn't have to wait long to see the benefits of her education. "The first job I got with my master's degree doubled my income," she says. Michelle has since become the director of finance at All Star, and remains a strong advocate for the master's in accounting: "It's a respected, valued degree—it shows potential."
Typical Degree Path in Accounting
It's entirely possible to find work as an accountant with a bachelor's degree, but if you want to expand your career options, consider pursuing the education you need to become a CPA.
For some students, this might mean earning a bachelor's degree before taking additional non-degree coursework to meet the necessary 150 credits. However, it's more common for students to enroll in a program that lets them earn their bachelor's and master's simultaneously. This option often cuts down on the amount of time you spend in school versus earning the degrees on their own.
Master's in Accounting Admission Requirements
Most master's programs in accounting are geared towards students who hold an undergrad degree in the same field or a closely related area such as business. No matter your degree, you'll likely need to have completed intermediate-level courses in accounting, taxation, auditing, economics, and business law. If your undergrad degree is in a different field, you'll need to complete prerequisites to be prepared for your master's-level coursework.
Do you need to take the GMAT?
Traditionally, colleges offering a master's in accounting have required applicants to take the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) and earn a score of around 500. However, some schools have discarded this requirement in favor of prioritizing previous education and any relevant work experience.
If your school does ask for the GMAT, you still might be able to waive this requirement if you have an exceptional undergrad GPA and a proven track record of professional experience.
Master's in Accounting Curriculum
At the master's level, classes move beyond the basics of accounting and delve more into theory and principle.
The classes you take will depend on your program, however, all accounting master's degrees should prepare you to tackle duties such as auditing, preparing tax returns, and assessing business operations. You can expect to take classes that cover the following topics:
- Accounting theory and research
- Business law
- Business strategy
- Communications for accountants
- Cost analysis
- Ethics in business
- Financial regulations
- Financial reporting
- Information technology
- Internal controls systems
- Quantitative analysis
Many programs also allow students to specialize their education. You might choose to concentrate your degree more heavily in areas that could include:
- Accounting administration: Prepares you for roles in HR departments, overseeing payroll, office management, and other administrative tasks
- Accounting technology: Teaches financial software and how to apply it to business operations
- Tax preparation: Dives further into managing and preparing income, property, and other tax returns for individuals and businesses
- Forensic accounting: Focuses on laws related to financial crimes such as fraud, embezzlement, and corruption
How long does it take to get an accounting degree?
As most students who pursue a master's degree in accounting already hold a bachelor's in the field, they're prepared to complete the necessary coursework in just 1 year. These master's programs are typically made up of 30 credits and allow students to earn the total 150 that are needed for the CPA.
Online Accounting Master's Degree
If you're balancing work or family obligations, earning an online education could be the ideal option for your busy life. Hundreds of schools across the country offer online programs that provide the same level of education while also granting students the flexibility to take classes at their convenience.
Some schools also have hybrid programs, which combine both online and on-campus coursework. In these, you can complete the majority of your classes online, while still getting face-to-face interaction with professors once or twice a week.
How to Pick a Master's Degree Program
When choosing a master's degree program, it's important that your institution is accredited by the appropriate agencies. Accreditation guarantees that your program meets the highest level of education standards and will qualify you to pursue CPA certification. The following agencies are approved by the U.S. Department of Education to provide accreditation for business programs:
- The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which accredits business administration and accounting degree programs at the undergrad and graduate levels
- The Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs, which accredits business, accounting, and other related programs are at the associate's, bachelor's, and graduate levels
- The International Accreditation Council for Business Education, which accredits business-related programs that lead to associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees
While those agencies accredit programs, the U.S. Department of Education also provides accreditation for institutions through various regional agencies. You can find a list of these agencies on their website and verify accreditation through the database.
Once you've gotten proof of accreditation, take into consideration a program's curriculum, format, and cost to find one that matches your resources and goals. Ask questions such as:
- Does this program offer the areas of concentration I want to study?
- Is there a part-time or online option that fits with my schedule?
- Is there a combined bachelor's/master's degree option that fulfills the 150-credit CPA requirement?
- What are the graduation and employment rates of previous students?
- How successful are graduates in taking the CPA exam?
- Can I speak to recent graduates about their experiences?
- What types of financial aid are offered?
Financial Aid for Accounting Students
The cost of earning your master's degree depends on the school you attend and other factors such as format. However, instead of pursuing separate bachelor's and master's degrees, you might save money by entering a joint degree program that allows you to earn both in just 5 years.
No matter the option you choose, there are many ways to fund your education. The first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA takes into account factors such as your income, marital status, and number of dependents to determine your eligibility to receive financial aid. Assistance could come in the form of loans, grants, or work-study opportunities. Many students also choose to supplement this aid with loans through private institutions.
There are also plenty of scholarships available for all different kinds of students. These could be merit-based or depend on other criteria such as race, religion, background, special interests, military status, and more. Accounting scholarships can be found through:
- Your school
- State incentive programs
- Private businesses
- Professional or community organizations
- National and local accounting associations
Student loan forgiveness
You might qualify for loan forgiveness through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, however, you must meet certain criteria. These involve having direct federal loans, making at least 120 qualifying repayments, and finding full-time employment in a government or nonprofit agency.
What's more, student loan repayment is becoming an increasingly popular benefit among employers. To attract the best talent, many top companies provide employees with thousands of dollars to repay their debt. If you already have a bachelor's degree and are currently working as an accountant, there's a chance your employer might also provide funding towards earning a higher degree.