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Guide to a Career as a CMA
What is a Certified Management Accountant?
A certified management accountant (CMA) performs financial analysis and planning to support a business' operations. CMAs may prepare financial statements, monitor compliance, and supervise other accountants, but they also play a key role in helping businesses make strategic financial decisions.
9 Steps to a Career as a Certified Management Accountant
The following steps can help you pursue a career as a CMA.
Choose a school.
It's important to weigh several factors to decide if a school will help you reach your goals.
• Accreditation: An accredited school and program have demonstrated that they provide a quality education. Employers may require job candidates to have a degree from an accredited school, and you won't be able to apply for federal financial aid if your school isn't accredited.
• CMA concentration: While it isn't crucial, an accounting program that offers a CMA concentration will offer a deeper education about management accounting.
• Online programs: If you need flexibility to manage work or family responsibilities, an online program could be ideal. Online programs often include prerecorded lectures that let you learn at your convenience and give you access to instructors through video conferencing.
Choose a degree.
You'll need a bachelor's degree in accounting to become a CMA, but you can start with a two-year associate degree if that better fits your time frame and finances. From there, you can work while completing your bachelor's degree, which will take another two years.
Depending on the bachelor's degree you choose, you will earn a bachelor of arts (BA) or a bachelor of science (BS) in accounting, or a Bachelor of Accountancy (BAcc).
Gain admission to an accounting program.
At a minimum, you'll need a GED or high school diploma to apply to a bachelor's program. Additional requirements will vary depending on the school, and may include:
• Minimum GPA: The required minimum GPA will vary from 2.5 to 3.5 for more competitive schools.
• Prerequisite coursework: You may be required to take algebra or calculus before you're admitted to a program.
• Test scores: Some programs may require you to submit scores for college entrance exams like the ACT or SAT.
Earn your accounting degree and complete an internship.
Coursework for a bachelor's degree in accounting will include general business topics. A certified management accountant needs a strong background in financial analysis and forecasting, so look for classes in these areas.
Your accounting coursework could include:
• Principles of accounting
• Managerial and cost accounting
• Financial accounting
• Software proficiency and programming
• Business management strategy
Plan on an internship while you're in school. They're an invaluable part of your education and will help you in your job search when you graduate.
Kirsha Campbell, CPA/CMA, says the real-world experience of an internship isn't something you can get in the classroom. "You see what happens if you don't get reports in on time, and you have a chance to connect with coworkers and learn about team dynamics," she says.
"People often don't see the connection between what they're studying and what they're doing. Internships close that gap."
Internships also provide an opportunity to network and make contacts within the industry. They can strengthen a resume and may make you more competitive when you apply for positions.
An internship in the finance department of a local business or corporation can give you a chance to crunch some numbers and sit in on meetings.
Find your first position.
Before you can pursue CMA certification, you'll need two years of work experience. Campbell suggests looking for an entry-level accounting role like an analyst position that includes some decision-making responsibilities. Positions that include budgeting and forecasting also are helpful.
Even working in other business departments, such as sales and marketing, can be valuable if you're analyzing finances and numbers.
As part of your job search:
• Attend job fairs. These events give you the chance to connect with potential employers in person and allow you to size up multiple opportunities at the same time.
• Reach out to your internship connections. The business you interned with may have entry-level roles for an aspiring management accountant.
• Reach out to your network. Your contacts, including professors and fellow students, may know of other opportunities.
• Create a LinkedIn profile to find roles and increase your connections.
Pursue CMA certification.
While certification isn't required to work as a management accountant, you'll need it to claim the title "certified management accountant." In addition, some employers may require job candidates to be CMAs, and you'll likely need to earn certification to advance to the top of your career in the field.
Campbell says a certification demonstrates that you've gone through specialized training, and that brings credibility. "A certification speaks to the fact that you bring quality standards, integrity, a level of professionalism, and a knowledge base to the position," she says. "It is especially important in decision-making areas."
Here's more about the credential.
Certified Management Accountant
• Who Grants It: Institute of Management Accountants
• What It Is: A professional credential demonstrating specialized knowledge in financial planning, management, performance, and analytics
• Who It's For: Management accountants and financial professionals
• Requirements: Bachelor's degree and two continuous years of experience in management accounting or financial management
Prepare for certification.
The CMA exam has two parts. Part one focuses on financial planning, performance, and analytics, while part two focuses on strategic financial management.
The Institute of Management Accountants says that it takes an average of 12 to 18 months to complete both parts of the test, but applicants have three years to finish the exam. The institute recommends spending 150 to 170 hours studying for each part, so it's important to prepare well in advance.
Fee-based preparation resources are available, and some schools offer prep courses. When you register for the exam, you'll receive a CMA Exam Support package that consists of retired test questions. The Institute of Management Accountants also offers a CMA Handbook and a content outline to help you prepare.
Pass the exam.
You may take the exam remotely or in person at a testing center. Each part consists of 100 multiple-choice questions and two 30-minute essays. You will have four hours to complete each, and you can take both parts on the same day if you prefer.
Campbell says that as a CMA, there's significant room for career growth. "You're not in a box," she says. "CMAs have gone on to manage companies and spearhead non-traditional businesses."
For example, as a CMA, you could lead expansions, become the vice president of a new location, or start your own firm.
Earning a master's degree may open up additional opportunities for advancement. Campbell says that specializing in areas such as tax law or strategy can be valuable. You have two options for a graduate degree: a master's in accounting or a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in accounting.
Is Certified Management Accounting Your Future?
CMAs use their accounting and business leadership skills to support not only the day-to-day operations of a business but also to provide information and advice on business management and strategic decision-making.
CMAs have a wide variety of responsibilities:
The CMA certification is recognized globally, so earning your certification could lead to a career in international business and accounting.
The Successful CMA
What does it take to be a successful CMA? Here are some crucial qualities and skills.
How Long Does It Take to Become a CMA?
It'll take six to seven years to become a certified management accountant, but it can be a rewarding career that's worth the time and effort.
If you go to school full time, you'll earn your bachelor's degree in about four years. You'll need two years of work experience before you can take your CMA exam, plus time to study for the test.
Where You'll Work
CMAs work for consulting and accounting firms, nonprofits, and across many industries, from finance and public administration to education, health services, and hospitality. They're often hired as consultants to bring an independent perspective and credibility to a business.
"CMAs are called upon when there's trouble," says Campbell. "They're called on when companies realize that they're losing money, or they need integrity connected to their numbers and their reports need to be reliable."
Job Outlook and Salary
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that jobs for CMAs will grow by 7% from 2020 to 2030. That translates into 135,000 positions each year. Some of those openings will be due to retirement, but complex tax laws and regulations also will spur growth.
According to the BLS, accountants earn a median annual salary of $77,250. Accountants in the lowest 10% earn less than $47,970, while those in the top 10% earn more than $128,970.
The BLS doesn't break out pay for accounting specialties, so salaries include CMAs, CPAs, and accountants in general. Earning a certification such as CMA can boost your salary and qualify you for higher-paying jobs.
Your experience, where you work, and where you live also can influence your salary. Here are the top-paying metro areas for accountants.
Once you're a CMA, you can use professional resources to stay on top of the latest conversations and trends in your field. Here are some resources to help you do that and advance your career.
Institute of Management Accountants (IMA): The IMA offers a robust education center with continuing education opportunities, webinars, and career resources.
IMA Podcast: The IMA's podcast, "Count Me In," includes updates and perspectives on accounting and finance.
Accounting Today: This online magazine features industry news, insights, and expert interviews.