Do Accountants Need a Master's Degree?

Do Accountants Need a Master's Degree?
Do Accountants Need a Master's Degree?

Accounting students throughout the United States can boost their future careers by completing graduate degrees. Master's degrees help accountants qualify for state licenses, reach higher salary levels, and anticipate future promotions. Adding a master's degree to an accounting resume also shows long-term commitment to the profession. An online master's in accounting from a school like Suffolk University helps graduates achieve these benchmarks on their schedules.

Speed up the licensing process

Completing a master's in accounting provides a good launchpad for the certified public accountant (CPA) and the certified management accountant (CMA) exams. A review of CPA and CMA certification benchmarks shows the value of a graduate degree.

Certified Public Accountant

Graduates of accounting programs typically work in entry-level positions at banks and corporations. Accountants can enhance their chances for promotions and pay raises by completing the CPA exam. It is possible to advance an accounting career without a CPA, but a master's degree and certification are handy assets. The American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) developed the Uniform CPA Exam to help state licensing boards with their accounting standards.

The Uniform CPA Exam features four sections that are administered virtually by state accounting boards. Accountants need to show aptitude in auditing and attestation, business environment and concepts, financial accounting and reporting, and regulation. A test taker needs to achieve a score of 75 or better on each section before advancing to the next section. In 2019, the AICPA found the following pass rates for each section:

  • Auditing and attestation: 52.12%
  • Business environment and concepts: 58.93%
  • Financial accounting and reporting: 46.97%
  • Regulation: 55.17%

Before taking the Uniform CPA Exam, an accountant needs to meet their state's CPA requirements. The typical state requirement is a completed accounting degree and at least two years of accounting experience. Suffolk University's online master's in accounting, and other programs help achieve these goals while preparing graduates for certification exams.

The AICPA distinguishes between one-tier and two-tier licensing states. A one-tier state requires an applicant to complete the exam and license requirements before practicing as a CPA. Two-tier states allow accountants to complete their exams for certification and then gain licenses through educational and experiential requirements. CPAs who achieve all of these benchmarks demonstrate their commitments to strong ethical and legal standards for accounting practices.

Certified Management Accountant

Early-career accountants can open doors to high-level positions by completing the CMA exam. A management accountant works with executives and department leaders to navigate the financial implications of business decisions. The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) oversees the two-part CMA exam, which typically takes 18 months to complete.

The CMA exam is divided into financial planning and strategic financial management portions. The financial planning exam deals with topics like performance management and forecasting. Strategic financial management exams include portions on decision analysis, corporate finance, and risk management.

To complete the CMA exam, an applicant needs at least two years of professional experience and a complete degree or current state certification. The IMA touts a 50% passage rate with about 4,000 certifications offered each year. Graduates of traditional and online masters in accounting programs possess the academic skills and accounting knowledge to achieve CMA certification.

Improving salary outlooks

The accounting profession is in constant demand due to the increasingly complex world of corporate and personal finances. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 10% growth in accounting jobs from 2016 to 2026. The projected growth rate for all occupations during that time is 7%, showing ongoing growth for accounting careers.

Graduate degrees, state certifications, and professional experiences are the biggest variables in determining salaries. The median wage for an accountant in May 2018 was $70,500, according to the BLS. The top industries for accountants in terms of salary are finance and insurance with an average salary of $74,690. The BLS also highlights corporate management ($73,180) and accounting services ($70,640) positions as sources for above-average salaries. Accountants in the top 10% of earners in 2018 earned salaries of at least $122,840.

PayScale provides a glimpse into specific jobs held by accountants with master's degrees and their salaries in 2019:

  • Senior financial analyst ($79,536): Senior financial analysts synthesize internal and external data to create long-term financial plans. An accountant in this position works with junior analysts to evaluate market conditions, consumer trends, and legal changes to balance risk with reward.
  • Tax manager ($96,666): Tax managers oversee relevant tax filings and documentation for their employers. This position is also expected to find tax savings, handle audit responses, and provide input into tax implications for corporate decisions.
  • Corporate controllers ($96,879): Controllers manage accounting and financial systems for their employers. A corporate controller works with staff members to oversee everything from annual budgets to customer billing.
Preparing for leadership opportunities

Undergraduate degrees in accounting focus mostly on the technical skills necessary to handle the demands of the profession. Future accountants who are interested in developing management and leadership skills should pursue master's degrees. Graduate programs in accounting improve technical abilities while highlighting "soft" skills that are critical to future success.

Robert Half's job description for an accounting manager position demonstrates the need for advanced learning. The primary responsibilities for this position include reviewing accounting ledgers and maintaining effective policies. Accounting managers, however, are also involved in managing staff members from hiring to termination. A manager works with the human resources department to seek qualified applicants for open positions. This supervisory position is also responsible for department-specific training, professional development, and daily oversight of all accounting staff.

An online master's in accounting from Suffolk University can also provide the skills and networks to obtain executive positions. Chief financial officers (CFO) often possess accounting experiences that allow them to manage millions of dollars spread across the world. These executives also obtain graduate degrees in accounting or business and leverage their relationships to find the right job opportunities. An accounting degree plus extensive experience can also open chief operating officer and chief executive officer positions that require superior administrative skills. The path to the top starts with courses and internships offered by a graduate accounting program.