While earning a bachelor’s is the necessary first leg of the journey to becoming an accountant, the degree is insufficient for professionals aspiring to the most senior positions in the field. To be eligible to sit for the CPA exam, a master’s is generally advised, as the program’s coursework can serve as one of the two years of experience required to qualify to take the test, while also providing the best educational preparation.

Students interested in a graduate-level education have several different options available. Master of Accountancy (MAcc) and Master of Science in Accounting programs (MS) admit students with undergraduate degrees in accounting or a related field, while the Master of Business Administration in Accounting (MBA) and the Master of Professional Accounting (MPAc) programs often enroll students from a variety of undergraduate majors, including most if not all humanities-based majors.

Master’s graduates find employment within a wide range of work settings, including private practice and government agencies. The majority of roles within these organizations require licensure ― generally, speaking graduates will also pursue a professional credential such as Certified Public Accountant (CPA), Certified Management Accountant (CMA), or Certified Internal Auditor (CIA). Students interested in certification should compare academic programs to the licensure process in their state.

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Common Career Paths for Accounting Graduate Students

Many employers prefer to hire accountants with a master’s degree. Graduate-level education provides students with not only the credit hours required to pursue a CPA license, but also advanced knowledge and skills tied to the core areas of accounting:

Job opportunities span a variety of industries and include big accounting firms and small businesses, as well as the public and private sectors.

Public Accountant and Auditor

Job Description

These accounting professionals work primarily within accounting firms, though some establish their own businesses to offer accounting services and consulting. Accountants in the public sector will track, calculate and review financial information, prepare financial reports and maintain detailed financial records.

Employment Outlook

Demand

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the hiring demand for accountants and auditors will increase 13% from 2012 to 2022. Accounting professionals with master’s degrees, and those who have completed certification (i.e., CPAs), can expect a distinct advantage in the job market.

Trends

Skills and knowledge in the areas of global business practices and international financial reporting standards are in demand as companies develop multinational interests.

Salary

The median salary for accountants and auditors working in accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping and payroll services was $63,530 in 2012.

Certifications

Accountants who sign and file documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission must be licensed Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). This certification process includes an exam, as well as education and experience requirements that vary by state.

Jobs and Roles

Public accountants may choose to specialize in a specific type of accounting service. Some of these specialties include:

  • Tax Accountant: Assist with the collection and reporting of financial data required for submitting federal and state tax returns; ensure compliance with tax filing laws and regulations.
  • Forensic Accountant: Conduct financial fraud investigations into issues such as insurance claims and bankruptcy; lead periodic reviews of accounting practices; consult on risk management issues; gather evidence, provide analysis of information and produce detailed reports.

Public Accountant and Auditor

Job Description

These accounting professionals work primarily within accounting firms, though some establish their own businesses to offer accounting services and consulting. Accountants in the public sector will track, calculate and review financial information, prepare financial reports and maintain detailed financial records.

Employment Outlook

Demand

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the hiring demand for accountants and auditors will increase 13% from 2012 to 2022. Accounting professionals with master’s degrees, and those who have completed certification (i.e., CPAs), can expect a distinct advantage in the job market.

Trends

Skills and knowledge in the areas of global business practices and international financial reporting standards are in demand as companies develop multinational interests.

Salary

The median salary for accountants and auditors working in accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping and payroll services was $63,530 in 2012.

Certifications

Accountants who sign and file documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission must be licensed Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). This certification process includes an exam, as well as education and experience requirements that vary by state.

Jobs and Roles

Public accountants may choose to specialize in a specific type of accounting service. Some of these specialties include:

  • Tax Accountant: Assist with the collection and reporting of financial data required for submitting federal and state tax returns; ensure compliance with tax filing laws and regulations.
  • Forensic Accountant: Conduct financial fraud investigations into issues such as insurance claims and bankruptcy; lead periodic reviews of accounting practices; consult on risk management issues; gather evidence, provide analysis of information and produce detailed reports.

Corporate Accountant

Job Description

Accountants in this category are also referred to as management accountants or private accountants. Corporate accountants are employed within a company to manage the organization’s financial records and transactions. This role could include a range of tasks related to business processes such as payroll, accounts receivable, accounts payable, financial analysis and asset management.

Employment Outlook

Demand

The hiring demand for accountants and auditors in general, which includes corporate settings, is expected to increase 13% from 2012 to 2022. Accountants who have a master’s degree in accounting and/or licensure as a CPA are often more desirable to hiring managers.

Trends

The Institute of Management Accountants conducts research related to this career field and recently identified the following skills as growing trends: predictive accounting, business analytics and information technology management.

Salary

According to the Institute of Management Accountants, the median annual salary for accountants working in business was $96,000 in 2013.

Certifications

Management accountants can earn the CPA license and pursue the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) credential through the Institute of Management Accountants.

Jobs and Roles

Corporate or management accountants may choose to specialize in a particular role or type of position. Some of these specialties include:

  • Controller: Leads all financial and accounting functions within an organization; develops and maintains budgets; guides strategic planning; monitors costs, pricing and inventory.
  • Cost Accountant: Conducts ongoing data collection and analysis of financial data focused on reducing overall operating costs; advises senior-level managers on inventory, budgeting and cost reduction issues.
  • Internal Auditor: Reviews financial information and systems to recommend improvements; evaluates financial reports, systems and functions to assist managers with regulatory compliance decisions, risk management and business operations.
  • Information Technology Auditor: Reviews financial technology systems to ensure efficiency and accuracy; recommends risk management procedures related to digital data collection, storage and security.

Tax Examiner, Collector and Revenue Agent

Job Description

Government agencies at all levels – local, state and federal – hire accounting professionals in a variety of roles. Primary tasks include the review, audit and collection of income taxes owed by individuals and organizations.

Employment Outlook

Demand

Budget limitations in recent years have led to a reduction in hiring at all levels of government. Job opportunities for tax examiners, collectors and revenue agents are expected to decline by 4% from 2012 to 2022.

Trends

In addition to earning a degree in accounting or a related field (e.g., business, finance, business, economics), many tax examiners and collectors hired at the federal level also have previous professional work experience. Background investigations are sometime conducted as part of the hiring process.

Salary

The median salary for tax examiners, collectors and revenue agents in 2012 ranged from $40,140 at the local level, to $46,790 at state government positions and $59,310 at the federal level.

Certifications

Specific certification and licensure are not generally required to enter this career path, but may be preferred in some government offices.

Jobs and Roles

Accounting positions are found in many different parts of government, including the following agencies:

  • Internal Revenue Service: Work settings range from field offices to independent auditor positions in full-time, part-time or seasonal capacities; review and respond to issues related to individual and corporate income taxes.
  • U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission: Review filings, analyze data and monitor processes related to financial markets; interact with market professionals, brokers, financial investment advisors and related groups.
  • Government Accountability Office: Oversee development and administration of programs related to financial reporting, budget management, acquisitions and other accounting functions.

Master’s in Accounting: Student Expectations

Master’s degrees in accounting include a combination of core courses and electives. Some schools allow students to tailor their programs to focus on a specific accounting topic by adding courses that comprise a specialization or concentration. Internships may be a mandatory component and can often be used to fulfill elective requirements.

The total number of courses or credit hours required for graduation varies by school and program, but generally falls between 30 and 60 credit hours. Programs that accept students lacking either a bachelor’s in accounting or relevant work experience will tend to include more courses and prerequisites. Applicants with previously earned accounting degrees can anticipate earning a master’s in one year or less, assuming full-time attendance.

Students desiring a master’s degree in accounting should research multiple programs before making an enrollment decision. In order to ensure that a program meets their needs, it’s essential that prospective students review a program’s accreditation, course lists, experiential learning opportunities and student counseling services.

Master of Accountancy or Master’s in Accounting (MAcc)

Students in an MAcc program can expect to complete approximately 30 credit hours of coursework. Full time students could complete these programs in 12 to 15 months. The MAcc curriculum is similar to that of a Master of Science in Accounting (MS), and many programs are designed to help students fulfill the education requirements of CPA licensure.

Primary Concepts and Objectives

In addition to the primary concepts included in undergraduate accounting programs, students graduating with accounting master’s are expected to have advanced knowledge and skills related to:

  • Accounting and Auditing: Analysis, interpretation and reporting of financial data that assists management personnel with business decision making; ability to ensure compliance with policies, regulations and laws
  • Taxation: Calculating and reporting the tax or levy paid to the government by individuals and organizations
  • Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking: Recognizing challenges and providing solutions to complex financial problems in a business setting and team environment
  • Ethical Principles and Professional Standards: Application of established professional standards and ethical principles to accounting practices and decision making
  • International Perspectives: An understanding of the growing impact of global economics, financial guidelines and cultural diversity in the context of accounting practices

Courses

Each student works with faculty and academic advisors to create an individual degree plan. Some programs allow students to add course work leading to a specialization or concentration within the field of accounting.

Core

Core courses focus on the central theories and practices of accounting, allowing students to develop advanced knowledge and skills. Typical course titles include:

  • Professional Communication
  • Tax Planning for Corporate Decisions
  • Financial Statement Analysis
  • Advanced Cost Accounting
  • Enterprise Information Systems

Electives

Elective courses provide an opportunity for students to delve deeper into accounting topics or learn about related topics in classes offered by other programs, such as business and law. Examples of elective courses include:

  • Accounting in the Global Business Environment
  • Mergers and Acquisitions
  • Taxation of Partnerships and S-Corporations
  • Energy Accounting
  • Family Wealth Preservation

Specialization

In programs that offer multiple specialization options or “tracks,” students can complete a series of courses that add an emphasis area to the degree plan. Specializations are often listed in academic transcripts. Specialization courses might include topics such as:

  • Tax Research
  • Individual Income Taxation
  • Energy Financial Modeling

Master of Science in Accounting (MS)

Students in an MS in Accounting program can expect to complete 30 to 36 credit hours of coursework. Full time students could complete these programs in 12 to 18 months. The MS curriculum is similar to that of a Master of Accountancy (MAcc), and usually satisfies CPA licensure education requirements. Make sure you compare the academic requirements of any graduate programs you may be interested in pursuing, and understand how they match your needs and goals.

Primary Concepts and Objectives

In addition to the primary concepts included in undergraduate accounting programs, students graduating with master’s degrees in accounting are expected to have advanced knowledge and skills related to:

  • Accounting and Auditing: Collect and analyze financial data; provide accurate reports to managers and stakeholders; assure compliance with financial policies and regulations
  • Taxation: Calculating and reporting income and other taxes levied on individuals and organizations by the government
  • Problem-solving and Critical Thinking: Work as part of a business team to propose solutions to complex financial problems
  • Ethical Principles and Professional Standards: Conduct accounting practices according to established standards and ethical principles
  • International Perspectives: Provide accounting products and services in the context of global economics and multinational business

Courses

Individual degree plans are established for each student with the assistance of faculty and academic advisors. Additional coursework leading to a specialization or concentration is also an option in many programs.

Core

Core courses build on undergraduate topics, providing students with the opportunity to develop advanced knowledge and skills in accounting theories and practices. Core course titles can include:

  • Corporate Tax Decisions and Strategies
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting
  • Quantitative Analysis for Decision Making
  • Advanced Topics in Financial Reporting
  • Strategic Business Planning

Electives

Elective courses allow students to learn more about a specific area of interest. These options often cover a range of subjects, such as:

  • Negotiations
  • Governmental and Nonprofit Accounting
  • Business Law
  • Multijurisdictional Taxation
  • Advanced Public Sector Accounting

Specialization

Some MS programs offer specialization or concentration “tracks” where students can complete a series of courses to further develop specific knowledge and skills. Specializations are often listed in official academic transcripts. The concentration courses might include:

  • Detection of Fraudulent Financial Statements
  • Estate and Gift Taxation
  • International Accounting Standards
  • Audit/Information Assurance

Master of Business Administration in Accounting (MBA)

Students earning an MBA in Accounting can expect to complete 40 – 60 credit hours of coursework. Many of these programs are offered in accelerated formats, so completion time varies depending on the number of courses students take each term. Most programs in this category advertise finishing a degree in 15 to 36 months, which includes the business curriculum and additional courses to add a concentration in accounting.

MBA in Accounting programs are often designed to meet the needs of students with a bachelor’s degree in subjects other than accounting (i.e., liberal arts). This degree can also be a good choice for students who majored in business as undergraduates and are now interested in entering the accounting field.

Primary Concepts and Objectives

Students earning an MBA in Accounting are expected to have advanced knowledge and skills related to:

  • Business Management and Leadership: Marketing, supply chain management and general operations ; facilitating collaboration among team members and partners; effective communication with a wide range of people including employees, colleagues, shareholders and agents from regulatory agencies
  • Information Technology: Appropriate use of data management systems to track and organize the financial information needed to make business and accounting decisions
  • Ethics and Professionalism: Demonstrating ethical decision-making and reporting practices
  • Accounting Theory and Practice: A foundation in accounting subjects, such as financial analysis, income tax, auditing, and information systems

Courses

Individual degree plans are established for each student with the assistance faculty and academic advisors. MBA students should expect to take a combination of core business and accounting courses, as well as a few electives.

Core Business

The business curriculum provides a foundation in organizational management, marketing and operations.

  • Business Law
  • Marketing for Decision Making
  • Business Economics
  • Leadership and Organizational Behavior
  • Human Capital Management

Core Accounting

Core classes provide students with the opportunity to develop advanced knowledge and skills in accounting theories and practices.

  • Accounting Principles and Practices
  • Managerial and Cost Accounting
  • Federal Taxes and Management Decisions
  • Auditing Concepts
  • Forensic Accounting

Electives

Elective courses allow students to explore a specific area of interest or provide career preparation. The range of topics and number of elective credits allowed varies by school and program.

  • Accounting in the Digital Era
  • Decoding Corporate Financial Communications

Master of Professional Accountancy or Accounting (MPA, MPAc, MPAcc)

MPA programs usually welcome applicants who have earned bachelor’s degrees with majors other than accounting. These programs require 30 to 45 credit hours of coursework, and full time students could complete these programs in 9 to 15 months. Students with undergraduate accounting credits may be able to apply that work toward the MPA. The curriculum is often designed to meet the upper-level course work requirements of the CPA licensure system in the school’s home state.

Primary Concepts and Objectives

MPA programs include classes and experiences that help students develop knowledge and skills in the following areas:

  • Accounting and Auditing: Financial data analysis and reporting; compliance with internal organizational policies and external regulatory mandates
  • Taxation: Tracking, calculation and reporting of individual and corporate income tax
  • Global Markets: Provide accounting and financial guidance in the context of international economics and multinational business settings
  • Ethical Principles and Professional Standards: Demonstrating ethical decision making and accounting practices in a professional setting, following established standards and guidelines

Courses

MPA students will complete a series of core accounting courses, and may have the opportunity to choose from among a few approved electives.

Core

The majority of the curriculum is made up of accounting courses, such as the following:

  • Cost Accounting
  • Financial Reporting
  • Advanced Tax Reporting and Analysis
  • Advanced Accounting Theory
  • Managerial Accounting and Controls
  • Communications in Professional Accounting
  • Business Law and Ethics

Electives

Programs that include elective course options allow students to pursue a particular area of interest in accounting, business or a related topic. Examples of accounting elective courses are:

  • Global Business Experience
  • Advanced Law
  • International Finance
  • Urban Economics

Accreditation

The process through which higher education institutions and programs are evaluated for quality is called accreditation. Accrediting agencies are independent organizations that review program criteria against an established set of standards that address curriculum development, faculty qualifications, student support, financial resources, academic services, resources and student achievement.

Current accreditation is important for students who are interested in:

  • Transferring Credits: Most schools will only consider transfer credit from institutions that have a positive accreditation status.
  • Receiving Financial Aid: Federal financial aid is only available to students attending institutions accredited by a U.S. Department of Education recognized accrediting agency.
  • Becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA): Most State Boards of Accountancy have adopted the requirement of 150 credit hours of college-level education from accredited programs, in order to earn licensure.

Check for regional or national-level accreditation at the university level. Individual academic departments and degree programs can also earn specialized accreditation. Accounting master’s are usually reviewed and accredited through one or more of the following organizations:

  • AACSB – Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business
  • ACBSP – Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs
  • IACBE – International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education

Online Master’s in Accounting vs. Campus Programs

Some institutions offer both online and on-campus options for their master’s in accounting programs. Students may also be able to opt for a hybrid program that incorporates both classroom and online instruction.

Due to the uniformity of accounting curriculum standards required to sit for credentialing exams like the CPA exam, all accredited accounting programs should be created equally, regardless of delivery format.

While accreditation status guarantees a certain level of quality in a master’s program, certain types of formats, curriculum and teaching styles are better for certain types of students. One program may better qualify you to pass the CPA exam and excel in your accounting career than another.

  • Online Programs: These programs offer the convenience of completing classwork from a distance, usually around busy work schedules and family commitments. This flexibility, however, requires students to be self-motivated and organized, with excellent time management skills. Online students must also be willing to learn how to use a range of technologies to participate and communicate with instructors and classmates.
  • Campus Programs: Traditional programs offer in-person interaction with instructors and classmates, as well as lecture series, special topic seminars and alumni and employer networking events. While there are benefits to in-person classes, regular attendance and participation are required for success.

The best way to decide which format is right for you is to understand your individual habits and circumstances.

  • Do you prefer to learn and work independently?
  • Are you a proactive and conscientious student?
  • Do you need to maintain a full-time job during your program? Is it flexible?
  • How specialized are your interests in accounting?
  • If it is an online master’s in accounting program, is it offered to residents in your state?
  • Does the program fully meet the CPA curriculum requirements of your state?
  • Does the program offer concentrations that interest you?
  • How important are alumni networks and career placement services to you?
  • Do you still need to complete certain undergraduate prerequisites before enrolling?
  • Do you have graduate credits you may be able apply toward the program?

Online accounting programs are understandably popular for a student demographic made up of so many mid-career professionals, but they aren’t for everyone. For instance, if collaborative learning, networking and mentorships are a critical ingredient for your engagement and achievement, a campus-based or hybrid program might be worth the time it takes to work around it.

On the other hand, if you have a solid understanding of your goals in accounting, an online accounting master’s could provide you with the independence and flexibility you need to achieve them.

Next Steps

Enrolling in a master’s degree program may be your priority today, but it’s just one step in developing your accounting career. Consider the following possibilities for after graduation:

  • Enter the workforce. Across the working world, there is a steady demand for new accountants. In a poll of firms conducted by the American Institute of CPAs, 26% stated they have an increased need to hire new accounting graduates. Your program’s faculty members, advisors and career services counselors can help you connect with hiring managers and learn more about current employment trends. Alumni from your master’s program can also provide guidance and support as you enter the job market.
  • Become a CPA. Licensure is required for some accounting positions, and in most states Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Examination requirements include completing 150 credit hours of education. Most master’s-level programs help students reach this number, while also learning advanced skills that better prepare them to work as CPAs in a range of industries.
  • Pursue a doctorate. Earning an advanced graduate degree is not required for most accounting positions, but can be beneficial for those who want a primary role related to research. The PhD and other doctoral-level credentials may also lead to teaching positions in academic institutions for accountants who want to become faculty members.

Program Database

Our program database allows you to filter search results based on your goals and interests, including, type of program and institution, online or on-campus delivery, location, school size, tuition and accreditation. Explore all of the options available through our interactive search and add the school profile pages to your research of associate degrees in accounting.