Best suited for ambitious, diligent students and professionals, master's programs in accounting feature advanced coursework in accounting theory and practice. Many programs offer specializations in areas such as financial analysis, compliance, taxation, and forensic accounting. Students usually complete these 30-36-credit degrees in 12-18 months, with degree length depending on program type and attendance pace.
Prospective students can choose from several types of accounting master's programs: an MS in accounting, a master of accountancy, a master of professional accountancy or accounting, or an MBA in accounting.
Most accounting master's programs fulfill educational prerequisites for certified public accountant (CPA) credentials. Accountants and auditors made a median annual salary of $71,550 in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Some graduates of accounting master's programs make even higher salaries, climbing the ranks to positions as financial controllers or managers.
The following page discusses the career and education benefits of master's-level accounting programs.
Why Get a Master's Degree in Accounting?
Master's degrees in accounting offer many professional and personal benefits, including preparation for continuing education in related fields. An accounting master's degree usually meets or exceeds the educational requirements for professional paths like CPA, accounting manager, financial manager, and controller.
Future Accounting Education
The combination of a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in accounting typically meet the 150-credit requirement for CPA licensure.
Governed by the AICPA Board of Examiners and administered by Prometric Testing, the CPA exam features four sections: auditing and attestation, business environment and concepts, financial accounting and reporting, and regulation. Students typically prepare for and take these sections one at a time, so it often takes at least a year to complete the exam. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) recommends 8-12 weeks of preparation for each section.
An accounting master's also helps prepare students for other accounting certifications, such as certified public bookkeeper, certified management accountant (CMA), and certified internal auditor (CIA).
Graduates interested in research and/or teaching careers may pursue an accounting master's degree before a Ph.D. in accounting or a related field. Many Ph.D. graduates seek careers as professors, public policy researchers, consultants, and analysts.
Master's in Accounting Careers
Many employers prefer to hire accountants with master's degrees. Graduate-level education provides students with the credit hours required to pursue CPA licensure and advanced accounting knowledge and skills.
Job opportunities span a variety of industries in the public and private sectors:
Financial managers govern organizational finances through the analysis, monitoring, and reporting of financial data and activities. Working with other executives, these managers contribute to financial planning and decision-making for their organizations. This career typically requires advanced skills in market and financial data analysis, financial accounting, management, and strategic planning.
The BLS projects jobs for financial managers to grow 16% from 2018-2028.
A growing economy increases demand for financial manager activities such as investment coordination and financial planning. The BLS projects an increase in demand for cash management and risk management specialties.
Accounting managers create financial information systems for collecting, analyzing, and reporting data. Accounting managers also perform staffing duties, monitor policy and procedure implementation, prepare budgets, and collaborate with and report to other managers and executives.
The BLS projects 6% growth in accounting and auditor positions from 2018-2028.
Accounting manager job growth depends on economic health, as financial data typically increases with economic expansion.
The BLS reported a median annual salary of $71,150 for accountants and auditors as of 2019.
Accountants need CPA certification to file reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Additional certifications include CMA, personal financial specialist, CIA, certified in control self-assessment (CSSA), and certified financial services auditor (CFSA).
Certified Public Accountant
CPA careers entail recording, analyzing, and reporting on financial data and documents, such as tax documents, that require reporting to the government, investors, or the general public.
Accounting and auditing careers can expect moderate growth from 2018-2020, according to BLS projections.
Continued economic growth typically causes a rise in public companies and a corresponding increase in demand for public accountants. Globalization may create demand for accountants specializing in international trade, mergers, and acquisitions. Increasing automation of traditional accounting tasks emphasizes higher-order accounting skills, such as analysis and advising.
CPAs hold certification through the AICPA, and many obtain licensure from state boards of accountancy. Other possible certifications include CMA, CIA, CSSA, and CFSA.
Found in virtually all sectors and industries, financial controllers oversee accounting and financial activities in an organization. Duties vary based on organization size, structure, and industry, but most financial controllers spend their days creating and monitoring financial reporting, establishing and enforcing policies and procedures, and supervising accounting and financial staff.
Financial manager positions, such as financial controller, can expect a projected job growth rate of 16% from 2018-2028.
The BLS projects increased demand for financial managers in general. It also suggests that cash management and risk management specializations may become particularly valuable as globalization progresses.
According to PayScale, financial controllers earn an average annual wage of $83,062, with salaries ranging from $55,000-$124,000. The BLS reported a median annual salary of $129,890 for financial managers as of 2019.
Prerequisites and application materials vary by program, but eligible applicants typically hold accredited bachelor's degrees, decent GPA and GMAT scores, and evidence of prior coursework in accounting from accredited higher education institutions.
Some master's programs mandate that students hold bachelor's degrees in accounting or related fields, but many accept candidates from other academic backgrounds. Students without prior accounting coursework usually must complete foundational courses in accounting and math before or during their master's programs.
Many master's programs expect minimum GPAs in the 2.75-3.0 range. They typically require GMAT scores above 500, and higher-quality programs often set a minimum 650 score.
The Accounting Major's College Experience
Master's degrees in accounting combine core courses and electives, and some schools allow students to pursue specializations. Master's programs often require internships, which may fulfill elective requirements.
The number of credits required for graduation varies by school and program, but generally falls between 30 and 60 credits. Programs that accept students without a bachelor's in accounting or relevant work experience tend to include more course requirements. Applicants with bachelor's in accounting degrees can anticipate earning a master's in one year or less if they attend full time.
Students pursuing master's degrees in accounting can choose from several types of programs. The following sections cover various accounting degree types, objectives, course offerings, and specialization options:
Master of Accountancy or Master's in Accounting (MAcc)
Students in MAcc programs can expect to complete approximately 30 credits of coursework, which takes most full-time students 12-15 months to complete. The MAcc curriculum resembles that of an MS in accounting, and many fulfill the education requirements for CPA licensure.
PRIMARY CONCEPTS AND OBJECTIVES
In addition to the primary concepts included in undergraduate accounting programs, students graduating with accounting master's degrees boast advanced knowledge of and skills in:
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
Each student works with faculty and academic advisors to create an individual degree plan. Some programs allow students to add coursework leading to specializations or concentrations within 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:
Tax Planning for Corporate Decisions
Financial Statement Analysis
Advanced Cost Accounting
Enterprise Information Systems
Electives: Elective courses provide opportunities 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
Family Wealth Preservation
Specialization: Some programs offer specializations that allow students to tailor the degree to their interests and goals. Specialization courses might include topics such as:
Individual Income Taxation
Energy Financial Modeling
Master of Science in Accounting (MS)
Students in MS in accounting programs can expect to complete 30-36 credits of coursework. Full-time students typically finish these programs in 12-18 months. MS curricula resemble master of accountancy curricula, and they usually satisfy CPA licensure education requirements.
PRIMARY CONCEPTS AND OBJECTIVES
Graduates with a master's degree in accounting possess advanced knowledge and skills related to:
Accounting and Auditing: Collecting and analyzing financial data, providing accurate reports to managers and stakeholders, and ensuring 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: Working as part of a business team to propose solutions to complex financial problems.
Ethical Principles and Professional Standards: Conducting accounting practices according to established standards and ethical principles.
International Perspectives: Providing accounting products and services in the context of global economics and international business.
Faculty and academic advisors help to establish individual degree plans for each student. Many programs also offer coursework leading to specializations or concentrations.
Core: Core courses build on undergraduate topics, providing students with opportunities to develop advanced knowledge and skills in accounting theories and practices. Core course titles may 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 specific areas of interest. These options often cover a range of subjects, such as:
Governmental and Nonprofit Accounting
Advanced Public Sector Accounting
Specialization: Some MS programs offer specializations or concentrations through which students complete a series of courses to further develop specific knowledge and skills. These concentration courses might include:
Detection of Fraudulent Financial Statements
Estate and Gift Taxation
International Accounting Standards
Master of Business Administration in Accounting (MBA)
Students earning MBAs in accounting typically complete 40-60 credits of coursework. Many of these programs follow accelerated formats, so completion time varies depending on how many courses students take each term. Most programs take 15-36 months to complete.
MBA in accounting programs meet the needs of students with bachelor's degrees in subjects other than accounting (e.g. liberal arts). This degree also represents a good choice for students with undergraduate degrees in business who now want to enter the accounting field.
PRIMARY CONCEPTS AND OBJECTIVES
Students earning MBAs in accounting should demonstrate 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 employees, colleagues, shareholders, and agents from regulatory agencies
Information Technology: Appropriate use of data management systems to track and organize financial information 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
MBA students should expect to take a combination of core business and accounting courses, along with a few electives.
Core Business: The business curriculum provides a foundation in organizational management, marketing, and operations. Courses may include:
Marketing for Decision-making
Leadership and Organizational Behavior
Human Capital Management
Core Accounting: These core classes provide students with chances to develop advanced knowledge and skills in accounting theories and practices. They may include:
Accounting Principles and Practices
Managerial and Cost Accounting
Federal Taxes and Management Decisions
Electives: Elective courses allow students to prepare for their careers or explore specific areas of interest. Elective subjects may include:
Accounting in the Digital Era
Decoding Corporate Financial Communications
Master of Professional Accountancy or Accounting (MPA, MPAc, MPAcc)
MPA programs usually welcome applicants with bachelor's degrees in non-accounting subjects. These programs require 30-45 credits of coursework, which full-time students can complete in 9-15 months. This curriculum typically meets upper-level coursework requirements for CPA licensure in the school's 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: Providing 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
MPA students complete core accounting courses and may also choose from a few approved elective options.
Core: The majority of the curriculum comprises accounting courses with titles like:
Advanced Tax Reporting and Analysis
Advanced Accounting Theory
Managerial Accounting and Controls
Communications in Professional Accounting
Business Law and Ethics
Electives: Programs with elective options allow students to pursue particular areas of interest in accounting, business, or related topics. Examples of accounting elective courses include:
Global Business Experience
Should I Get My Master's Online?
Earning an accounting master's degree online offers many potential advantages. Recent research suggests that top online programs demonstrate the same rigor and student outcomes as their on-campus counterparts. In fact, most schools and programs no longer make qualitative distinctions between online and on-campus diplomas.
A popular choice among working professionals, online learning allows students to continue their education without taking time off work. Not restricted to a commutable geographical radius, online students can choose from hundreds of high-quality programs at schools across the country, allowing applicants to find the best programs for their specific interests, career goals, and industry context.
However, online learning does not work for everyone. Distance learners often need more motivation, self-discipline, concentration, and academic integrity than on-campus students. They may not receive as much in-person supervision, encouragement, and mentorship from professors and peers, so online students must stay on top of their work, manage their time, and balance their studies with other responsibilities. Part-time online programs often work best for busy professionals.
The accreditation process evaluates the quality of higher education institutions and programs. Accrediting agencies are independent organizations that review school and program criteria against established sets of standards to address curriculum development, faculty qualifications, student support, financial resources, academic services, resources, and student achievement.
Accreditation is important for students who want to:
Transfer Credits: Most schools only consider transfer credits from accredited institutions.
Receive Financial Aid: Federal financial aid is only available to students attending institutions with accreditation from an agency approved by the U.S. Department of Education.
Become a Certified Public Accountant: Most state boards of accountancy require 150 credit hours of college-level education from accredited programs to earn licensure.
Check for regional or national accreditation at the university level. Individual academic departments and degree programs can earn specialized accreditation, as well. Accounting master's degrees usually obtain accreditation from one or more of the following organizations:
Selecting the Best College for a Master's in Accounting
Selecting the right school and program for a master's in accounting requires careful research and analysis. Aspiring students should consider their career goals carefully. For example, prospective CPAs may benefit from master's programs that emphasize CPA exam prep.
Students who struggle to focus in virtual environments usually fare better in on-campus programs, which may offer better access to mentorship and networking opportunities. Smaller schools tend to boast smaller student-to-teacher ratios than larger schools, which may improve the learning experience. Cohort-based programs often enhance networking through increased peer contact. Moreover, learners who attend local schools may benefit from increased local employment opportunities.
Busy professionals who learn well independently often benefit from the flexibility of online learning, as discussed above. Part-time programs permit better balance between school, work, and life, while accelerated programs require concentrated, intensive study for shorter periods of time.
Cost varies considerably, so applicants should check student outcome data to ensure their prospective programs pay off. The federal government only grants financial aid to students attending nationally or regionally accredited schools.
Next Steps After Getting a Master's Degree in Accounting
Graduates with a master's degree in accounting can pursue the following opportunities.
Enter the Workforce
Accountants enjoy steady demand. In a 2019 poll of firms from the American Institute of CPAs, 15% of respondents stated that they anticipate an increased need to hire new accounting graduates. Each program's faculty members, advisors, and career services counselors can help students connect with hiring managers and learn more about current employment trends. Master's program alumni can also provide guidance and support for entering the job market.
Become a CPA
Some accounting positions require licensure, and in most states, the CPA exam mandates 150 credit hours of education. Most master's programs help students meet this requirement and equip them with the skills they need to work as CPAs in diverse industries.
Pursue a Doctorate
Most accounting positions don't call for an advanced graduate degree, but this credential can benefit those seeking research-related roles. A doctoral degree may lead to teaching and/or research positions in academic institutions.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do you need a master's degree to become an accountant?
Many accounting positions do not require master's degrees. However, aspiring CPAs need 30 credit hours of accounting education beyond their bachelor's degree, and earning a master's typically meets or exceeds that requirement.
How many years is a master's degree in accounting?
Master's programs in accounting may take nine months to several years to complete, depending on whether students opt for accelerated, full-time, or part-time attendance. Traditional master's degrees take 12-18 months; MBAs take about 24 months.
What can you do with a master's degree in accounting?
Accounting master's graduates may work as CPAs, financial managers, and accounting managers.
Can I become a CPA after earning a master's in accounting?
To register for the qualifying CPA exam, candidates need 150 credit hours of education from an accredited, postsecondary institution. A master's in accounting typically provides the 30 credits required beyond the standard 120-credit bachelor's degree.
What salary can you get with a master's degree in accounting?
PayScale cites a $62,000 average annual salary for master's in accounting graduates. However, salaries vary considerably by position, employer, industry, and location. Accountants and auditors make a median salary of $71,150, according to the BLS.
Networking plays a vital role in the job search, and accounting organizations provide students, graduates, and working accountants with job prospects, educational resources, and networking opportunities. See below for examples of accounting organizations:
American Accounting Association An association primarily devoted to supporting academic accounting research and education, the AAA offers publications, education resources, conferences, and networking opportunities.
American Institute of Certified Public Accountants Founded in 1887, the AICPA sets standards and rules for CPA practice. It also creates and evaluates the uniform CPA examination, provides certifications, and advocates for the CPA profession at state and national levels.
The Institute of Internal Auditors A large international professional association established in 1941, IAA leads the auditing field and serves as the profession's global voice. The institute generates professional standards, conducts and disseminates research, and offers continuing education and professional development opportunities.
Institute of Management Accountants Since 1919, this worldwide association of financial and accounting professionals has advanced the profession through continuing education, professional development, advocacy, and conferences. It also offers CMA certification.
National Society of Accountants Devoted to the professional development of tax and accounting professionals, the NSA establishes professional standards, advocates for accountants, and offers continuing education opportunities.
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