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What Is a Master’s in Accounting?
Master’s in accounting programs offer 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, including an MS in accounting, a master of accountancy (MAcc), a master of professional accountancy or accounting, and an MBA in accounting.
Accredited Online College Programs
Most accounting master’s programs fulfill the education requirements for certified public accountant (CPA) credentials. Accountants and auditors make a median annual salary of $71,550 as of 2019, according to the 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.
This page outlines important information for prospective master’s in accounting students, including common concentrations and potential careers and salaries for graduates.
Why Get a Master’s Degree in Accounting?
Master’s in accounting programs can open doors to well-paying, stable career paths in areas like financial accounting, public accounting, forensic accounting, and auditing. Many employers prefer candidates with master’s degrees.
Higher Earning Potential: Master’s graduates earn more, on average, than those with just bachelor’s degrees in accounting. PayScale reports an average salary of $70,810 for those with master’s degrees in accounting, compared to $62,030 for those with only bachelor’s degrees in accounting.
Job Competitiveness: Earning a master’s degree in accounting can help individuals stand out from the competition in job interviews. An employer who must choose between a candidate with a master’s degree and one with just a bachelor’s is likely to pick the better-educated individual.
Qualify to Take the CPA Exam: Those who complete bachelor’s degrees in accounting do not usually meet the requirements to take the CPA exam without taking additional accounting courses. Master’s degrees in accounting typically fulfill the eligibility criteria to sit for the CPA exam.
Future Accounting Education
Earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s in accounting typically meets the 150-credit requirement for CPA licensure.
Governed by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (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 complete these sections one at a time, often taking at least a year to complete the whole exam. The AICPA recommends 8-12 weeks of preparation for each section.
Accounting master’s degrees also help students prepare for other accounting certifications, such as certified public bookkeeper, certified management accountant (CMA), and certified internal auditor.
Graduates interested in research and/or teaching careers may pursue accounting master’s degrees before completing Ph.D.s in accounting or related fields. Many Ph.D. graduates seek careers as professors, public policy researchers, consultants, and analysts.
Accounting and auditing careers are generally stable, with the BLS projecting a 6% job growth rate for accountants and auditors from 2018-2028. Accountants need a bachelor’s degree at minimum, but many employers prefer candidates with a master’s degree. Those pursuing CPA designation may find master’s in accounting degrees particularly useful, because they usually qualify graduates to sit for the CPA exam.
Accounting grads typically work in areas like forensic accounting, public accounting, management accounting, and financial accounting. Auditing represents another common career path for graduates. Salary expectations vary by position, with median annual salaries ranging from $55,460-$67,930.
Forensic accountants investigate complex contract disputes, bankruptcies, and financial crimes, like embezzlement and securities fraud. They must boast strong investigative techniques and an advanced understanding of finance law. Forensic accountants often work with lawyers and law enforcement, and they may appear as witnesses in court.
Auditors assess financial data for mismanagement of funds within organizations. They also identify ways to reduce wasteful spending, fraud, and errors. These professionals make sure organizations comply with application laws and regulations. Internal auditors work for the organizations they audit, while external auditors work for outside organizations to perform audits.
Public accountants work with government, corporate, and individual clients, performing accounting, taxation, auditing, and consulting tasks. Many public accountants hold CPA designation and own their own businesses or work for accounting firms. Job duties include analyzing financial records, organizing financial information, and suggesting ways to reduce costs or improve profitability.
Management accountants interpret, analyze, and record financial information for organizations. Sometimes called cost accountants, corporate accountants, or managerial accountants, these professionals focus on performance evaluation and budgeting. Some management accountants work with asset managers or financial managers to choose financial investments like stocks and bonds for organizations.
Financial accountants record and report business financial transactions, typically to shareholders, investors, or other individuals outside of their employing organizations. They use this information to create financial statements, such as income statements, balance sheets, and cash flow statements.
Application requirements vary by program, but applicants typically need an accredited bachelor’s degree. 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 must complete foundational courses in accounting and math, usually before or during their master’s programs.
Many master’s programs require minimum GPAs in the 2.75-3.0 range. They may also require GMAT scores above 500, and very selective programs often set a minimum 650 score.
A master’s in accounting typically takes 1-2 years to complete, usually mandating about 30 credits after prerequisite requirements. Factors affecting program length include enrollment status, internship requirements, and accelerated options.
Some master’s in accounting online programs offer classes year-round and let students take many credits per semester, allowing them to graduate faster. Many learners appreciate the flexibility and convenience of earning master’s in accounting online, while others prefer more traditional, on-campus experiences.
Master’s in accounting students take core classes on topics like auditing theory, accounting information systems, advanced financial accounting, and accounting ethics. Accounting electives let learners develop a deeper understanding of specific areas of accounting related to their career goals, focusing on topics like fraud auditing and international accounting.
Students must decide what type of accounting master’s degree best fits their individual career goals and interests. We discuss master’s in accounting degree options in detail below.
Accounting Master’s Degree Options
Students interested in pursuing master’s in accounting degrees can choose from a variety of options. The following list outlines the degree types available to accounting master’s students.
Master of Accountancy or Master’s in Accounting: Master of accountancy and master’s in accounting degrees typically provide a broad overview of the accounting profession. Students take core, elective, and foundational courses. Graduates can take the CPA exam to become certified public accountants. They can pursue any type of accounting career, including forensic accounting, management accounting, or government accounting.
Master of Science in Accounting: Generally, a master of science in accounting does not differ substantially from a master of accountancy or master’s in accounting degree. Curricula typically include a broad overview of the accounting profession and various types of accounting. Potential careers for graduates include forensic accountant, budget analyst, and staff accountant.
Master of Professional Accountancy or Accounting: Master of professional accountancy and accounting degrees tend to be very practice-based, rather than emphasizing theory. Students take courses in career-relevant areas like fraud examination, internal auditing, and taxation. Graduates can pursue careers in areas like public accounting, fraud, taxes, and forensic accounting.
Master of Business Administration in Accounting: MBA in accounting degrees examine accounting theories and practices in addition to business principles, practices, and theories. MBA in accounting graduates qualify for a variety of business-focused careers, including management analyst, business consultant, and financial manager. They may also take the CPA exam and pursue more traditional accounting careers as public accountants, management accountants, or auditors.
Master’s vs. MBA
The table below compares and contrasts master’s in accounting and MBA in accounting programs.
Master’s in Accounting
MBA in Accounting
Master’s in accounting programs take 12-24 months to complete.
MBA in accounting programs also take 12-24 months to complete.
Master’s in accounting programs prepare learners for the CPA exam. Students gain communication, organization, IT, and technical financial skills.
MBA in accounting students gain leadership, risk management, and financial decision-making skills. Graduates can sit for the CPA exam.
Master’s in accounting students take classes like advanced financial accounting, federal taxation, and financial instruments.
Typical MBA in accounting courses include taxes and business strategy, financial reports and business analysis, and financial accounting.
Potential careers include forensic accountant, auditor, public accountant, and management accountant.
Potential careers include management analyst, financial manager, chief operating officer, and business consultant.
For those seeking specialized degrees, many master’s in accounting programs offer concentrations. Concentrations let students focus their studies on the specific areas of accounting relevant to their career interests and goals. Students who choose concentrations take core classes on top of courses in their specialization.
The number and types of concentrations available vary by program, but typical concentrations include financial accounting, auditing, forensic accounting, and international accounting. Other possible specializations include taxation, accounting information systems, and government accounting. In most cases, concentrations appear on students’ diplomas and transcripts after graduation.
Master’s in accounting programs provide a strong foundation in all major areas of accounting. A typical curriculum consists primarily of core courses, like advanced financial accounting, accounting ethics, auditing theory, and taxation of business entities. Core courses prepare learners for the CPA exam by covering test material.
Many programs also require students to complete elective classes focused on specific areas of accounting. Most master’s in accounting programs do not require students to complete internships, theses, or practicums. Below, we describe five courses typical of most accounting master’s programs.
Advanced Cost Accounting
This course explores cost-benefit analysis and other strategies used in economic decision-making. Students learn about issues like budgeting, linear programming, management control systems, and cost-volume profit analysis. Learners gain practical cost accounting skills.
Accounting Information Systems
Students build practical experience using database management techniques. They learn how IT relates to accounting and auditing and how to model business systems and processes. The class looks at manipulating and communicating financial information effectively, with a focus on data integrity in relational database management systems.
This class provides an overview of forensic accounting and fraud detection. Students explore topics like internal control methodology, financial statement misrepresentation, rules of evidence relating to fraud, and interview techniques. They learn a variety of fraud examination techniques and explore illegal activities like money laundering, embezzlement, and wagering.
In project management, students learn to plan, control, and schedule projects. The class explores topics like project management leadership strategies, factors leading to cost and time overruns, and organization and risk management.
This class prepares students to perform accounting tasks for governmental and nonprofit organizations. The curriculum contrasts governmental accounting with accounting for for-profit businesses. Learners explore topics like budgetary accounts, fund accounting, and governmental financial reporting.
The Master’s Practicum and Thesis
Master’s in accounting programs rarely require practicums or theses.
Why did you choose to study accounting? Was it something you were always interested in?
Like many accountants, I did not know anything about the accounting profession when I started college. I was studying art history. Because there are art auction houses, I wanted to know something about auctions. I needed permission to take a business course, and the dean advised me to take principles of accounting. I found it fascinating, one course led to another, and I ended up with an accounting degree and the opportunity to start my career at a Big Four public accounting firm.
What advice would you give to students considering earning a degree in accounting?
Studying accounting develops business analysis skills, and public accounting firms are typically at the top of lists of best places to start careers. Accountants don’t always spend their entire careers working in accounting, so one of the best things about studying accounting is that it is an outstanding foundation for many business careers. In fact, many successful entrepreneurs have accounting backgrounds. Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, is one example; I recommend his memoir, Shoe Dog, to students.
What advice would you give to students who are trying to decide whether to earn an accounting degree online or on-campus?
Both online and on-campus programs can be great options for pursuing an accounting degree. I encourage students to find a program that suits their learning style and supports their career objectives. Regardless of delivery mode, students should do a bit of research to find a high-quality program that has a current curriculum and a track record of success in graduating students who become successful professionals.
What are the benefits of earning a master's in accounting? Are there different benefits for those who want to be professionals in the field vs. academics?
A master’s in accounting is an especially good option for students who want to pursue the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation. A master’s program will help students meet the 150 credit hour requirement to sit for the CPA exam, prepare for the exam, and develop analytic and communication skills that are important for success in accounting careers.
Research shows that in public accounting firms, having a master’s degree is associated with more rapid promotion and a greater probability of promotion to partner. While a master’s in accounting would benefit those pursuing both professional and academic career paths, most programs have a professional focus.
From your perspective as an accounting academic, is there anything that you wish would change about the accounting industry? Why or why not?
Like it or not, the accounting profession is changing rapidly due to advances in technology and its application. This creates a dynamic environment with opportunities for innovative thinking and new roles in developing and utilizing technology. While individuals might occasionally find themselves wishing for a slower pace of change, it is an exciting time to enter the accounting profession.
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, 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. 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.
Should I Get My Master’s in Accounting 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 contexts.
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.
Accredited Accounting Master’s Programs
When choosing a master’s in accounting program, learners should pay attention to accreditation status. To receive accreditation, schools must meet eligibility criteria set by independent accrediting agencies. Accreditation status can affect students’ ability to receive federal financial aid, transfer credits to other universities, and pursue graduate degrees.
Universities can seek two types of accreditation: regional or national. The higher education community considers regional accreditation more reputable and valuable than national accreditation. Regional accreditation agencies to look for include the Higher Learning Commission, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, and the New England Commission of Higher Education.
Many accounting programs also hold programmatic accreditation through agencies like the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs, and the International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education.
Students can consult the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s searchable database to learn accreditation information for prospective colleges.
To jumpstart their program search, students should check out these lists of the best master’s in accounting and online master’s in accounting programs.
What can I do with a master’s degree in accounting?
Graduates of master’s in accounting programs can work in a variety of accounting and auditing positions. Typical job titles include forensic accountant, public accountant, financial accountant, and auditor.
Should I get an MBA or a master's in accounting?
Master’s in accounting degrees ready students for professional positions in the accounting and auditing fields. MBAs provide a broader, business-focused education, giving learners more widely applicable skills for a variety of fields.
Is a master’s in accounting worth it?
Graduates with a master’s in accounting degree can pursue many well-paying accounting and auditing careers. Accounting professionals holding master’s degrees make higher average salaries than those with bachelor’s degrees alone.
Can I get an online master's degree in accounting?
Yes, many schools offer opportunities to earn online master’s degrees in accounting.
Do you need a master's to become an accountant?
A master’s in accounting is not required to become an accountant. However, many employers prefer job applicants with master’s degrees. Moreover, typical 120-credit bachelor’s programs do not qualify students to sit for the CPA exam.
Accounting organizations provide students, graduates, and working accountants with job prospects, educational resources, and networking opportunities. See below for examples of accounting organizations:
A master’s degree in taxation offers a more concentrated study of taxes than a general accounting degree. Students pursuing taxation concentrations learn mastery of income, property, payroll, and real estate tax. These degrees prepare graduates for employment as financial examiners, tax examiners and collectors, and revenue agents. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 4% […]