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A degree in accounting can qualify students for careers in business and finance. Accountants work for corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, and small businesses. They create financial reports, review income and expenses, prepare tax documents, and ensure regulatory compliance. Some accountants even help track down financial criminals, while others take part in high-stakes investments.
Accounting programs exist across all degree levels. Associate degrees prepare graduates for entry-level positions, while bachelor's and master's degrees serve as the gateway to mid- and upper-level roles. Professionals in this field can use their bachelor's and master's degrees to satisfy educational requirements for certified public accountant (CPA) licensure.
Schools offer various concentrations for accounting majors, including forensic accounting, management accounting, and taxation. These curricular focuses can prepare learners for niche careers which often pay higher-than-average salaries.
Our guide explores accounting programs, including degree levels and common specializations.
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Accounting Degree Levels
Colleges and universities offer accounting degrees at different levels, from certificates to doctorates.
Certificates can help people change careers, while students seeking a shortened timeline to entry-level roles can pursue associate degrees. Bachelor's programs are required for many roles in the field, while master's programs can help learners meet educational requirements for CPA licensure and upper-level jobs. A Ph.D. trains students for teaching and research careers.
The information below outlines what each degree level offers and who it best suits.
An accounting certificate offers focused coursework with a shorter time commitment than a degree. Program lengths vary: For example, an undergraduate certificate may require as few as nine credits or as many as 45 credits. Graduate certificates typically require 12-20 credits. Most certificates require one year of full-time study or less.
Accounting programs offer certificates in concentrations like bookkeeping, public accounting, and auditing. An undergraduate certificate can lead to careers as a bookkeeper, while a graduate certificate helps accountants specialize their career path.
Unlike full accounting degrees, certificate programs do not require general education courses. Students can usually transfer credits from their accounting certificate toward a degree program.
Accounting Certificate Programs
An associate degree in accounting introduces learners to foundational concepts in accounting, finance, and business. Associate programs typically require 60 credits and take two years for full-time enrollees. Typical curricula include general education and accounting classes. Schools may award an associate of arts, associate of science, or associate of applied science degree.
After completing an associate degree, graduates can qualify for entry-level roles like bookkeeper or accounting clerk. Often, learners can transfer their associate degree coursework toward a bachelor's program. Some four-year institutions even maintain partnerships with two-year schools to help students transfer their credits and pursue a bachelor's.
Accounting Associate Programs
A bachelor's degree in accounting meets the educational requirement for careers like accountant and auditor. Earning a bachelor's degree takes four years of full-time study, though some institutions offer accelerated programs. Accounting majors complete a minimum of 120 credits to graduate. Graduates may earn a bachelor of science, bachelor of accounting, bachelor of arts, or bachelor of business administration degree.
During a bachelor's program in accounting, undergrads complete courses in areas such as financial accounting, auditing, managerial accounting, and accounting information systems. Accounting majors also complete general education courses that encourage critical thinking and analytical skills.
Accounting Bachelor's Programs
A master's degree in accounting includes advanced coursework in public accounting, forensic accounting, or other specializations. Master's students complete 30-36 credits of graduate-level accounting coursework in their specialty area. With a master's degree, professionals often pursue careers as CPA, controller, or accounting manager jobs.
Most accounting master's programs take two years of full-time study, though some universities offer an accelerated one-year master's degree. These programs often culminate in a thesis or capstone project. Graduates may earn a master of science, master of accounting, or master of business administration degree in this field.
Accounting Master's Programs
The Ph.D. in accounting is a terminal degree. Professionals with a doctorate in accounting work in academic, research, and leadership roles. For example, most accounting professors hold a Ph.D. in accounting.
Accounting Ph.D. programs typically require 70-120 credits. Doctoral students generally spend 4-7 years of full-time study pursuing this degree.
During a Ph.D. program, doctoral students focus their studies on a subfield of accounting. After meeting coursework requirements, they must pass comprehensive examinations and write a dissertation that poses new questions about or proposes new solutions to problems in the field.
Accounting PHD Programs
Accounting Degree Concentrations
In addition to a general accounting degree, students can pursue a concentration to specialize their education toward niche areas of the field — an especially beneficial option for learners with specific career goals. Accounting programs may include concentrations like auditing, financial accounting, forensic accounting, management accounting, and taxation.
Not every school offers concentrations. Community colleges and small liberal arts institutions typically provide fewer options than larger schools.
Below, we explore specialization options and explain how they can help prepare enrollees for specific careers.
Courses in an actuarial science concentration teach students to calculate risk and determine the financial costs associated with insurance. Enrollees who specialize in actuarial science take classes in probability, statistics, modeling, and financial mathematics. This concentration can help prepare graduates for actuary certification exams.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), actuaries earned a median salary of $105,900 in 2021. These professionals usually need at least a bachelor's degree, and most work in finance or insurance.
Auditors evaluate financial documents to ensure their accuracy and regulatory compliance. Auditing concentration classes strengthen learners' analytical and investigative skills and explore best practices for internal and external auditing. Enrollees may also study forensic accounting and fraud examination, which can lead to fraud and forensic auditor jobs.
Auditing roles typically require at least a bachelor's degree. Graduates can qualify for careers like internal auditor, tax auditor, external auditor, and government auditor.
Bookkeepers record financial transactions and maintain accounting documents for organizations. A concentration in bookkeeping strengthens financial reporting and accounting skills. Students learn to manage a general ledger and report financial information. Coursework in this specialization also covers career-focused math and auditing skills.
An undergraduate bookkeeping certificate or an associate degree with a bookkeeping focus both prepare graduates for careers as a bookkeeper. These programs typically take 1-2 years to complete.
A cost accounting concentration focuses on internal accounting operations, including financial planning and budgeting. Cost accounting classes explore evaluating operational metrics, identifying inefficiencies, and making decisions based on cost accounting information.
In addition to accounting classes, learners pursuing a cost accounting concentration study operations management. This specialization prepares graduates for jobs as cost accountants in diverse fields like government, manufacturing, and construction. Cost accounting training can lead to careers in analysis, management, and consulting.
Economics studies how society allocates goods and services. An accounting degree with an economics concentration is designed to examine how businesses make economic decisions. Courses in microeconomics, investment finance, macroeconomics, and global commerce introduce concepts like resource allocation and financial markets.
Adding economics coursework to an accounting degree can improve skills like logical reasoning, statistical modeling, and cost-benefit analysis. An economics concentration also helps graduates pursue careers in corporate finance, international business, and accounting.
Environmental accounting applies accounting principles to the environment. Classes in this concentration train learners to determine businesses' environmental impacts. Organizations rely on environmental accountants to minimize these impacts. This specialization is also called sustainable or green accounting.
With an environmental accounting concentration for their degree, graduates can pursue careers as sustainability analysts, environmental accountants, and conservation fiscal specialists. They may also work in auditing roles.
Accounting programs explore financial analysis and reporting, while the discipline of finance focuses on investing, forecasting, and financial management. A finance concentration for an accounting degree blends these two knowledge bases together. Students explore corporate finance, financial modeling, and international financial management while developing analytical, decision-making, and management skills.
Professionals who add a finance concentration to their accounting degree can qualify for roles like financial analyst, personal financial advisor, and financial accountant.
Financial accounting emphasizes reporting financial information — especially external reporting. In financial accounting courses, enrollees learn to use accounting principles to evaluate organizations' financial health and report their findings.
While accounting majors often take several financial accounting courses as part of their degree, pursuing this concentration offers greater depth into the analytical and reporting knowledge necessary for financial accountant roles. With a financial accounting specialization, graduates can qualify for auditor, financial accountant, and budget analyst jobs.
Forensic accountants investigate financial crimes using accounting skills. Classes in a forensic accounting concentration explore techniques for examining fraud, financial cybercrime, and related crimes. Students learn to identify evidence for financial malfeasance and collaborate with law enforcement, including acting as expert witnesses in court.
After graduating with a concentration in forensic accounting, professionals can work as fraud examiners, auditors, and forensic accountants.
Financial and accounting organizations increasingly rely on technology to manage information. An information systems concentration adds technology skills to an accounting degree. Students pursuing this specialization learn to manage accounting databases, use financial software, and manage IT teams. They also study accounting networks and security procedures.
Bachelor's programs typically offer upper-division information systems classes, and students can also earn a master's in accounting with an information systems focus. With both accounting and tech skills, graduates can qualify for accountant, accounting systems manager, and management analyst roles.
Global corporations rely on international tax professionals to manage complex tax issues that cross national borders. Courses in an international tax specialization examine financial regulations for companies with international operations, including foreign companies with U.S. operations and domestic companies operating abroad. This concentration is typically offered at the graduate level.
With an international tax accounting degree, graduates can work as international tax analysts, tax consultants, and compliance officers. A master's degree can also lead to roles such as international tax manager.
Management accounting draws on financial information to make managerial decisions. In management accounting courses, learners explore financial planning, accounting controls, and strategic problem-solving. While most accounting majors take a management accounting course as part of their graduation requirements, this concentration adds additional upper-division classes. Degree-seekers can also earn a master's in management accounting.
With a management accounting specialization, graduates can qualify for management accountant, cost accountant, and accounting manager careers. The concentration can also help learners prepare for credentials like certified management accountant.
Mergers and Acquisitions
Accounting professionals play an important role in corporate mergers and acquisitions. Pursuing a concentration in this area typically includes taking classes about corporate restructuring, business valuation, and mergers and acquisitions modeling.
This specialized path of study trains graduates to evaluate corporate merger plans, recommend acquisition strategies, and shepherd organizations through an acquisition. These skills help prepare professionals for careers in mergers and acquisitions, financial management, and risk analysis.
Public accounting focuses on financial transaction disclosure, including taxation and auditing services. In a public accounting concentration, students learn to prepare financial statements such as individual and corporate tax returns, audit financial records, and consult on public accounting issues.
Accounting students who specialize in public accounting often pursue CPA careers. In addition to an undergraduate accounting degree, CPAs typically need 30 additional credits to satisfy their state's educational requirements for licensure. Learners can meet this requirement by earning a master's degree in accounting.
Accountants help sports teams manage their finances, payroll, and budget. While completing a sports accounting concentration, students learn about financial reporting for sports organizations. Classes cover sports-specific management operations, financial analysis, and accounting issues.
Because this concentration is specific to one industry, only a few schools offer undergraduate sports accounting programs. Some institutions also offer this specialization at the graduate level. A degree with this concentration can prepare graduates to work as sports accountants, merchandise accountants, financial controllers, and payroll accountants.
A taxation concentration adds more public accounting and taxation coursework to a general accounting degree. This specialization prepares graduates for careers as tax professionals, including CPAs.
During a taxation accounting degree, students take courses in corporate taxation, income tax law, and real estate tax regulations. They learn to evaluate tax regulations and prepare tax returns and other financial documents. In addition to the CPA career path, graduates can work as tax analysts or personal financial advisors.
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