Guide to a Master of Accounting
Accounting can be a lucrative career. In 2018, the average yearly income for accountants was $70,500, with the top 10 percent earning over $122,840, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The future also looks bright for accountants, with employment estimated to grow at a rate of 10 percent, faster than the average for all occupations in the United States.
But if you think accounting is only about numbers, spreadsheets, taxes, and career opportunities: think again.
Kem Washington, a professor of accounting at Dillard University in New Orleans, volunteers with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program to give back to the community. She also established her own business, not only to provide accounting services but also to offer free tax services to single mothers and those struggling financially.
"I feel passionate about it, it's something I love and enjoy doing. Just to get back into the community and get individuals going with accounting is important to me," Washington said in an interview with the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), a member association for accounting professionals.
Accountants earn an excellent living applying their training and skills to their profession. Many also find ways to incorporate service into their practice. For more examples, see the article "Accountants Giving Back" from Accounting Today.
Whether you're a recent accounting graduate figuring out your next step or a practicing accountant thinking about advancing your career, or even someone looking to switch to accounting, we've got you covered. This in-depth guide to a Master of Accountancy degree will give you the ins and outs of earning a graduate accounting degree.
In this article, we'll discuss:
- The prerequisites for earning a master's in accounting
- The commitment required for getting a master's in accounting
- The top schools for getting a master's in accounting
- Exams and certifications for completing a master's in accounting
- Possible fields and career paths for people with a master's in accounting
Prerequisites for earning a master’s in accounting
Each graduate school has its own set of admission requirements for its master’s of accounting degree program, so check the specifics of your school of choice.
Some of the most common prerequisites for a master’s program in accounting include:
- A bachelor’s degree in accounting, economics, finance, or a related field: You may still join the program if you have a non-accounting bachelor’s degree, but you might need to complete additional coursework.
- A minimum GPA: You’ll need to have exceeded a certain minimum GPA to show you’re capable of a good academic standing.
- GMAT or GRE test scores: Some schools waive this requirement, so it’s best to check with the school you’re considering.
- Letters of recommendation: Choose your recommenders carefully; make sure they understand what makes you a strong candidate.
- Application essay or interview: Some schools require a written essay (also called a personal statement or statement of purpose) explaining why you’re interested in pursuing a Master of Accountancy, while others prefer an in-person interview to understand your motivations for applying.
Applying can be a daunting process. Preparation is the key to acing your graduate school application.
Commitment required for getting a master’s in accounting
Earning a master’s degree in accounting takes a lot of time, money, and effort. You’ll need to consider how long it would take and how much it would cost to get your graduate degree to see whether it aligns with your future plans and goals.
A master’s degree in accounting usually takes one to two years to complete. You could fast-track your degree with accelerated programs, which allow you to finish within a year or less. Other colleges and universities, such as the University of Florida, offer a combined bachelor’s and master's degree in accounting, with four years of undergraduate study and one year of graduate study. At the end of the program, students graduate with both a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s degree in accounting.
The total tuition fee for an accounting master’s degree ranges from approximately$24,000 to $72,000, according to U.S. News and World Report. Some schools offer lower tuition for in-state students. Don't forget about additional expenses, which include include miscellaneous fees for student services and facilities, books, and other supplies. The schools you're considering will list estimated additional expenses on their websites.
If you’re a working professional or have other commitments, you should consider part-time study; it will allow you to continue earning an income to fund your degree. You could also ask your employer if they have a tuition-reimbursement program. These sometimes include obligations such as staying with the company for a number of years after graduating or maintaining a specific minimum GPA.
If you choose to become a full-time student, you could focus all your efforts on studying, but you’ll need to figure out how to cover the costs of your degree. Look into financial aid, student loans, and scholarship opportunities for tuition assistance.
Top schools for getting a master’s in accounting
An accounting master’s degree program is typically structured to include foundational, core, and elective courses. Colleges may allow students to specialize in certain areas, such as auditing, financial accounting, management accounting, and taxation.
Foundational courses, including introductions to financial accounting, microeconomics, macroeconomics, marketing, and business law, are undergraduate-level courses required of all students. Those who majored in accounting as undergraduates (and those who didn't but who have completed equivalent undergraduate courses) are typically allowed to waive these courses. Core courses are required graduate-level courses that all students must take; they typically include courses on advanced financial accounting, auditing and assurance, financial instruments, federal taxation, and corporate finance. Electives cover more specific subjects (health care accounting, securities law, employment law, derivatives). Students combine electives to create areas of specialization, at schools where specialization is allowed.
When searching for schools, look for those with an accounting program that’s nationally or regionally accredited. Accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business AACSBensures that the program adheres to high standards and undergoes continuous improvement.
Here are five schools with strong on-campus master’s in accounting programs:
- California State University–Northridge:__ The Nazarian College of Business and Economics’ Master of Professional Accountancy degree is one of the most affordable master’s degrees in accounting; full-program tuition comes in at a lean $22,108. The skills-based, practice-oriented curriculum can be completed full-time for one year or part-time for two years. A culminating capstone course prepares students for the CPA (certified public accountant) exam.
- Indiana University:__ The Kelley School of Business’ Master of Science in Accounting degree is a one-year intensive program with the opportunity for hands-on learning, including a field consulting project, a two-day trip to New York City to meet with various public accounting and assurance resources, and a three-day trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with policymakers in the government. The program also offers an optional CPA review course. According to the school's website, 95 percent of its students receive job offers within three months of graduation. US News & World Report ranks Kelley's accounting program twelfth-best in the country.
- University of Iowa:__ Tippie College of Business offers a Master of Accountancy degree program with four areas of specialization: business analytics, financial accounting or auditing, managerial accounting, and tax. The school’s excellent performance is reflected in a 91 percent pass rate for its first-time CPA exam takers in 2016 and a 100 percent employment rate within three months of graduation for its classes of 2015 and 2016.
- University of Michigan–Ann Arbor:__ The Ross School of Business’ Master of Accountancy equips students with a solid foundation in accounting while developing their business and leadership skills. A highlight of the program is the EY Accounting and Public Policy Symposium, a required core course providing students with networking opportunities and enabling them to gain real-world skills. The university has an outstanding record of success, with 100 percent of its class of 2017 receiving employment offers within six months of graduation. US News and World Report ranks Ross' accounting program fifth-best in the country.
- University of Wisconsin–Madison:__ The Wisconsin School of Business offers two paths to a master of accountancy degree: an integrated master of accountancy and a graduate master of accountancy. The integrated master of accountancy program adds a fifth year of study for undergraduate accounting majors to gain both a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master of accountancy degree upon graduating. Meanwhile, the graduate master of accountancy program is open to students with little or no accounting background and may be completed within two years. Both programs provide the opportunity for a paid internship, and the school notes a 98 percent job placement rate among graduates within three months. Wisconsin's website reports that the program ranks in the top 5 in the nation for CPA exam pass rates.
Some universities offer online master’s programs, which have a flexible learning environment and may be the best fit for those looking to complete their degree part-time.
Here are five schools with excellent online master’s degree in accounting programs:
- Indiana University: The Kelley School of Business, in partnership with EdX, offers a 100% online Master of Science in Accounting. Kelley launched its online business programs way back in 1999, so the school has had a lot of time to study and perfect online instruction. No wonder the school consistently ranks at or near the top of US News & World Report's rankings every year. Kelley's accounting program consists of ten required three-credit courses; no electives are offered here. Students may complete the program at their own pace, a plus for busy professionals trying to fit graduate study into their schedules. The full cost of the program is a very reasonable $21,000.
- Pennsylvania State University - World Campus:__ Penn State offers a fully online Master of Professional Accounting designed for the part-time student managing a full schedule. Students enjoy great flexibility both in when they engage the course content (it's asynchronous and available 24/7) and in how quickly they complete the program. All ten courses in the program are required (i.e., no electives). Full-time students can complete the program for as little as $22,320; part-time students pay $930 per credit, totalling $27,900.
- University of Arizona:__ The Eller College of Management offers a master of science in accounting online degree with six start dates throughout the year and a variety of accounting and MBA electives to choose from. Although a public university, Eller charges all students — in-state and out-of-state alike — the same $1,000 per credit tuition, meaning this program can be completed for $30,000.
- University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign:__ The Gies College of Business offers an online Master of Science in Accountancy, with each course delivered in two segments: a set of self-paced video lectures, and a set of practice-oriented live sessions in which students work with faculty and fellow cohorts. The university reports a 98 percent successful employment rate for its accountancy graduates. Public Accounting Report (PAR) ranked this program second in the country, based on its survey of accounting professors across the U.S.
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:__ The Kenan-Flagler Business School is a North Carolina-based school with an online Master of Accountancy degree program built with flexibility in mind. Students can choose between four start times per year, and have up to 36 months to finish their degree, but can also complete it in as little as 12 months. The school earned the distinction of the “best graduate university for accounting professionals" based on LinkedIn’s 2015 graduate school rankings. US News & World Report ranks UNC fourth among online accounting master's programs.
Exams and certifications to complete a master’s in accounting
You can dive straight into finding a job once you finish your master’s degree in accounting, but you might run into companies requiring you to be a certified public accountant (CPA) before joining their organization. Passing the CPA exam should give you more credibility as an accountant and improve your job prospects.
To be licensed as a CPA by your state’s board of accountancy, you’ll need to fulfill these three Es:
- Education: You must have completed 150 credit hours.
- Exam: You must pass the Uniform CPA Examination. This test consists of four parts: auditing and attestation, business environment and concepts, financial accounting and reporting, and regulation. You must get a minimum passing score of 75 for each part, and you must pass all four parts within 18 months.
- Experience: You must have two years of public accounting experience. Experience in fields or industries other than public accounting might be accepted, but the number of years required may be higher.
Each state may also have its own requirements for licensure, so check with your state’s board of accountancy for the most up-to-date information. The AICPA provides resources to get you started on your CPA journey, including CPA exam study materials and sample tests and tutorial topics.
To maintain your license and keep practicing as a certified public accountant, you’ll need to undergo continuing professional education, which is typically 40 hours each year. You might also need training for ethics and compliance and pass an exam on that.
In addition to the CPA license, other certifications that could boost your career and validate your expertise in accounting include:
- Certified management accountant:__ The Institute of Management Accountants offers this certification, which requires passing a two-part exam and obtaining two years of professional experience in management accounting or financial management.
- Certified internal auditor:__ Offered by the Institute of Internal Auditors, this certification entails passing an exam and meeting the internal auditing work experience requirement of one to two years.
- Certified information systems auditor:__ ISACA offers this certification to those who pass the exam and meet the work experience requirements.
Possible fields and career paths for people with a master’s in accounting
Earning a master’s degree in accounting opens up numerous possibilities for your career. You could start your own accounting business, work with a small local accounting practice, or become part of a large global accounting firm. You could work in academia as an accounting educator, or you could work for the government or non-profit organizations.
Here are a few of the fields open to someone holding a master’s in accounting degree:
- Public accounting: You'll work with financial documents required to be publicly disclosed by law, such as tax forms. Public accountants can work for individuals, businesses, nonprofit organizations, or government agencies.
- Management accounting: You'll analyze, evaluate, and manage the financial accounts and performance of organizations in the corporate sector.
- Government accounting: You'll manage the finances of government agencies and auditing private entities whose activities are subject to government regulation. Government accountants make sure agencies receive and spend their budgets according to law.
- Forensic accounting: You'll investigate illegal financial transactions, such as fraud and embezzlement. Aside from their accounting skills, forensic accountants also put their knowledge of law and investigative techniques to use when conducting inquiries.
- Auditing: You'll inspect financial records to ensure they’ve been correctly prepared and accurately reported. Auditors also examine accounting procedures to verify their compliance with laws and regulations.
Other career pathways include:
- Budget analyst: Budget analysts help institutions organize their finances. They review budget proposals and make recommendations on these proposals, prepare and analyze budget reports, and monitor organizational spending to make sure it’s within budget.
- Financial analyst: Financial analysts advise individuals and businesses when making investment decisions. They evaluate investment opportunities and help develop investment strategies.
- Financial manager: Financial managers look after a company’s financial health. They analyze financial data to develop forecasts and identify opportunities to minimize costs and maximize profits. They also guide stakeholders when making financial decisions.
- Personal financial advisor: Personal financial advisors help individuals manage their finances, including savings, retirement, taxes, and expenses. They help clients formulate and achieve their financial goals and provide guidance on the potential risks and rewards of investments.
- Chief financial officer (CFO): This executive-level position oversees an organization’s financial strategy and its execution, and is involved with financial planning and policy development. A CFO also manages other finance executives and maintains relationships with stockholders and financial and investment institutions.
When searching for career opportunities, take advantage of the resources offered by your alma mater. Some universities host career fairs to connect graduating students with prospective employers, while others have a career development office that provides career counseling to help you with your job search. Additionally, you could leverage your school’s alumni network, attending events and meeting with alumni to learn how they got started in the industry.
You could also visit the AICPA website, which has a career guidance section with tips on landing a job, as well as a job board listing available accounting jobs. Similarly, the American Accounting Association has a job board and runs career fairs and workshops to help with the job hunting process.
Whichever field and path you choose could lead to a challenging yet rewarding career in accounting.
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