Which Degree(s) Are Best for Switching Careers from Accounting?
May 27, 2021
If you're thinking of switching careers from accounting, you're in luck: an accountant's skill set is highly transferable. Competencies in budgeting, problem-solving, financial planning, and organization can help you in any job.
US News & World Report—the publication that always seems to be ranking something—recently ranked accountant the 13th best business job and 75th best job overall. In the accompanying article, US News noted that accounting professionals are generally happy with their careers and enjoy ample opportunities for raises and promotions, an average amount of stress, and career flexibility.
Like all professions, however, accounting has its malcontents. Surf over to Reddit to find threads of accountants griping about their current jobs, especially those who work at big four accounting firms. They may have good cause to complain. A recent public health study indicated that the stress some accountants face, especially auditors, can impact their well-being.
So maybe you're in that high-stress category or have some other reason to read this article. Here's the good news: if you're an accountant thinking about a career change, you're in luck. Your math skills are portable and can make developing new skills easier.
That's not to say that you'll be able to land a dream job because you can crunch numbers. Depending on your goals, you may need to return to school first. If you're wondering which degree(s) are best for switching careers from accounting? this article has you covered. It discusses:
- Transferable accounting skills
- Degrees for accounting career switchers
- What's your next step?
Transferable accounting skills
Before examining the best degrees for accountants looking to start a new career, it can be helpful to take stock of the positive qualities that make accountants excellent candidates for graduate programs. This article primarily utilizes the term "accountant" as a catchall term to refer to multiple specialities. According to Pepperdine University, accounting specialties include:
- Certified public accountant (CPA)
- Cost accountant
- Forensic accountant
- Investment accountant
- Management accountant
- Project accountant
- Staff accountant
The job descriptions and education requirements vary significantly for each of these positions, but the following skills are common to most.
You may think accountants spend most of their time reconciling other people's budgets, but they also create and analyze them. Budget analyst is an excellent career—one you can enter with a bachelor's degree in accounting—that revolves around helping companies create budget plans and run risk management assessments.
Management accountants, in particular, spend significant time creating budgets. They must be comfortable conducting analysis to determine which proposals have the greatest money-making potential.
Budgeting is an excellent skill to have in life as well as in the workplace. Sticking to a budget is essential to all responsible financial management. This is a skill that is nearly universally applicable.
Critical thinking is an essential component of accounting. In the words of one Redditor, accountants can "have attention to detail but understand and convey the 30,000 foot view." They are comfortable with the detailed work it takes to comb through financial statements and can apply that skill to a new job. Being able to analyze ideas and think deeply about their value is helpful in any position.
According to one article in the Journal of Accountancy, undergraduate accounting programs do not currently teach the level of critical thinking skills required to succeed in the profession, especially as the trade grows to encompass "making business decisions in an ambiguous, nonlinear environment." Whether accountants learn this skill on the job or through better formal education, employing critical thinking to enhance analytical and decision-making processes is extremely helpful.
Expertise in tax law
Most undergraduate accounting degrees contain at least one law class. Clemson University students must take Legal Environment of Business, an "Examination of both state and national regulation of business." Forensic accountants especially have a deep understanding of tax laws and what a business can and cannot do. While this skill may not be as valuable outside of accounting as others, it can be beneficial, especially if you need to be good at reading dense documents or work in a heavily regulated industry. Also, there are very few employers who wouldn't benefit from adding tax experts to the payroll.
"Proficient at Excel" may be something that you put on the bottom of your resume to make it look better, but it's a worthwhile skill, and accountants are great at it. According to the Clarity Recruitment blog, "Excel offers users the ability to undertake intense qualitative analysis, which is part of the reason it's so invaluable in the accounting and finance industry." It's also essential for other industries; Excel is ultimately one of the best analytics tools you can find. Being able to work within it makes decision-making easier.
Ultimately, being good at programs like Excel is a sign that you have the mathematical skills to evaluate proposals (crunch numbers). It corresponds to budgeting and critical thinking skills as well.
Accountants must be great organizers; you could argue compellingly that organization is the entire job. You must be able to keep many numbers straight at once. Accountants must also have an excellent attention to detail for functions like balancing books, auditing accounts, and identifying potential areas of savings. Organizing ideas and information is useful in any sector and can be helpful while trying to prioritize tasks and manage projects.
While not every accounting program teaches problem-solving skills—at least according to an article in the magazine Strategic Finance—accountants who can solve problems are always handy. Accounting programs are beginning to teach students the problem identification, analysis, and communication skills necessary to think critically about problems and solve them.
Though you may not learn every necessary skill during a degree program, it's essential for being an accountant. According to a Robert Half Study "Forty-one percent of the accountants polled said solving problems gives them the most job satisfaction, compared to just 22 percent who chose working with numbers."
Process analysis essentially means charting the flow of an operation. Accountants may utilize it to examine the money flow of a proposal to determine whether its worth the company's time and resources. This is essentially critical thinking in action, meaning there are many uses across nearly every discipline. It's a great skill that can help you advance in numerous roles, including as an analyst.
Degrees for accounting career switchers
Many degree options can facilitate a career switch from accounting, though certain programs make more sense than others. This section focuses on degrees that lend themselves to an accounting skill set, even if they aren't in the accounting field. You can usually complete these degrees in a few different ways—including part-time, full-time, online, and in-person programs.
Master of Business Administration (MBA)
MBA programs are excellent options for mid-career professionals hoping to advance. It's also great for those who want a career change.
MBAs are typically best for those eyeing high-level management roles, including executive positions. MBA programs teach business principles, meaning you'll learn leadership techniques and study subjects like finance, ethics, marketing, and statistics. An accounting background is instrumental if you're trying to earn an MBA, as programs are starting to focus on developing analytics skills. The Southern Methodist University MBA curriculum, for one, focuses heavily on data analytics and prepares students "to clearly communicate findings to colleagues and management, no matter the industry."
Accounting is one of the most popular specializations in MBA programs. Other top options include:
- Healthcare management
- Human resources
- Information technology
- Operations management
Those who have more experience (typically over ten years in a management position) may decide to earn an Executive MBA, like the one offered online by Howard University. The educational content of an EMBA program is similar to a traditional MBA, but it is designed for students to move directly into executive roles. You'll likely need to already be in an accounting management role to qualify for one of these programs.
Master of Data Science (MSDS)
Earning a Master of Science in Data Science can set you up for several excellent, high-paying careers, including as a big data solutions architect, data engineer, and data scientist.
Having an accounting background can really help your admissions chances for an MSDS program, though it depends on the school. Stevens Institute of Technology requires only your undergraduate transcript for consideration. Alternatively, New York University looks for students with backgrounds in:
- Computer science
You may need to complete bridge coursework for introductory computer science subjects, but having a math background is a significant advantage. You may not need a master's degree to work in data science, but it can help transition careers, especially if you have the technical background required to make the transition easier.
In a MSDS program, you can specialize in subjects like:
- Artificial intelligence
- Computational finance
- Data engineering
- Data modeling
- Machine learning
Master of Health Administration (MHA)
A career in health administration utilizes many of the same skills that you've developed as an accountant, including being excellent at organization, budgeting, and meeting regulations.
It's helpful to have a background in healthcare if you want to apply for an MHA, but not strictly necessary. New York University requires that applicants have experience with quantitative analysis at the undergraduate level or higher.
Graduates from these programs can work in roles like:
- Clinical manager
- Healthcare executive
- Health information manager
- Hospital administrator
- Nursing home administrator
Master of Social Work (MSW)
If you want to earn the best social work jobs, you'll need an MSW. While having a Bachelor of Social Work is helpful, it's not completely necessary (you'll just need to spend more time in school).
Having an accounting background certainly isn't a detriment if you want to pursue clinical social work, and it can be beneficial if you're looking for administrative positions in the field. For instance, a social work administrator works with program budgets and implementing policy. Social work policy analysts utilize data to determine policy effectiveness. These are two paths where the analytical and organizational skills of an accountant can be beneficial.
Master of Supply Chain Management
A master's in supply chain management (SCM) is one of the best degrees to earn with an accounting background. Supply chain managers must have excellent budget management, analytics, and project management skills. Students at The University of Tennessee - Knoxville "get the critical thinking skills to use theory and strategy to solve real business problems." It's a natural fit for an accountant looking to change careers.
While those who study supply chain management in a master's program typically have a background in business or SCM itself, accounting is certainly not a hindrance. Jobs that you can earn with a master's in supply chain management include:
- Distribution manager
- Logistics manager
- Materials director
- Procurement manager
You'll balance budgets and identify areas to improve cost efficiency in these positions—you know, like an accountant.
What's your next step?
After deciding to leave your current role and identifying which degree you want to earn, your next step is to learn whether you need to complete additional coursework before applying. While an accounting background puts you in an excellent position to change careers, prerequisite courses may still be in your future, especially if you want to attend a STEM-focused program like an MSDS.
The next decision you'll need to make is whether to get your degree online or in person. Earning an online degree can provide many of the same benefits as an in-person program. Students in the University of Tulsa MBA receive job placement assistance as part of the program, for example. You may sacrifice a few in-person networking opportunities, but an online degree can offer more flexibility to continue working during your education.
Whatever degree you decide to earn, having work experience as an accountant can help you do it. "Budgeting is the basis for all business success," says WLF Accounting & Advisory. "It helps with both planning and control of the finances of the business. If there is no control over spending, planning is futile, and if there is no planning, there are no business objectives to achieve." The ability to wield your accounting skills in any situation can make you a valuable asset.
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