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Master’s Degree vs CPA: Which Is Better for My Career?

Masters Degree vs CPA

By Masters degree, I refer to the advanced degree for accountants, such as Masters in accounting and/or taxation, and to a lesser extent, a Master’s degree in finance and/or business administration (MBA).

By CPA we refer to the US CPA designation.

What’s Great about Getting a Master’s Degree

1. A More Well-Rounded Education

It typically takes two years to complete a Masters degree in accounting and taxation. What you learn in these two years is wider and deeper than the CPA exam.

The obvious benefit is gaining knowledge relevant to the rest of your career. On a practical standpoint, some employers acknowledge this difference and are willing to give you a higher salary from the start.

2. More Networking Opportunities

This is applicable if you take classes on campus. The fact that you are surrounded by fellow students in the same field can be very valuable. They can be future colleagues, business partners, and industry experts in your field.

Those who take a step further to build relationships with professors can lead to many exciting and “insider” opportunities. This is especially the case for niche areas where firms specifically ask for recommendations from professors when they select potential employees.

If you are taking the MBA, the impact of networking is even greater.

3. No Maintenance Fee after Getting the Degree

Unlike the CPA in which you keep the license active with fees and 40 hours of CPE courses every year, there isn’t a mandatory cost to maintain your Master’s degree. People join alumni clubs and social activities after graduation, but it is free and likely an enjoyable thing to do.

Why Becoming a CPA Could be Better

1. It is Fast and can be Done with a Full-Time Job

Most candidates manage to take and pass the CPA exam with a demanding full-time job. Also, if you are committed, it is possible to complete the whole process within 6-12 months.

Although the CPA exam is notorious of its wide coverage, it only touches upon the “surface” of each topic. In other words, the exam content is very wide but not deep. The time you need to spend on studying is a lot less than what it takes in a Master’s program.

2. It is More Cost Effective

Taking the CPA exam is never cheap, but the cost (around $3,000) is substantially less than any Master’s program — a much better ROI for many accounting professionals.

3. Getting a CPA License is a Must in Certain Industries

For most industries, getting a Master’s degree is not a must. For CPA, you’ve got to get licensed if you move up beyond the manager level in any reputable CPA firm. A CPA license becomes also almost a necessity once you move to senior finance positions in big companies.

Should I Do Both?

If you can afford the time and money, yes!

As state boards move towards the 150 credit hour rule under the Uniform Accountancy Act, getting a masters degree in accounting is now a prerequisite for many candidates.

In the meantime, however, most state boards still give you the flexibility — you can have a bachelor’s degree and fulfil the remaining 30 credit hours by ad hoc, non-degree courses.

In light of this, the second question is, should I get random courses solely to fulfil the 150 credit hours requirement, or go full force to take a 1 or 2-year master’s degree?

It depends on how you’d like to plan your long term career.

Is a Master’s Degree Better for Your Long Time Career?

For example, if you never want to work in public accounting, getting a CPA license is a less attractive option. Also, if you work in a niche industry where CPA designation is not common among the experts in the field, it is better to work towards a master’s degree that fits your niche perfectly.

On the flip side, if getting the Masters doesn’t have value-add in your long term career, I suggest you go for the CPA exam and take enough non-degree courses to get the 150 credit hours required for the exam.

I Prefer CPA, but I Don’t Have 150 Credit Hours. What Should I Do?

Here are my suggestions. If you…

  • Have 4-year bachelor but lack accounting credits: take non-degree courses online or in nearby community colleges
  • Live outside of US and lack a very specific course (e.g. US GAAP) required by the state board: take the course offered by University of North Alabama (UNA) as it is designed for CPA exam candidates in mind.
  • Have 3-year bachelor only: sorry, it won’t work. In this case, you do need to take a master’s degree in accounting/commerce/ tax.

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