Master's Degree in Accounting: An All-inclusive Guide

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When it comes to an accounting career path there are really two main reasons to get a master’s degree and they both are related to the Certified Public Accountant certification:

  1. You are a career changer that wants to begin a career in accounting.
  2. You need more credits to get your CPA certification.

In the past, a master’s degree would help candidates stand out from the crowd of other applicants. It served as a specialization that, combined with the CPA, added a great deal to the pedigree and background of a graduate. However, with more and more programs offering bachelor’s students automatic or easy entry into master’s programs, the master’s degree has lost some of its glamor.

What Employers Want

The business norm is changing. Because more and more employers are hiring graduates that are CPA exam ready, the degree is starting to become an industry standard—which means that accounting students need to be prepared for more schooling after their undergraduate level. The master’s degree helps prepare students for careers in forensic accounting, public accounting, auditing and compliance accounting, government accounting and more. For this reason, the master’s degree is still an attractive credential—even if it is becoming more common.

In this article, we’re going to explore these two separate routes to the master’s degree. We’re going to talk a lot about the CPA exam because this is the career path that most students choose, and because being CPA ready is a requirement of many employers.

We know that the CPA is not the only path to a career in accounting. If there is a certain job type in accounting that you are interested in, do your research. Reach out to people in the industry and learn about their career paths, and you might discover your own future career path. This guide will help you determine what is best for your own education.

The Career Changer

career changeWhat we define as a career changer is someone that has graduated with a bachelor’s in a non-accounting or business related subject. Some of these career changers may come from liberal arts backgrounds, scientific backgrounds or even technical fields like construction. If you find that this description sounds familiar, please take heart. In our experience, we’ve encountered individuals with successful careers in accounting that have come from careers as writers and journalists, film editors and educators, and even meteorologists.

If you’ve already graduated with a bachelor’s degree, you probably already have at least 120 credit hours to your name. What you need then are the “right” classes in subjects like audit, or financial accounting to qualify you for the CPA. Even if you aren’t really interested in the CPA, most master’s degree programs will give you the technical knowledge and the skills necessary to qualify for the exam and being exam ready is a characteristic that employers like to see in candidates.

Coming into accounting from a non-accounting background can be a rough transition. Add this to the brevity of graduate school programs, and the challenge of the coursework and you’ve got quite a challenge. But don’t worry—others have gone before you and have done it. You can do it too. As an added bonus, coming from a non-accounting background is one fantastic way to stand out to employers since it shows your ability to learn and master new subjects. Depending on your background you may bring a new skill set that an employer might find extremely valuable. What was your weakness, may be your advantage.

The CPA Student

Traditional Students

If you’re a traditional accounting student that went to school for a bachelor’s degree in accounting, the main reason you’d want to get a master’s degree is to get up to the 150 credit hour requirement for the CPA. The benefit of being a master’s student with an accounting background is that the material will already be familiar, and the coursework will help to reinforce the concepts that you have already learned, further helping you prepare for the CPA exam. A master’s degree offers a certain level of specialization as well since some schools offer programs in taxation.

One alternate path for the undergraduate student is to attend a program that has an integrated fifth-year master’s degree. These programs allow students to graduate with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree at the end of 5 years. What a time saver.


The other route for the CPA student is to earn an MBA with a concentration in accounting to qualify for the CPA. Since an undergraduate degree in accounting will have already covered the necessary “right” classes for the CPA, the CPA student is free to learn the business-related topics covered in the coursework of accounting. The wide range of subject matter covered by the MBA offers more variety and opens more doors and exciting opportunities.

Course Materials

Typically a master’s degree program in accounting is built around core required business classes, core required accounting classes, and finally elective classes. While each program is structured differently, many of the main classes are the same across schools. The following courses are an example of a master’s level curriculum:

Core Required Classes

Generally, these classes are required by all business majors regardless of master’s programs.
Economic Environment of the Firm – This course explores both micro and macroeconomic issues that can influence a firm. In the firm, this course looks at the impact of prices, wages, profits, as well as external factors like the Gross Domestic Product, interest rate, unemployment.

Organizational Behavior and Leadership – Most business school programs include a class on organizational behavior—the study and application of leadership theory and how to manage and lead groups of people.
Financial Statement Analysis—This finance course focuses on understanding the various financial performance tools in analyzing the performance of a firm in the marketplace. Through understanding financial statements, financial ratios, capital budgeting and the time value of money, students have a better understanding of the finance end of a company.

Marketing and Management—To get a better understanding of how marketing functions in a business, students are required to take this course as part of their core classes. This class explores how to conduct market research, how to understand how a population can be segmented by various criteria, and how to market a product to appeal to a specific audience.

Core Accounting Classes

These courses are central to the accounting degree and cover the main areas of the accounting profession.
Financial Accounting—Dealing with the measurement and reporting of various asset and liability accounts, expenses and revenues, and the preparation of financial statements gives students an in-depth view of how financial accounting functions at the intermediate level.

Cost/Managerial Accounting—Cost accounting is one of the key basis of decision-making in a company. In this class students typically learn cost-volume-profit analysis, operational budgeting, and analysis of business behavior from a quantitative perspective.

Financial Statement Auditing—This course develops the basic skills and analysis required to function in the audit profession. Usually, an auditing course covers the theory of why companies are required to submit to an audit, and how strong audit practices can increase the integrity of a company.

Business Process and Systems Management—With so much of the business world digital these days, it’s important for students to learn how to understand an accounting information system, how these systems are organized, and the implications of controls and security risks.

Federal Income Taxation—The only thing permanent things in life are death and taxes right? This course highlights the different taxations and regulations on individuals, S corporations, C corporations, partnerships and more. Students will learn how to determine what is taxable income, what are deductions and credits, and the proper treatment of property, and business entities.

Professional Accounting Research—Students of this class learn how to conduct accounting research from both an academic and a professional perspective. This course investigates the ethical issues emerging in the profession and requires students to perform research and analysis on their own (Warning this class can be a gateway drug into PhD programs).

Accounting Internship—Some programs will require an internship to graduate. The best way to get an internship is to start looking right away.

Elective Accounting Classes

Every program offers its own accounting elective classes depending on the specialization of its faculty. Here are an example of the variety of classes available:

IT Auditing—This class covers the auditing of computerized information systems and the development of information systems.

Internal Auditing—Explores the roles and duties of an internal auditor, developing short and long-term audit plans, and the key elements of performing a successful internal audit.

Fraud and Forensic Investigation—Fraud is a part of the accounting industry and this class focuses on how fraud is perpetrated in an organization. This class delves into criminal psychology and the motivations to commit white collar crime, the criminal justice system, and ultimately how to investigate and prevent fraud.
International Issues in Accounting—Deals with the major components of financial and managerial accounting in international accounting. Explores the different financial reporting standards of various regions and how accounting can be “lost” in translation.

Advanced Accounting Information Systems—Designed as a hybrid class between students that are interested in both accounting and IT, this class shows how a knowledge of both can develop risk resistant information systems that can effectively monitor business activities while capturing and storing data accurately and securely.

Advanced Accounting for Income Taxes—A study on the impact of income taxes in business decision making. Students learn how accounting methods and periods shape provisions, extensions, deferred tax assets and liabilities, and footnote disclosures.

Corporate Taxation—This class explores the different taxation required on different business entities and the impact of those taxes on decision making.

Advanced Financial Accounting—A more in-depth and advanced look at financial accounting, and issues surrounding problems in corporate debt, investments, pension plans, leases, and other issues.

The amount of classes you’ll be required to take largely depends on the kind of classes you’ve taken as an undergrad. Some classes will be waived based on prior academic experience. Most programs fall between the 30-60 credit hour range, while some programs can be more than 80 credit hours.

Online vs. Traditional Master’s Degree Programs

Getting a master’s degree in accounting is easier than ever thanks to the huge push by the education community to create online programs. As long as the program you’ve chosen is properly accredited and recognized by the AACSB, ACBSP, or the IACBE, graduation from the program will qualify you for the CPA exam.
The question is whether an online program is right for you.

Some things to consider about each program when making a decision:

Are you a self-motivated student that can manage personal deadlines?

Do you prefer to work independently or with others?

Do you need to keep a full-time job while attending school?

What are your interests in accounting?

What kind of specializations does the program offer?

What kind of networking opportunities does the school offer to its traditional students? Online students?

What kind of prerequisites are required for the program?

These questions will help gauge your own needs and requirements. An online program is not always the best fit for everyone–especially students that need the structure and regular rhythm of going to class. On the other hand, self-motivated students that can do well without structure may find an online program more suitable for them.

Traditional Master’s Degree Programs

Traditional Programs require students to go to campus and interact in classroom settings. Students will attend classes in person and gain face-to-face time with the instructors. One enormous added benefit to these traditional programs is accessibility to campus resources. Students will be able to attend networking events, as well as unique seminars and forums lead by high-profile members of the business community.

Online Master’s Degree Programs

Online programs offer a degree of flexibility that is unmatched in traditional programs. These programs allow students to work around busy schedules and family commitments. The main drawback to this is because the physical interaction with campus is at a minimum, students need to be well organized to stay on top of school assignments. Online students need to have a working knowledge of different communication software and technology in order to interact with professors and fellow students as well. Many projects at the master’s level are group projects and students need to be able to communicate and coordinate accordingly.
Hybrid Programs

Some schools offer hybrid programs where students can attend classes remotely and occasionally come to campus. These programs try to offer a “best of both worlds” approach to education and is really the best option for students that need an actual physical campus interaction as well as flexibility.

If you’re still unsure what the best fit for you is, talk to the admissions staff from the different schools to discuss whether or not their program is a good fit for you. Reach out to current students and learn from their experiences. These people will be able to guide you to your own decision.

Final Thoughts

Is there a right way or a best way to get a job in accounting? No.

Is a master’s degree 100% necessary? No.

However, the truth is that the additional academic work studied at the graduate level is necessary to gain technical competence to succeed as a CPA in today’s market. In fact, a master’s degree is a requirement to qualify for the CPA exam in some states. With master’s degrees becoming a more common part of the accounting education and an industry norm, this degree should be considered by all students.