Anybody considering a career in accounting knows that some jobs will depend on achieving a certain education, whether the specific degree level or the specialty at the heart of the educational program.
Which degree is right depends largely on what each person wants to do for a living, but it can be helpful to understand more about the different types of accounting degrees you can get before going down any one path.
Regardless of the degree track a person takes, becoming a financial expert through an education in accounting can open up an exciting and lucrative career, one that is expected to see a healthy growth rate of 6% through 2028.
Accounting Degree Levels
The range of jobs available will usually be governed by the degree level the accounting student has achieved, and accounting, like most other fields, offers increasingly lucrative accounting degree jobs as the student climbs the educational ladder.
- Associate: Many types of entry-level accounting jobs become available after completing an associate degree program, though some employers may prefer candidates to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Still, at many companies, jobs in bookkeeping or junior-level accountant jobs are generally available after an associate degree.
- Bachelor’s: The lion’s share of accountant jobs will require a bachelor’s degree, though some firms that hire Certified Public Accountants may prefer to focus on candidates who already have a master’s degree, since that may make it easier for them to become certified. Still, most auditor, non-CPA, budget analyst or financial manager jobs, many of the most popular roles in accounting, require a bachelor’s degree.
- Master’s: The educational requirements in most states to become a CPA mean that accounting students who are set on that career goal may be better served by completing a master’s degree in accounting, and many schools offer a five-year combined bachelor’s/master’s program (see masters in accounting with no gre online) that helps give students a leg-up on becoming CPAs. Otherwise, many students seek master’s degrees in accounting so that they can further specialize in a particular accounting field.
- MBA: A Master of Business Administration is a natural next step for those who have already completed a bachelor’s degree in accounting and want to better prepare themselves for jobs in the business world. Completing an MBA also can help an accountant earn the credits necessary to earn CPA certification.
- Doctoral: As the highest possible degree in the field, a Ph.D. in accounting is attractive for people who have already attained at least a bachelor’s degree in the field and are interested in contributing to the expansion of the body of research in accounting. As with any degree level, students also may use a doctoral degree to hone in on a specialization, which is likely to be very helpful during the dissertation process.
Accounting Degree Specialties
While many people assume everyone with an accounting degree will become a Certified Public Accountant, that’s a faulty assumption. In fact, the field of accounting is broad and expanding all the time as the global economy becomes more and more interconnected.
- Corporate: Deals with general matters of accounting relating to large businesses, which could include assisting with taxes and payroll as well as recommending strategic business decisions.
- Forensic accounting: Follows financial trails and evidence related to cases of individual or corporate fraud or other fiscal malfeasance.
- Auditing: Ensures proper accounting procedures are followed and conducts internal reviews to ensure all accounts are properly reconciled.
- Taxes: Works with individuals, companies, nonprofits and other organizations to prepare and file all necessary tax documents.
- Cost accounting: Consults with multiple production teams to estimate all costs involved in a proposed project or initiative.
- Private banking: Works exclusively with high-income clients to manage all aspects of their investment portfolio.
- Budget analysis: Helps government bodies, nonprofits and other organizations, and occasionally private businesses, to set budgets and make decisions surrounding spending needs.
- Anti-money laundering: Works within large organizations, such as banks and technology companies, to analyze transactions for suspicious activities.
- Public accounting: Serves as general accountant in private practice or with firm of CPAs.
- Technology assurance: Audits corporate or organizational technology systems, particularly those relating to customer or other financial data.
- Treasury management: Monitors and manages the day-to-day cash flow of a business, office or other organization.
Certified Public Accountant & Other Designations
Becoming a Certified Public Accountant may not be necessary for many types of jobs in accounting, but for any accountant whose job involves filing reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the CPA designation is required.
Otherwise, many companies prefer to hire only CPAs so they can ensure a basic level of competence.
Every state has specific rules set forth by their Board of Accountancy that govern the requirements for the CPA designation. All states require candidates to complete 150 hours of college coursework. In other words, more than the typical four-year degree. That’s why many prospective CPAs will choose to complete a master’s degree (see best online masters in accounting degrees) before pursuing the designation.
In most states, professional experience is required, generally taking the form of at least two years of public accounting.
A handful of states have adopted two tiers of CPA licensure in which lower-tier CPAs lack some of the privileges of full licensure: Alabama, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, and in every state, candidates must pass the Uniform CPA Exam, which is administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Generally, candidates must pass all four parts of the exam within 18 months of passing the first part.
Many accountants will also choose to specialize in one area, and earning a more specialized certification can make a job candidate more attractive. Here’s a look at some of the most popular:
- Certified Management Accountant (CMA): This certification is ideal for accountants who want to work in business management, and the exam covers topics like financial planning, strategic financial management and analytics. It requires a bachelor’s degree and two years of work experience.
- Certified Internal Auditor (CIA): This designation is meant for candidates who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree and has worked for at least two years in internal auditing. Candidates must pass a four-part exam. Related designations offered by the same organization include Control Self-Assessment (CCSA), Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP), Certified Financial Services Auditor (CFSA) and Certification in Risk Management Assurance (CRMA), and each certification carries its own exam requirements.
- Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA): This designation is ideal for candidates who have at least five years of experience in auditing information systems, though up to three years can be replaced by equivalent college credits or experience in information systems or operational or financial auditing.
Accounting Degree Conclusion
To outside observers, accounting can seem like a stuffy and potentially boring job. But the education and experience required to become an in-demand accountant means taking your educational path seriously. Regardless of the eventual job you want, an education in accounting is likely to open doors.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Accountants and Auditors. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/accountants-and-auditors.htm
- ISACA, Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA). (Undated.) Retrieved from https://www.isaca.org/credentialing/cisa
- The Institute of Internal Auditors, Why Become Certified. (Undated.) Retrieved from https://na.theiia.org/certification/new/Pages/Why-Become-Certified.aspx
- Institute of Management Accountants, CMA Certification. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.imanet.org/cma-certification?ssopc=1