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Master’s in Accounting vs. MBA: Do You Know the Difference?

There are many educational paths available to students looking to complete a master’s degree in a business-related field. There are specialized degrees in areas such as accounting, finance, management, and even leadership. There is also the general and well-known Master of Business Administration (MBA).

Students who have an interest in pursuing a career in the financial industry may wonder whether they should earn their master’s degree in accounting vs. an MBA. Both programs focus heavily on financial knowledge and can lead to many similar careers, including roles in the C-suite. Accounting is a more specific degree, with a strong focus on preparing students for the certified public accountant (CPA) exam, while an MBA usually offers the choice of multiple concentrations.

To better understand the differences between the paths to earning an MBA and a master’s of accounting degree — like the degree offered by Maryville University’s Master of Science in Accounting program — the following outline describes what each educational track covers. Also included is an overview of several common career choices, median salaries, and some of the main similarities and differences between finance and accounting careers.

accounting professional

What is a Master’s in Accounting?

A master’s degree in accounting helps students develop the practical and advanced accounting skills, business strategies, and financial savvy required to succeed in their chosen accounting/financial career. This degree program focuses on preparing students for the CPA exam, in addition to providing some general industry knowledge in the areas of business law and economics.

It can be beneficial in the pursuit of various positions in the accounting field, since an advanced degree can help a person stand out among a crowded pool of candidates. When combined with a CPA certification, the degree can help an individual build a high-level career in the field.

What Do Master of Accounting Graduates Do?

Most graduates will go on to become accountants or CPAs. Responsibilities of accountants encompass the regular collection and review of clients’ financial records. They also estimate the costs of business operation and ensure that taxes are paid, processes are optimized, and that an organization understands the impact of its financial transactions.

Some graduates may choose to pursue chartered financial analyst (CFA) certification, which is a globally recognized certification offered through the CFA Institute. Individuals in this role apply their accounting knowledge to the global financial industry through investment-related professions. These professions can involve concepts such as portfolio management, private wealth planning, and financial consulting. Individuals might also advance into auditing or executive financial roles.

Types of careers:

  • Accountant
  • Auditor
  • Budget analyst
  • Revenue agent
  • Financial manager

Median salary as of May 2019 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

  • $71,550 (accountant)
  • $184,460 (chief financial officer)

What Is a Master’s in Business Administration?

A master’s in business administration can help to prepare students for a high-level career in a chosen business specialty. Common career concentrations for MBA students include accounting, financial services, information technology, management, and human resources.

What Do MBA Graduates Do?

Achieving an MBA opens the door to many careers in a variety of industries. The degree not only provides students with a broad perspective on the business world but also aids in internal career progression or transition into a new industry. MBA graduates often go on to become financial managers, top executives, and operations managers.

Types of careers:

  • Accountant
  • Senior executive
  • Investment banker
  • Management consultant

Median salary as of May 2019 according to the BLS:

  • $71,550 (accountant)
  • $184,460 (C-suite executive)

CPA vs. MBA Salary

As noted above, individuals who obtain CPA certification earned a median salary of $71,550 as of May 2019. According to PayScale, those who received an MBA degree earned a median salary of approximately $89,600 as of February 2021. Factors that can influence salary include years of experience, job location, and whether the role is a managerial position.

Despite the CPA and MBA salary gap, the factors associated with obtaining the respective credentials need to be considered. For instance, the cost involved in obtaining CPA certification may be less than the cost to obtain an MBA. Also, while earning a CPA can be a longer process, the time spent working toward certification coincides with working toward other degrees, such as a master’s in accounting.

CFA vs. MBA Salary

The difference in CFA and MBA salaries is minimal. As mentioned above, the median salary for MBAs was $89,600 as of February 2021, and according to PayScale, those who obtain CFA certification earned a median annual salary of roughly $90,600 as of February 2021. These salaries fluctuate depending on factors such as experience, industry, and geographic location.

Master of Accounting vs. MBA: Similarities*

Both degrees focus on finances and include a significant amount of learning about the financial industry, including accounting and statistics.

MBA degree holders and accountants can become CPAs: professionals who can represent clients before the IRS and file audited financial reports — a requirement for every company — with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Both master’s in accounting and MBA degrees can lead to top executive-level jobs.

*These comparisons are meant to be a guide and are not universally applicable to, and uniform among, all jobs and regions.

Master of Accounting vs. MBA: Differences*

An accounting degree focuses primarily on the accounting field, while students in an MBA program can choose from a variety of concentrations inside and outside of the financial industry.

Students without a professional accounting background can often enroll in a Master of Accounting program, while many MBA programs prefer applicants who have prior business experience. This difference means that students pursuing a Master of Accounting program can emerge with an advanced degree without having significant work experience.

It may take less time to complete a master’s degree in accounting compared to an MBA.

An MBA program is designed to produce a more well-rounded business professional, potentially leading to improved salary prospects and broader career options. However, gaining a master’s degree in accounting can significantly increase the chance of better pay in the accounting field. Accounting professionals in the field who hold a master’s degree earn an average of 37% more than their counterparts who have a bachelor’s degree.

A master’s degree in accounting is meant to prepare students for a higher-level or management position in accounting, while an MBA offers the same preparation for a variety of fields depending on a student’s chosen concentration.

*These comparisons are meant to be a guide and are not universally applicable to, and uniform among, all jobs and regions.

Build the Foundation for a Satisfying Career

Students who are interested in pursuing a career in the financial industry have many educational options. Both an MBA and a master’s degree in accounting can provide aspiring professionals with a solid basis from which to develop their careers in finance.

If students are looking for broader career options that might extend beyond finance, an MBA may be a wise path to choose.

For those who want to focus their education more specifically on accounting and its related disciplines, a master’s degree in that field can help an aspiring professional gain a solid grasp of the concepts and skills needed to pursue an accounting career. For students who are interested in this career path, consider exploring Maryville’s online Master of Science in Accounting degree or online Master of Business Administration degree.

Now that you more fully appreciate what distinguishes a master’s degree in accounting vs. an MBA, you are better prepared to discover more of the career options available to accounting graduates.

Recommended Reading

Accounting Knowledge and Business Leadership Go Together

Are Accountants in High Demand? A Look at the Numbers

How Technology Is Shaping the Future of Accounting

Sources

CPA Accounting Institute for Success, “CPA vs MBA: Which Is Better for Your Career, Salary, and Wallet?”

Investopedia, “How Much Do CPAs Make?

Investopedia, “So, You Want to Earn Your CFA?”

Maryville University, Master of Science in Accounting Online

Maryville University, Master’s in Business Administration Online

PayScale, Average Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Salary

PayScale, Average Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Salary

PayScale, Master of Business Administration (MBA) Degree

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Accountants and Auditors

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Top Executives