The master’s degree in accounting has become more than just an academic ambition for a select few. Between satisfying those 150 pesky credits needed to earn the CPA and opening the door to outstanding career prospects in management/leadership and in specialized areas like taxation, auditing and forensic accounting, a master’s is a major necessary step for accounting professionals with sights set on achieving high-level, top-paying accounting positions.
Starting Degree – How an MBA or Other Master’s Can Add to Your Earning Potential
You’ll have a couple different options for earning a master’s degree in accounting. Of course, if you’ve already earned an undergrad degree in accounting, you’re well on your way to a master’s in the field. However, given the additional 30 post-bachelor’s credits needed to earn the CPA designation, many schools now offer combined programs that allow students to earn both their bachelor’s and master’s in accounting in just five years, earning the 150 credits needed along the way.
Some MAcc programs accept students with general business undergraduate degrees, but you should expect to satisfy specific undergraduate accounting requirements before starting your program.
With a bachelor’s in accounting (or a similar field) under your belt, you’ll be well-prepared for a Master of Accountancy (MAcc) or an MBA in Accounting. Most accountants will likely tell you that while the MAcc is perfectly designed to get you the 150 credits you need to qualify for the CPA designation and/or to provide you with the opportunity to specialize, the MBA in Accounting is generally reserved for experienced accountants who want to prepare for senior-level accounting positions.
Master’s Degree Salary – What You Can Expect to Earn with an MBA or MS in Accounting
In the field of accounting, a master’s degree won’t just get you that specialized or top-level position in the field; it’ll give you the salary boost that you’re looking for to justify the time and expense of earning your graduate degree.
Using the most recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, accountants and auditors earn a median salary of $71,550. But in this field, the median doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.
That’s because a graduate degree and/or a number of years of experience nearly always equates to higher salaries. To really drill down to what accountants with a bachelor’s are likely to earn, you would do well to look at the lower end of the salary scale (25th -50th percentile). On the flip side, accountants with a master’s degree and experience earn salaries that fall in the 75th-90th percentile range:
- Bachelor’s degree: $55,900 – $71,550
- Master’s degree and/or extensive experience: $94,340 – $124,450
On the lower end of the pay scale ($94,340 vs. $55,900), master’s degree holders earn, on average, nearly $40,000 more than their bachelor’s degree counterparts, while on the higher end ($124,450 vs. $71,550), salaries for master’s-prepared accounting professionals exceed their bachelor’s-prepared colleagues by more than $50,000.
Job Title and Certification for Master’s-Prepared Accountants and Auditors
Certified public accountant (CPA), certified internal auditor (CIA), certified management accountant (CMA), certified information systems auditor (CISA)—these designations and more are just a few of the ways you can advance your career (and your paycheck in the process) in the field of accounting.
Accounting managers and executives that hold titles like chief financial officer (CFO), controller, finance manager, business analyst, and accounting supervisor also land at or near the top of the accounting hierarchy and have top salaries to match. Assuming positions like these generally requires a master’s degree and extensive experience in the industry.
BLS salary data highlights a few of the titles often held by accounting professionals and what they’re earning with master’s degrees and experience (75th – 90th percentile):
- Financial manager: $181,980 – $208,000+
- Tax examiners, collectors, and preparer; revenue agents: $69,600 – $95,280
- Financial and investment analysts, financial risk specialists, and financial specialists: $109,330 – $156,150
Similar to the broader accounting title, these accounting professionals earn significantly more with a master’s degree than they do with a bachelor’s.
For example, financial managers at the 75th percentile (likely those with a master’s degree and a few years of experience) earn nearly double what they do at the 25th percentile (likely those with a bachelor’s degree and similar experience): $181,980 vs. $92,310.
What Master’s-Prepared Accountants Earn In Different Industry Sectors
Of course, every business that spends and makes money—financial authorities, laboratories, governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations, laboratories/research facilities, etc.—needs accounting professionals on payroll, regardless whether profits are trending upward or downward. In fact, because of this, accounting is often referred to as a “recession-proof” profession.
Using May 2019 BLS stats of salaries in the 75th – 90th percentile (indicating master’s level accountants), CPAs working in all areas of public accounting (accounting, tax prep, bookkeeping, payroll) earn between $98,060 – $135,530, while the largest earners outside of public accounting, who handle the purchase and sale of specific financial instruments (securities, commodity contracts, and other financial investments), earn between $121,030 – $161,970.
A sampling of some of the other top-paying industries for accountants during this time include:
- Monetary authorities/financial institutions: $113,300 – $144,360
- Funds, trusts, and other financial vehicles: $94,840 – $132,870
- Health and medical insurance carriers: $92,540 – $114,430
- Insurance and employee benefit funds: $96,300 – $133,230
- Agencies, brokerages, and other insurance related companies: $90,490 – $120,170
- Real estate: $92,360 – $119,730
- Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing: $104,210 – $132,370
- Credit intermediation and related activities: $100,650 – $133,850
- Federal government: $115,160 – $134,560
- Grantmaking services: $98,890 – $129,830
- Labor unions: $93,000 – $126,440
- Advertising, public relations, and related services: $98,100 – $125,370
- Scientific research and development: $105,820 – $141,080
- Management, scientific, and technical consulting services: $95,440 – $125,680
- Professional, scientific, and technical services: $97,920 – $133,110
- Architectural, engineering, and related services: $97,120 – $125,360
- Computer systems design and related services: $99,930 – $131,480
- Testing laboratories: $95,060 – $126,040
The Top Employers for Master’s-Prepared CPAs, Auditors and Other Accounting Professionals
Although the BLS doesn’t provide salary averages based on specific employers, your chances are better at landing a job with a large firm that provides a wealth of financial services if your resume touts a master’s degree and some degree of experience, particularly in a specialized field like taxation, corporate finance, assurance, management consulting, etc.
In the field of accounting, the Big Four remain:
- Ernst & Young
- PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)
The Big Four earned their name largely because their combined revenue and workforce is comparable to the rest of the market as a whole. As a result, they tend to demand and attract top talent, and clients usually include Fortune 500 companies.
Other big names in accounting and auditing include:
- Grant Thornton
- Moss Adams
- BDO USA
- RSM US
- Baker Tilly
- Crowe Global
- Eide Bailley
- Grant Thornton International
- Dixon Hughes
- Cherry Bekaert & Holland
How Geographical Location Impacts Salaries for Master’s-Prepared Accountants
The geographical location of an accounting firm continues to influence salaries for accounting professionals. For example, large metro markets and states with these markets naturally reveal higher salaries for accountants because they are home to the headquarters of major corporations, insurers, banks, and more.
For example, Washington D.C. posts one of the highest salary ranges for master’s level accountants (75th – 90th), which isn’t a surprise given the major federal agencies located here: $126,070 – $153,990.
Similarly, New York State comes in as one of the nation’s top payers of master’s level accountants, thanks to NYC’s position as the world’s financial center and site of some of the largest corporations and organizations in the world: $119,990 – $158,260.
Other states where master’s prepared accounting professionals enjoy top-level salaries include:
- New Jersey: $107,010 – $144,490
- Virginia: $100,760 – $131,850
- Colorado $99,770 – $130,340
- Massachusetts: $99,020 – $126,660
- Maryland: $98,910 – $126,050
- California: $97,910 – $127,290
Some of the metro areas that posted top salary ranges for accounting professionals with master’s degrees (75th – 90th percentile) include:
- Amarillo, TX: $98,930 – $143,800
- Anchorage, AK: $94,970 – $123,660
- Boston, MA (also includes Columbia, Townsend): $96,200 – $122,990
- Denver, CO: $103,750 – $132,500
- Chicago, IL (also includes Naperville and Elgin): $93,770 – $123,130
- Dallas, TX (also includes Fort Worth, Arlington): $97,610 – $124,630
- Grand Island, NE: $83,410 – $154,680
- Great Falls, MT: $97,080 – $131,640
- Greensboro, NC (also includes Highpoint): $93,760 – $132,270
- San Jose, CA (includes Sunnyvale and Santa Clara): $104,930 – $133,640
- Richmond, VA: $95,740 = $123,350
- San Francisco, CA (includes Oakland and Hayward): $109,850 – $147,670
- Seattle, WA (includes Tacoma and Bellevue): $100,200 – $129,170
- Springfield, IL: $96,070 – $124,500
- Yuma, AZ: $83,000 – $135,440
- Washington D.C. (includes Arlington, Alexandria, VA): $116,360 – $148,530
- Trenton, NJ: $101,570 – $125,590
The School Where You Graduated From Has Some Connection to What You Could Earn
When selecting a master’s degree in accounting, it’s always best to choose a college or university that boasts a well-established business school with a strong reputation and a solid record of student/graduate success.
Some of the features to look for include:
- Accreditation: Look for an accounting master’s program that’s housed within an accredited business school – a clear sign that the program meets rigorous quality and outcomes standards. The top three national accreditation agencies include the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP), and International Accreditation Council for Business Education (IACBE).
- CPA exam first-time pass rate: Top schools often have pass rates that exceed 80%.
- Job placement rates among graduates: Look for programs where most graduates are employed within six months. Many top schools have placement rates at or near 100%.
- Flexible course options: Many programs feature part-time options, evening classes, and/or partially or fully online courses of study to accommodate the needs of busy, working professionals.
- Specialization options that fit your career goals: Assurance, taxation, analytics, management information systems, etc.—not all programs offer the same specializations, so make sure you’re looking at programs that best fit your career goals.
- Project-based, hands-on curriculum: Look for programs with plenty of experiential and project-based learning for a dynamic, engaging course of study.
Resources and References
May 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics data for Accountants and Auditors. Figures represent national data, not school specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed March 2021.