Accounting or Finance: Which Master’s Degree Is Right for You?

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Whether you’re still completing an undergraduate degree in finance or contemplating a return to school for your master’s in accounting or finance, you have a few choices to make when it comes to picking a graduate program that suits your needs.

Accounting and finance are both in-demand skills. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, both professions are seeing job growth rate above the eight percent national average. At a time when the economy is booming and technological innovation is a constant disruptive force, organizations across industries need individuals who can help provide a financial edge.

While many consider “accounting” and “finance” synonyms, both specializations offer unique graduate-level programs that follow two distinct paths. While learning one discipline might be helpful for the other, these programs can open different doors when you graduate. As you decide which master’s is right for you, consider the similarities and differences between each program, what kinds of jobs they can prepare you for, and the workload that will be required to take advantage of either.

What Are the Differences Between a Master’s in Finance and a Master’s in Accounting?

Students studying accounting are likely looking to obtain a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) licensure. While you don’t need to be a CPA to be a professional accountant, it can increase your chances of landing the job you want, in addition to earning a higher salary, according to accounting careers website All Accounting Careers.

The two most important aspects of becoming a CPA are passing the Uniform CPA Exam and meeting licensing requirements in the state in which you plan to practice, reports the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy. Earning a CPA requires meeting a variety of prerequisites: Students require 120 credit hours to sit for the CPA and 150 credit hours to license. Additionally, there are business and accounting prerequisites that are mandatory in order to sit for the exam. While 120 of the credit hours typically can be completed at the undergraduate level, the master’s in accounting can help students acquire the additional 30 credits.

What will those hours entail? Students pursuing their master’s in accounting can expect a mix of core courses and electives. Depending on your program of choice, these classes can sometimes be tailored to suit a specific branch of accounting, such as audit or tax. In an audit specialization, students take courses geared toward working in the audit and assurance industry. In the tax specialization, students get exposure to the intricacies of the tax industry.

Those seeking a master’s in finance can expect a different experience. While finance majors can become accountants, most finance courses don’t count toward the 150-hour CPA requirement, unless otherwise specified. Students can pursue the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation instead—a counterpart of the CPA for finance students. With a graduate degree in finance, students are able to dive deeper into finance as a whole, as finance programs typically address a wider range of topics, specialties, and courses.

During a finance graduate program, students will engage in rigorous courses designed to prepare them for mathematical and analytical challenges in the workplace. The course load will be closely aligned to the demands and requirements needed to succeed in the financial field. This covers a wide range of topics in the financial sector, including financial analysis, commercial banking, stock-brokerage services, and risk management.

While curriculum often varies, you may find classes such as Quantitative Methods in Finance I and II, Financial Intermediation in Emerging Markets, and Derivatives and Risk Management on the course list—similar to what may be found as part of the master’s in accounting course load.

Students without strong, well-rounded mathematical skills may find both of these degrees challenging, so it’s recommended that they take several basic and advanced math courses before enrolling in either of these programs in order to succeed and get the most value out of their studies.

How Can Master’s Degrees in Finance and Accounting Impact Your Career?

While both of these degrees will help with career advancement, which will make the biggest impact and provide the most value depends on the type of career path you plan to pursue.

Graduates with a master’s in accounting can pursue a number of careers, including forensic accountants, CPAs, controllers, and certified internal auditors. Master’s in finance graduates have options to pursue careers as actuaries, economists, financial managers, financial advisors, and financial analysts. The well-rounded education of both of these programs help students develop the in-demand skills for a diverse range of career types.

The accounting field is expected to grow by 11 percent between now and 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—almost twice the rate of job creation in the economy as a whole. The five-year manager-level accounting salary is projected to range from $97,000 to $134,250, while accounting professionals who hold a master’s degree can benefit from a 23 percent increase in salary versus those with a bachelor’s degree.

Like the master’s in accounting, a master’s in finance is often considered to be a salary booster. Many with this degree become financial managers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that financial manager positions will increase 19 percent between 2016 and 2026, and the median pay for a professional with a master’s in finance is just over $125,000 annually. While you don’t explicitly need a master’s degree to secure this position, having one can increase your chances of advancing.

Investopedia also outlined several job options for individuals with either degree. In addition to the educational and certification backgrounds specific to a career’s prerequisites, where you work also plays a big role in how much you make. 

Lifestyle Considerations: Degree Formats Available

Salary potential is not the only factor to weigh when choosing a graduate degree. There are also lifestyle considerations for students. For example, many have to decide how to pay for their degrees, either through personal savings or financial aid. Some students have families, full-time jobs, or don’t live near the campus of their desired institution.

Many schools offer different formats for graduate programs to meet the needs of perspective students. Full-time, part-time, and online modalities are all available options for graduate students to choose from, depending on their lifestyle, needs, and other considerations.

A business master’s program offered by the Northeastern D’Amore-McKim School of Business may be ideal if you have already embarked upon a career and wish to give yourself an advantage in today’s job market. To learn more about our suite of graduate degree and certificate programs, and the various formats available, connect with an enrollment advisor today.