There seems to be a lot of discussion about which three letters are better to have behind your name to further your career as an accountant:  CPA or MBA.  With the way the accounting profession is evolving it’s not as clear cut anymore.  So, how can you look at the question in order to answer it?

What Do You Want to Do?

This is an important, if obvious, question.  Does it add any value to you towards your goal(s)?  If you know you’re never going to work in public accounting or if you want to work in banking or as a consultant or manager in a financial services company then you’d be best served by an MBA.  If you want to rise in a CPA firm or in the finance department in a lot of big corporations then you should opt for the CPA as, in both these examples, it’s really a requirement instead of a nice-to-have.

Objective Standard

There are many different MBA programs and their ranking can go up or down each year in the eyes of publications that rank them based upon both objective and subjective criteria.  There’s also debate about how much real value the degree should hold these days.  Contrast this with a CPA.  There is only one CPA exam and one universally recognized certification for it.  In addition, its value remains consistent for advancing your career as an accountant.

Specialized v. General

The job world today is growing more specialized.  The day of the “Expert” is here.  Employers are attracted to people who have deep knowledge and experience in one area and, as a result, have specific skills and the ability to do things that others cannot. With this in mind It would seem that becoming a CPA would be best.  Once you have this certification you can, for example, review financial statements and both handle and sign audit reports.  An MBA program encompasses a wide array of topics such as marketing, management, etc., to cover the business world as a whole.  This is valuable if you want to drive corporate strategy because you have a more holistic view of things.

Time and Cost

Although the decision should be based upon your goals and the long view, there is a definite difference here.  Getting your CPA takes less time and money.  To get a masters in business you’ll need to complete two years of classes at a university.  With the cost of higher education rising year after year and the interest on student loans, it’s an expensive proposition.  Getting a CPA costs about $3,000 and, if you’re tough and lucky, can be gained within a year even if you have a full-time job.

In the End…

All things being equal the CPA comes out on top.  It’s quicker, cheaper and has high objective value whereas the MBA is more expensive, takes longer, and whose value these days is dubious to many.  Given that accountants are taking a broader, more strategic role in businesses of different sorts today and are increasingly inhabiting the C-suite, accountants would be better served with the CPA.  

But when viewed through the lens of your long-term plans, each has significant value.  It all depends on you.

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