CPA vs MBA – What’s the difference?

Career Guide to the Difference Between CPA Licenses and MBA Degrees

cpa-vs-mbaChoosing between a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree is a crucial decision that can significantly impact your career trajectory.

Both paths offer unique advantages and lead to diverse opportunities, making it essential to understand the fundamental differences between them.

This article aims to provide a comprehensive comparison, helping you make an informed choice that aligns with your professional aspirations.

Certified Public Accountant (CPA): A Deep Dive into Accounting

A CPA is a certification for accounting professionals, conferred by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). To earn this designation, candidates must pass the Uniform CPA Examination, which is renowned for its rigor and comprehensiveness. The exam tests candidates on four main areas: Auditing and Attestation, Business Environment and Concepts, Financial Accounting and Reporting, and Regulation.

CPAs are recognized for their expertise in accounting, auditing, and taxation. They often find employment in public accounting firms, corporate accounting departments, government agencies, and non-profit organizations. The CPA credential is mandatory for individuals who wish to file reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), making it indispensable for accountants who aspire to work with publicly traded companies.

The journey to becoming a CPA also requires meeting specific education and experience requirements. Candidates typically need a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field, and a certain number of accounting and business credit hours. Additionally, most states require one to two years of accounting experience under the supervision of a licensed CPA.

Master of Business Administration (MBA): Broadening Horizons in Business

An MBA is a graduate-level degree that covers a wide spectrum of business-related topics, including finance, marketing, operations, management, and strategy. MBA programs aim to cultivate leadership skills and provide a comprehensive understanding of the business world. Graduates are well-prepared to take on managerial and executive roles across various industries.

MBA programs are diverse, offering full-time, part-time, online, and executive options to accommodate different needs. The curriculum typically includes a combination of core courses, electives, and often a capstone project or internship. Networking is a significant component of MBA programs, providing students with valuable connections that can enhance their career prospects.

While an MBA provides a broad business education, it does not offer the specialized accounting training that a CPA certification entails. However, for individuals aiming for leadership roles, entrepreneurship, or a career change, an MBA can be a powerful credential.

Key Differences between CPA and MBA

Specialization vs. Generalization: A CPA offers in-depth knowledge and skills in accounting, while an MBA provides a broad understanding of various business disciplines.

Career Opportunities: CPAs often pursue careers in accounting, auditing, and taxation, whereas MBA graduates can be found in a wide range of industries, holding managerial and executive positions.

Time and Financial Investment: The CPA certification requires passing the CPA exam and fulfilling experience requirements, which can be time-consuming. An MBA program typically takes one to two years to complete, and while it can be expensive, the potential return on investment in terms of salary and career opportunities is substantial.

Global Recognition: Both CPA and MBA credentials are highly recognized, but their applicability may vary by region. A CPA is essential for accountants in the U.S., especially those working with publicly traded companies. An MBA is globally recognized and valued across various industries.

What is a MAcc?

A Master of Accountancy (MAcc) is a graduate-level degree designed to prepare students for careers in accounting and to meet the educational requirements for becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). Typically, a MAcc program focuses on developing a student’s technical expertise in accounting, understanding of complex financial regulations, and competencies in areas such as auditing, taxation, and financial reporting.

A MAcc program often includes courses on advanced accounting theory, managerial accounting, professional standards and ethics, business strategy, financial statement analysis, and the application of financial technology. The program usually requires 30 to 36 credit hours to complete, which can typically be done within one to two years, depending on the institution and whether the student is attending full-time or part-time.

One of the main reasons students pursue a MAcc is to fulfill the 150-semester-hour requirement to sit for the CPA exam since most bachelor’s degrees in accounting only offer 120 hours. However, the degree is also valuable for those aiming for high-level positions in corporate finance, government, nonprofit organizations, or academia.

Furthermore, a MAcc can provide an edge in the job market, as employers often recognize the degree as a commitment to the field and an indication of advanced skills. Additionally, the program usually allows students to concentrate on specific areas of interest within accounting, tailor their education to their career goals, and potentially prepare for other professional certifications beyond the CPA.

Is a Master’s Degree required to take the CPA exam?

A master’s degree is not a universal requirement to take the CPA exam; however, educational requirements can vary by state. The typical requirement for sitting for the CPA exam is the completion of 150 semester hours of college coursework, which is more than what’s required for a standard bachelor’s degree (usually 120 hours).

Many candidates choose to pursue a master’s degree, such as a Master of Accountancy (MAcc) or an MBA with a focus in accounting, to fulfill these additional hours. This path can also provide a more in-depth accounting education and better prepare individuals for the CPA exam and their future careers.

Some candidates, however, may opt to meet the 150-hour requirement without obtaining a master’s degree by taking additional undergraduate courses or combining their undergraduate coursework with graduate-level classes until they reach the necessary credit hours.

It’s essential for anyone considering the CPA exam to check the specific educational requirements set forth by the board of accountancy in the state where they intend to become licensed. Some states do have specific coursework requirements that may be more easily met with a master’s degree curriculum. Thus, while a master’s degree can be a way to meet the educational prerequisites, it is not mandated across the board for CPA exam eligibility.

MBA vs CPA – Which is Better?

Determining whether a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) license or an MBA (Master of Business Administration) degree is “better” depends on individual career goals, interests, and the specific field of work one intends to pursue.

A CPA is a license that signifies expertise in accounting and finance. It is tailored for those who want to pursue careers in accounting, whether in public accounting firms, corporate accounting, tax consultancy, audit, or assurance services. The CPA credential is often considered the gold standard for accountancy and is respected globally. It typically requires meeting education requirements, passing the Uniform CPA Examination, and fulfilling experience and ethics requirements.

On the other hand, an MBA is a versatile and widely recognized graduate degree that covers a broad range of business disciplines, such as management, marketing, strategy, operations, and human resources. The MBA is designed to prepare individuals for leadership and management roles across various sectors. It is ideal for those aiming for executive positions or entrepreneurial ventures. MBA programs often provide opportunities to build a broad professional network and learn from a diverse cohort.

For accounting-focused careers or for those who aim to become partners in public accounting firms, a CPA might be preferable. For those seeking leadership roles or a career change into areas like consulting, management, or finance, an MBA may offer the breadth and flexibility needed.

Ultimately, neither credential is objectively “better” than the other; the choice should be based on the career trajectory you envision for yourself and the skillset you wish to acquire.


Deciding between a CPA and an MBA depends on your career goals, interests, and the investment you are willing to make in your future. A CPA is ideal for those committed to a long-term career in accounting, offering expertise and a clear path in this field. An MBA, on the other hand, is suitable for individuals seeking a broader business perspective, leadership opportunities, and versatility in their career.

The key is to assess your career aspirations, weigh the pros and cons of each path, and choose the one that aligns with your vision for the future. Regardless of your choice, both paths offer rewarding opportunities and the potential for a fulfilling career.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a CPA or MBA better for career advancement in accounting?

A CPA is generally more advantageous for career advancement specifically in accounting, especially for roles that require a deep understanding of accounting principles and practices.

Can I pursue an MBA after obtaining a CPA (or vice versa)?

Yes, many professionals choose to pursue an MBA after obtaining their CPA to broaden their business acumen and open up leadership opportunities, while some may opt for a CPA after an MBA to specialize in accounting.

How do the salaries of CPA holders compare to MBA graduates?

Salaries can vary widely depending on the industry, location, and level of experience. However, both CPA holders and MBA graduates tend to earn higher salaries compared to those without these credentials, with MBA graduates often having a higher average salary due to access to managerial and executive roles.

Do I need a CPA to succeed in accounting?

While you can have a successful career in accounting without a CPA, obtaining the certification opens up more opportunities, provides a competitive edge, and is required for certain positions, such as becoming a partner in a public accounting firm or filing reports with the SEC.