What can you do with a master’s degree in accounting?

BY Sarah Thomas-OxtobyApril 28, 2023, 2:23 PM
Students on campus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, as seen in August 2022. (Armando L. Sanchez—Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)

Accountants speak the language of numbers, they’re especially skilled in evaluating financial statements, and experts in determining how to drive profits for a company. Aside from becoming a certified public accountant (CPA), people who hold a master’s degree in accounting can enter other unique roles, or increase their earnings by going into leadership positions—which can lead to the C-suite roles of chief financial officer (CFO) or even chief executive officer (CEO).

To eventually land a role in senior management, you need to be well-versed in technology, and master’s degree programs in accounting are incorporating more analytical components to help prepare future business leaders, says Douglas M. Boyle, an accounting professor and the Ph.D. accounting program director at the University of Scranton. “That’s what a master’s of accountancy (MAcc) provides because accounting is really transitioning, and is one of the leading professions on implementing analytics,” he tells Fortune

This transition Boyle says is now taking place was predicated as “the next frontier” back in 2016 by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. That’s when the institute announced that CPAs needed to learn how to use advanced technology and deepen their knowledge of implementing data analytics, as the field of accounting was evolving.

While the industry is changing, it’s also growing. More than 136,400 job openings for accountants and auditors are projected each year, on average, through 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

While enrollment among the schools on Fortune‘s ranking of best online master’s in accounting programs held steady between the 2020–2021 and 2021-2022 academic years, the industry is facing a shortage of accountants. In addition to the University of Scranton, many other schools—like the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill—are recognizing why data analytics are important and could open up more career opportunities to accountants.

Common accounting jobs

The most likely career outcome for those people with an advanced degree in accounting is to become an accountant for a public, private, or government organization, or to become a CPA. Accountants currently earn about $61,000, on average, while accounting managers make close to $87,000, and CPAs bring in just over $90,000, all according to Indeed’s April 2023 figures.

Other common accounting jobs include positions providing support with accounting systems, accounting engineer roles, working as an accounting software specialist, tech accounting positions, or accounting research jobs. Salaries for these occupations range from the low $30,000 range to as high as $118,000, according to recent data from ZipRecruiter.

While it is possible to become an accountant, or even a CPA with just a bachelor’s degree, earning a master’s in accounting prepares graduates for other unique roles and leadership positions accompanied by earnings which exceed the average base salary of an accountant. The top 10% of accountants and auditors are earning more than $124,000.

Some online master’s in accounting programs, like the one at Scranton University, offer specializations in forensic accounting and accounting analytics. “About 30% of our enrollees are people coming in from different disciplines who see how rewarding and lucrative a career in accounting is,” says Boyle.

Technology’s impact on accounting

Technology enables accountants to gather, prepare, and present financial data to management or clients with accuracy, and much faster than before.

“Tech is changing the field and a lot of people will say, ‘Oh no, the robots are coming for the accountant jobs,’ but I don’t think that’s the case,” Troy Janes, an accounting professor and master’s in accounting (MSA) program director at Purdue University tells Fortune. Rather, technology is enhancing accounting procedures by “taking over some of the menial tasks that accountants used to do,” he adds.

When Janes first started out in public accounting, he made a lot of photocopies and would spend hours adding up the general ledger to make sure the math was right. “You don’t have to do that anymore, because you’ve got a computer to do that,” he says. 

“This enables those in accounting occupations to ​​spend more time on higher order tasks that require more judgments and analysis than they used to,” says Janes. “So technology is changing the profession, but I think very much for the better, without having a detrimental effect on jobs.”

Increase earnings potential 

People who pursue an advanced degree have various career aspirations, and often one of those is a desire to increase their earnings potential.

“When considering how to advance to the next career level, how to become a financial controller, a CFO, or go into a niche accounting role such as treasury investor relations for a company, most people are going for the master’s,” Boyle says. 

The average annual salary for a financial controller is just shy of $100,000, a treasury manager makes nearly $125,000, and those people who become a CFO earn an average salary just over $425,000.

“Lifetime earnings are much higher if you’ve got a master’s degree and a CPA license, as opposed to just a bachelor’s degree and a CPA license,” says Janes.

A master’s in accounting as a pathway to become CEO

If your career aspirations include carving out a path to the C-suite, a master’s in accounting can help you get there. Leaders need to know about more than just dollars and cents, they need to be able to communicate effectively and cultivate positive working relationships. 

“More and more often, the chief financial officer is the one who’s becoming the chief executive officer,” says Boyle. “The chief financial officer is talking to Wall Street about the numbers, talking to lenders, and analyzing the business,” he adds.

“You build a lot of breadth and depth in your knowledge of the company and you get to be a very well known entity outside the company, so a lot of people who aspire to ultimately land the top job [of CEO] use that path,” says Boyle.

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.